The World Series main event is under way, and to celebrate we’ve picked
our top ten moments from the last 40 years
10. Chip and a Chair
The next time you’re down to your last few chips in a tournament and starting to think about your imminent bust-out, cast your mind back to the most celebrated comeback in poker history. In the 1982 Main Event, Jack Straus silently pushed his stack into the middle on the second day, was called, lost and thought he was out. However, as he rose from the table, he found a single $500 chip under a napkin on the table and then embarked on the mother of all rushes to claim the title. Before you tie yourself in knots about how he could still be in the tourney unless he had exactly 500 more than his opponent, officials adjudged it was because he hadn’t actually declared ‘all-in’. You gotta love the small print.
9. Lightning strikes twice (1976, 1977)
You might have heard people call T-2 the ‘Doyle Brunson’, but do you know why? A quick dig into WSOP history reveals that in 1976, when Doyle was heads-up against Jesse Alto in the Main Event, he called a preflop raise with T-2. The flop came Ah-Js-Th, giving Alto top two pair and Brunson just bottom pair. Alto bet and Brunson called.
The 2c on the turn gave Brunson two pair also, all the money went in, and the dealer peeled off a ten on the river to give Brunson a full house and his first World Championship. A year later Brunson was heads-up again, this time against Bones Berland. Yet again, the flop gave Brunson one pair and his opponent two. This time, though, a deuce on the turn gave Brunson the lead, and a spooky final ten on the river gave Brunson exactly the same hand as the year before – and a second successive Main Event title.
8. Blow Out (2005)
At the 2005 WSOP, Mike Matusow and Shawn Sheikhan didn’t just butt heads, they went to war. The first incident kicked off when Sheikhan was deciding whether to raise preflop, and chip leader Matusow sang and laughed while his opponent tanked. Eventually Sheiky folded, leaving Matusow heads-up in the hand. As the flop hit, Sheikhan slammed the table, implying that the board would have hit him in the face. ‘The Mouth’ told him to ‘shut the f*** up’, inciting such a verbal scrap that TD Jack Effel had to step in and penalise both players. Down to two tables, the two players found themselves clashing on the TV feature table and breached every rule of etiquette in poker. Matusow finally had the last laugh, knocking Sheikhan out with A-Q vs A-7, shouting ‘Nuts!’ and marching around as if he’d won the tournament already. Watch it: tinyurl.com/matusowsheikhan
7. Champion’s Hurdle (2006)
All the top players regularly cite the late Chip Reese as the finest mixed game exponent of all time, yet the public’s awareness of him was always fairly minimal – until his victory in the inaugural $50k H.O.R.S.E. at the 2006 WSOP. Reese not only endured three days against the toughest players in the world, but when it came to the final heads-up he battled Andy Bloch for an astonishing seven hours.
Fittingly, Reese had won what the elite players called the ‘real’ world championship, and showed the poker world why he was so highly regarded. Reese’s win took on a whole new level of poignancy a year later when he died suddenly in his sleep. As a tribute to the great player, the trophy for the $50k H.O.R.S.E. event subsequently became known as the David ‘Chip’ Reese Memorial Trophy. Watch it: tinyurl.com/chip50k
6. Speechless (1998)
At the end of the 1998 Main Event Scotty Nguyen used some of the most famous speech play in the history of poker to secure his win. Holding a big chip lead against his heads-up opponent Kevin McBride, Nguyen called all the way to the river on a board of 8c-9d-9h-8h-8s. On the river Scotty immediately moved all-in, jumped to his feet with a beer in hand, and said, ‘You call, gonna be all over baby!’ You can clearly see McBride’s eyes widen as he believes Scotty has given away the strength of his hand. ‘I call, I play the board,’ he says with confidence. Scotty turns over a nine for a bigger full house. In the post-match interview, McBride openly admits that Scotty’s bit of table talk forced him to call, thereby immortalising the line.
5. Boom Switch (2003)
There aren’t many moments in poker that can top Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 Main Event win. An amateur player turning a $40 online satellite into a $2.5m win is a classic rags to riches tale, but perhaps more importantly, the subsequent ‘Moneymaker Effect’ was partly responsible for poker’s online boom. Inspired by Moneymaker’s feat, thousands of new players went online to try their chances and dozens of start-up poker sites emerged to cash in. Moneymaker ultimately demonstrated that on any given day or week, anyone can win at poker. Watch it: tinyurl.com/cmbluff
4. Double Impact (1987,1988)
In 40 years of the World Series, only three men have ever recorded back-to-back Main Event victories: Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. Although the feat is impressive whatever the era, Chan’s is probably the standout performance. Not only did he beat bigger fields (150+), but given the scale of the modern day WSOP, he will surely be the last man in history to get consecutive Main Event wins.
His first triumph in 1987 confirmed him as a rising star, his second in 1988 demonstrated that he was one of the greatest players of his generation, and when his final heads-up vs Erik Seidel was committed to celluloid for the 1998 poker film Rounders, he attained legendary status. Incredibly, Chan almost made it three in a row, falling just short in 1989 when a 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth beat him heads-up. Watch it: tinyurl.com/chanseidel
3. Hell Hath No Fury (2005)
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Phil Hellmuth always provides good value for money. In 2005 the poker world got two classic Poker Brat quotes for the price of one. It was Day 1 of the Main Event and Phil was on the feature table with an assorted group of amateur players. First Hellmuth launched into a tirade against Jim Pittman after his A-K got rivered by a dominated K-J. ‘This is frickin’ donkey stuff…’ muttered Hellmuth.
Then he stood up and out came the immortal and unbelievably patronising line, ‘This guy can’t even spell poker.’ A restless Phil continued to berate Pittman, before going over to the spectator stands to get a bit of sympathy from his wife. The second line a little later was delivered with more joy – although no more grace – after he made an impressive laydown with A-K against Aces when the board read 4-4-A-Q.Phil flipped over A-K, only to be shown Aces and triumphantly rose to his feet, pointed at his wife and said, ‘I can dodge bullets, baby!’ Watch it: tinyurl.com/hellmuthbullets
2. Good as Gold (2006)
The 2006 Main Event smashed all records in terms of prize pool ($82.5m), field size, and first-prize money, but what makes it so unforgettable was the dominance of eventual winner Jamie Gold. From Day 4 onwards he was the chip leader, and hoovered up so many chips that he entered the final table with a 10m chip lead. For sheer brazenness Gold is unmatched.
Throughout the competition he revealed so much about his hand that his opponents called him when he wanted to be called and folded when he wanted them to fold. In one hand Gold actually confirmed Prahlad Friedman’s read that he only had King-high. ‘You’ve got a good read on me,’ said Gold. Friedman was so flummoxed that he didn’t make the call. Or what about the final hand where he basically told Paul Wasicka that he had hit top pair but it only served to convince Wasicka that he was on a draw? Interestingly Gold’s honest approach has never worked for him since – as his performances on High Stakes Poker attest. Watch it: tinyurl.com/goldfriedman
1. Comeback Kid
Stu Ungar’s win in 1997 was iconic for several reasons, some more obvious than others. It was the one and only time the Main Event was held outside in the sweltering Las Vegas heat, and victory gave Ungar his third no-limit Hold’em World Championship victory – a feat only matched by Johnny Moss. But what really makes this such a poignant moment in poker history is Ungar’s life story both before and after the event.
During the 90s, Ungar had slumped to his lowest ebb – racked by drug abuse and constantly in debt. When he showed up for the 1997 event he had no buy-in and had to be staked. After Day 1, he was in such a state of disrepair that he told Mike Sexton he couldn’t carry on playing. If you watch the final heads-up, you’ll notice those round, blue sunglasses perched on Ungar’s nose.
That’s not a fashion statement – he was trying to hide his collapsed septum. In the post-match interview with Gabe Kaplan, he admits that ‘no one could ever beat me but myself’. The win seemed to be his ticket back to salvation, but a year later he was found dead in a cheap motel, having overdosed on drugs, giving further resonance to his victory the year before. Watch it: tinyurl.com/ungarwin