Every year, tens of thousands of players head out to Las Vegas to try and win gold at the World Series of Poker. The WSOP bracelet is considered by some to be the benchmark of poker greatness. Over the years, poker greats have cemented their legacies while others have become household names after a blessed run at the Rio (or Binions in the old days.)
However, over the years there have been performances that were so unexpected that they could truly be considered upsets. Today we are going look back at some of the greatest upsets in WSOP history.
The concept of an amateur winning the WSOP Main Event isn’t that unreasonable in the modern era of poker. However, in 1979 that concept seemed unimaginable. While the fields were dramatically smaller, the competition was so stiff that amateur players in the Main Event were the ultimate in dead money.
Hal Fowler was an advertising executive that primarily was a low and middle stakes amateur player. According to legend, Fowler had to be staked to enter the Main Event and it was Benny Binion that put up the $10k entrance fee.
Fowler went on the run of a lifetime in the 1979 Main Event and found himself at the final table facing Johnny Moss, Chip Reese, Sam Moon, George Huber and Bobby Hoff. When Hoff and Fowler got heads-up for the title, many believed that “The Wizard” would dispatch the amateur and finally win his first bracelet.
However, as the heads-up match drug on close to 10 hours, Fowler was not only surviving but had the chip lead. Then Hoff looked down to pocket aces and figured he had a chance to double-up.
At the turn, the board read J♠-5♥-3♠-4♠ and Hoff shoved with his pocket aces. To his utter shock, Fowler called and turned over 6♦-7♦ for the nut straight and the victory. His victory in the 1979 Main Event is considered one of the greatest upsets in WSOP history.
While Fowler’s win of $270k pales in comparison to today’s champions, it did prove to amateurs that “anyone can win” at the World Series of Poker.
The story of Vera Richmond’s WSOP bracelet victory was considered such an upset that many in poker refused to acknowledge that it happened. Richmond was the only woman in the 1970’s and 1980’s that could hold her own with the “boys club” that was pro poker.
Richmond owned a women’s clothing store and her father was Alfred Neiman, as in Neiman Marcus. As June Field once said about Richmond, “Vera had as much money as any of them, as much nerve, and could out cuss any of them. They could not intimidate Vera!”
The fact that she couldn’t be intimidated led to men hating her at the tables. So when she won the $1,000 Ace to Five Draw event at the 1982 WSOP, many considered this the ultimate upset. It wasn’t that Richmond was a bad poker player but rather than the men didn’t want to see her win.
In fact, they hated the fact that she won the bracelet so much that they conveniently “forgot” that she won. As such, when Barbara Enright won the $2,500 PL Hold’em bracelet in 1996, they thought she was the first woman to take an individual open field bracelet. That distinction actually went to Vera Richmond.
Writer’s Note: Starla Brodie was the first woman to win an “open field” bracelet in 1979 in a Mixed Doubles event. Doyle Brunson was her partner.
If Robert Varkonyi had won the WSOP Main Event in 2003 rather than 2002, he may be the immortal face that launched the Poker Boom. Rather, his run was ridiculed based on his lack of overall ability at the time. After Varkonyi eliminated Phil Hellmuth, Hellmuth stated he would shave his head bald if Varkonyi won the Main Event.
Varkonyi came into the final table as a dominant chip leader and managed to hold onto that lead to win the Main Event and $1 million. However, the lasting image most remember from that Main Event is Phil Hellmuth getting his head shaved after the bracelet ceremony.
The year after winning the Main Event, Varkonyi was eliminated on Day 1 and most that played with him, including Doyle Brunson, were puzzled how he could have won it all in 2002.
Of course, later that year an amateur Tennessee accountant crafted his own little upset to win the Main Event and usher in the Poker Boom. And one could argue that Varkonyi’s big upset wasn’t his victory in 2002 but missed opportunities because that win came one year too early.
Writer’s Note: While Varkonyi missed out on the opportunities that Moneymaker and others enjoyed, he did take his $1 million prize money and proceeded to invest it wisely. He is probably more liquid than most of the pros that have won the Main Event since 2003.
Most of you are probably surprised to see the immortal Stu Ungar on this list. However, when he won the 1980 WSOP Main Event, one could consider his win a true upset.
Heading into the tournament, Ungar had only played one Hold’em tournament in his life, and he was one of the first players knocked out. Ungar was an accomplished Gin Rummy player, so much so that it became difficult to find decent action in Vegas. That’s one reason he entered the 1980 Main Event.
Despite his lack of experience, Ungar proved to be a quick study and steadily improved his game during the tournament. Doyle Brunson once commented that it was the first time that he had seen a player actually improve their game during the course of a single tournament.
Eventually, Ungar made the final table against Brunson, Johnny Moss, Jay Heimowitz and Gabe Kaplan. Ungar and Brunson faced off heads-up for the title, a clash that most probably assumed Brunson would emerge he victor. However, it was Ungar that won and became the youngest player in WSOP history (at that time) to win the Main Event.
While Ungar would go on to become the only person to win the Main Event tournament three times, his first victory could be nothing short of an upset.
Writer’s Note: Before you start quoting stats, Johnny Moss has three “Main Event titles” but he only won two Main Event tournaments. His first title was via a vote in 1970. Ungar is the only man to win three Main Event tournaments.