A mission to remember and honor all of the past WSOP Main Event winners continues with Part 3 of this four-part series. Part 2 finished with the World Series of 1989 and the triumph of the often self-proclaimed best Hold’em player Phil Hellmuth, also known as the ‘Poker Brat.’
Today we will pick up right where we left off the last time and that would be the series of 1990. Continuing the upwards trend, the 21st edition of the WSOP ME gathered a total of 194 players. While the previous years saw the title go to some quite famous names in the poker community, this year was somewhat different as the title went to a British player of Iranian origin, Mansour Matloubi. Matloubi’s lifetime winnings are in the vicinity of $2 million, but this was his first really big score. With this victory, which brought him $835,000, Matloubi became the first non-American player to win the Main Event.
Next year brought two new records for the WSOP. The first one was that 1991 for the first time gathered more than two hundred players at the Main Event tables – 215 to be precise. Second and more importantly, although it came along with the number of players was the fact that for the first time the winner got to walk away with $1 million. That one person who got his hands on the biggest WSOP prize to date was Brad Daugherty. Although Daugherty is a professional player, this win was by far his biggest and most important. According to Hendon Mob, his second largest score is just $72,000. His most recent recorded live score dates to 2012.
The series of 1992 hosted a total of twenty events, as poker was clearly gaining popularity. Still, this was the only year that saw fewer participants than the previous years, as only 201 players paid $10,000 to take part. Despite the slight decline, the tournament prize pool was divided in such a way that the winner would still get to take home $1,000,000. This time it was Hamid Dastmalchi. Another player of Iranian origin, Dastmalchi holds two more WSOP bracelets, one from 1986 and another from the year following his Main Event win. His total career earnings exceed $1.8 million. He is also known for his alleged dispute with Binion’s, as he was not allowed to cash out $800,000 worth of chips. After an intervention from the Gaming Commission, the dispute was settled and his chips were cashed.
The bump on the road regarding the number of entrants proved to be a fluke, as 1993 gathered 220 players, setting a new record, albeit by a small margin. By now it has become standard to reserve one million dollars for the winner and split the rest amongst other cashing players, and it was no different this year when the honor went to James ‘Jim’ Betchel. Although he started off as a recreational player, Betchel’s results are quite impressive. His total tournament winnings are exactly at the $2.5 million mark and apart from his Main Event bracelet, his biggest career cash came from finishing fourth in a $50K H.O.R.S.E. event during the WSOP of 2006. Not only that he got to take home $550,000, but he also held his own at the final table with the likes of Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Chip Reese and a few more well-known names in the business.
The World Series of 1994 celebrated its 25th anniversary. It drew quite a number of players – a total of 268. That wasn’t surprising considering the fact that, apart from a cool million for the winner, organizers also promised that the one who takes everyone else’s chips would also get a bonus – his/her weight in silver. And it was none other than Russ Hamilton who had to drag all that heavy silver back home. This was his biggest career achievement, constituting a major part of his $1.5 million tournament earnings. Despite winning the anniversary Main Event, he is not likely to be enumerated with the great names of poker because of his involvement in the UltimateBet scandal, a string of events that saw a number of players get cheated out of millions of dollars.
In 1995, a total of 24 events took place during the WSOP. One of those events was Chinese poker. This was the first time this variation was played during the series and after another appearance the next year, it vanished from the schedule. A cool $1 million and the Main Event title once again found its way to the hands of a legend – Dan Harrington, who made his way through the field of 273 players. Harrington is, again, one of those players whose biography doesn’t fit well in an entire article, let alone a couple of lines. ‘Action Dan,’ as he was nicknamed by fellow players, earned $6.6 million in live tournaments alone; he is a member of the Poker Hall of Fame and has written several poker books. His ‘Harrington on Hold’em’ series is amongst the top poker-related publications ever written.
The number of entrants was slowly approaching the next hundred, as in 1996 there were 295 entries. The Main Event bracelet this time went to one of the young guns, Huck Seed. Born in 1969, Huck quit college in 1989 to play poker and never returned. It is hard to imagine that he ever came to regret this decision, as his live tournament earnings to date exceed $7.5 million. Apart from his undisputed poker skills, Seed is famous in the poker community for his crazy and highly entertaining prop-bets with many other well-known players and pretty much anyone crazy enough to take him on.
The series of 1997 was notable for quite a few things. For the first time, the three-hundred player mark was broken, as there were 312 entries. Further, the Main Event final table actually took place outdoors for the first and only time; and finally, this was the year when two-time champion Stu Ungar made his return and went on to win for the third time, becoming the only player to have achieved this and netting $1,000,000. His story and his other two victories were covered in Part II, so give it a read if you have just stumbled on this history lesson for the first time.
More and more players were flocking to Vegas to play the World championship of poker. The summer of 1998 gathered 350 entries, but despite the number growing by well over a hundred players since 1991, the prize for the winner still remained $1,000,000. This year’s title went to the charismatic Scotty Nguyen. Scotty and his family moved to the United States from Vietnam when he was fourteen. He discovered poker soon after and as soon as he was of legal age, he got a job as a poker dealer, gambling away at poker what he would earn dealing. His luck changed in 1985 when he managed to turn a bankroll of $7,000 into $1,000,000. It was a step in the right direction, but he managed to go broke. By the time 1998 came around, he didn’t even have enough money to play in the satellite for the Main Event. Mike Matusow helped him with 1/3 of the buy-in and it turned out to be quite an investment as Nguyen went on to win the whole thing. His sentence during the last hand of the heads-up against Kevin McBride has become one of the most famous poker quotes: You call, it’s gonna be all over baby! Scotty’s tournament winnings to date are in excess of $11.5 million, but his Main Event victory was overshadowed by a personal tragedy, as his brother was hit by a car and killed the very next day.
Another year went by and it was the summer of 1999 in Vegas – time for another WSOP. The Main Event drew in 393 players on this occasion. The eventual winner was Noel Furlong, a victory that put him on top of the all-time Ireland money list where he remained until Andy Black’s 5th place finish in the Main Event of 2005. Furlong has always been more of a recreational player, as his carpet business takes up most of his time, so it is no wonder that his overall winnings are just around $1.1 million.
The turn of the millennium seemed to have an impact on the World Series as well, as the year 2000 saw quite an increase in the number of players. Battling in the field of 512 players, it eventually came down to two famous poker names, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and T. J. Cloutier. Ferguson started with a 10:1 chip lead and managed to finish off T.J. eventually, even though he had to come from behind in the last hand to do it. For his win, Ferguson got to take home $1.5 million, a new first place record. Born in 1963, Ferguson earned a PhD in computer science at UCLA before turning his full attention to poker. His poker efforts were quite successful as he earned nearly $8.3 million in live tournaments alone. Called ‘Jesus’ for his long hair, Ferguson was also a key player in one of the biggest online poker rooms – Full Tilt, and he was one of those who had to take the heat when the site went belly-up. Without going deeper into this subject, it certainly left a trace on his career, as his public appearances have been very limited since those events have taken place.
The Main Event was clearly picking up some momentum. The summer of 2001 gathered a field of 613 players and the name of Juan Carlos Mortensen became a part of poker history as he managed to beat Dewey Tomko heads-up to seize the bracelet and the $1,500,000 first prize. Mortensen has $11.5 million in tournament winnings to date and is considered to be the last big name professional to win the Main Event. The growth of the tournament and its popularity drew in more and more amateurs chasing their dreams of big money and glory, and winning the Main Event was becoming an increasingly harder task.
The penultimate part of this series ends with the WSOP of 2002. The one important thing about this series was the introduction of one little technical feature all poker fans around the world fell in love with – the hole pocket cam, allowing for the Main Event Final Table to be broadcast nearly live (with one hour delay), with hole cards revealed. The event attracted only a few more players than the last year, as the total number was 631. It was Robert Varkonyi who got to be the first live-broadcast winner as he received a prize of $2,000,000. It was the most important score of his career for the New Yorker, as his total tournament earnings to date amount to $2.3 million.
This feels the right moment to end this part, as the WSOP of 2003 was probably the most important series of them all, giving birth to the famous ‘poker boom’ following the victory of Chris Moneymaker and causing the number of players flocking to Vegas to play in the Main Event to surpass even the wildest expectations.