Coke and valium, heads-up – the incredible story behind the 1979 WSOP Main Event

In an extract from his fantastic book, Ghosts at the Table, author Des Wilson uncovers the truth behind the bizarre culmination of the 1979 World Series of Poker…

I’m in California, because I have one other World Series story to explore. In particular, I want to solve one of poker’s enduring mysteries – whatever happened to Hal Fowler?

In order to do this, I have to find Bobby Hoff, because when Hal Fowler came from nowhere to win the World Series of Poker in 1979 he beat Bobby Hoff heads-up in the greatest upset in the history of the event.

Bobby remembers every detail: ‘There were 54 players and I remember that I had $5,000 before the tournament started so I sold 50 percent of myself and I had two $20 bills left in my pocket. I started the last day and I guess we were down to 18 players. I was very short on chips – I had about 1500 – and I got two Aces on my first deal, doubled my chips and then I went right on to the last table.

‘The final table was fearsome. They were all good players. There was Johnny Moss, Bobby Baldwin, Crandall Addington, Sam Moon, Sam Patrillo, George Huber – all professionals. And then there was this one other guy – a man called Hal Fowler. No one had seen him before.

He was a complete unknown. He definitely wasn’t a professional. We couldn’t understand how he’d made the final table, because he didn’t seem to know what to do. I remember one pot, where he had a lot of chips after some miracle draws, and Sam Moon bet out… this was really quite a big pot. And then it was up to Hal and he was completely lost.

He didn’t even know it was his turn to play, but Sam didn’t realise that, and said, “Hal, throw your hand away, you know you’re not going to call.” But Hal looked down at his hand and said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to call.” He had J-10 offsuit, he put all of his chips in the pot, and the flop came A-Q-K – a straight. And he shouldn’t have been in the hand.’

High stakes

So it came down to Hal Fowler and Bobby Hoff, both, it has to be said, under the influence of drugs. With Hoff, it was cocaine, taken as ‘breakfast’ every day before play began. With Fowler, it was Valium, taken throughout the day and evening.

Crandall Addington says, ‘I sat right next to Hal and he had his pills out there on the table. Of course a lot of guys used to get up and go sniff and snort in the bathroom in those days, but he had some Valium and some amphetamines, the real strong ones, and he actually put these on the table by his chips. I really believe that much of the time he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.’

As for Bobby Hoff, he admits, ‘Oh yes, I was taking cocaine during that tournament and I probably played as well, if not better, on cocaine. I would put two lines of coke by the bed every night and take it when I woke up. And I would have some cognac as well. It’s like any drug that you’re used to, like coffee or an alcoholic drink… it was no big deal, except it was affecting my health long-term.’

So back to the game: ‘It got down to just the two of us – me and Hal – and we were about even in chips, probably about 250,000 a piece. And I thought I was a big favourite to beat him because he was playing way too tight. Then I raised with A-10 and he called me with 6-4. The flop came A-K-10, three suits. He checked and I bet, then he called and the turn was a Jack. He bet 250,000 all-in with the 6-4 he had; it was one of the worst plays I’d ever seen. I mean, he could have found out exactly the same thing for 30,000, because if I had the Queen it would be over. Well, I threw my hand away and he showed me the 6-4, and I remember thinking, “This is going to be a lot tougher game than I thought… I just don’t know what this guy is going to do.”

‘So then we played several pots on, and I remember one where I started bluffing at the pot on the flop and picked up a flush draw on the turn, bluffed again, and on the river made the King-high flush. Well, would you believe it, he had made an Ace-high flush and won the pot.

‘And then we had a pot when I finally had him short on chips. I’d been grinding him out on small pots, because he was throwing away a lot. I raised the pot with Q-6 – I’m not even sure if I’d looked at them or not. He called me with K-J, and the flop came Q-5-2, or something like that. I checked and he checked and the turn was a Jack. We put all the money in the pot and I still had 150,000 left over and he caught a Jack on the river to stay alive. It just seemed that no matter what, he landed the card he needed.

‘He kept taking these Valiums and he was really getting pretty stoned and tired. We’d been playing a long time, maybe eight or 10 hours, and it had really escalated and the blinds were ridiculously high. Finally he said, “Let’s call it off and come back and play tomorrow.” I replied, “I can’t make that decision, it’s not up to me.” They had television going and that sort of thing. So he said, “Okay, I’m just going to move in every hand,” and then he did. This meant I’d lost control of the game. It was a nightmare.

Finally I caught two Aces and made a big raise before the flop and he called me with 6-7. The flop came J-4-3 and I bet half my chips; he called me and a Five came on the river. I bet the rest of my chips, but he’d made a straight and I was dead.’

T.J. Cloutier says, ‘No one – and I mean no one – could have beaten Hal Fowler that day. Not even God. He was just getting the cards and that was that.’

Bobby Hoff was devastated. ‘I can’t tell you how sick I was. I thought when the tournament started that I was playing for the money but I realised before the tournament was over that I wanted to win so bad that I would’ve given all the money for the title, even though I had only $40 in my pocket.

‘I never felt pressure like that before and it’s the only time in my life that the palms of my hands were sweaty. And I thought I played very well; I might have made one or two mistakes but I thought I played very well.

‘It really bothered me for a long time. I dreamt about it for a couple of weeks and I’ve thought about it every day ever since because, like I say, I didn’t realise how much I wanted to win. It was such an honour then – I wanted my picture up on the wall with my friends and those other great players.’

But it’s over 25 years ago. Surely he’s got over it by now? ‘No I haven’t got over it, it still bothers me.’

Big underdog

It was the greatest upset in the history of the World Series. It was not only Bobby Hoff who was stunned. The whole poker world was.

Bobby Baldwin, who watched the whole heads-up, says, ‘Bobby Hoff was a very good, aggressive player and he looked up for it, but Hal Fowler was paying no attention at all to what Bobby was or wasn’t doing in a hand. He was just betting in a pattern that made no sense. So Bobby was a huge favourite to beat this guy but the guy was making all sorts of inexplicable moves at just the right time and it was impossible for Bobby to know what he was doing. Hal Fowler bluffed him a couple of times where, if Bobby had had one particular card he would have broken him there and then. As it turned out Bobby was bluffing on the same hands, too, so he had to fold. But it was one crazy game – a freak game and a freak result.’

So it was over and Hoff had missed his best chance. And then a strange thing happened – Hal Fowler disappeared. Just vanished. He never returned to the World Series to defend his title and was never seen in Vegas. If it were not for a video recording of the event, a few photographs, and one or two unconfirmed reports that he’d been ‘sighted’ playing in California and Reno, it would have appeared as if everyone had been hallucinating and that he’d never actually been there.

I’ve asked everyone who is anyone in the poker world and no one knows where Hal Fowler is. Some say he’s dead.

Amarillo Slim casts a particularly sinister light on it: ‘I asked Benny Binion one time, “Did you kill Hal Fowler?” and he said, “Let’s not talk about it.” And that’s all he ever said.’

Without a trace

How can someone conquer the world and then disappear? I can’t stop thinking about it. I become obsessed with Hal Fowler’s fate… and I begin to feel sorry for him. He is described on one website as an ‘unpopular’ champion. But why? Because we all like a popular favourite to win and he stole the show? Sure he got lucky, but that’s poker. Yes, he was taking Valium, but it was a legal drug. And the pressure on this loner finding himself heads-up for the world title must have been tremendous.

Obviously the World Series had been the high point of Hal’s life, so did he then go on a rampage and lose all the money? Did he turn to drink and drugs, and end up on skid row? I have to know. I have to bring him back. I have to get the world of poker to remember him one more time – and to recognise his achievement. Because, when you think about it, Johnny Moss, Bobby Baldwin and Crandall Addington were on that final table as well as Bobby Hoff. He beat them all. Luck or no luck, that was a hell of an achievement.

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