The WSOP’s biggest meltdowns

When you’re playing for the biggest prize of your life in the biggest tournament in the world, the last thing you want is to suffer your biggest ever meltdown. Dave Woods rounds-up a cast of WSOP unfortunates…

The WSOP Main Event is the one tournament every player wants to win. From Daniel Negreanu down to the $2 online qualifier, everyone who takes their seat in the Rio knows they’re a couple of weeks away from their biggest payday and a seat in poker’s history books.

Sitting down is the easy part. If you need a bit of luck to win any tournament, you need bucket loads to navigate the thousands of players that make up the Main Event. Get within sniffing distance of the final table and it’s time to take a deep breath and focus. For some the pressure gets too much though, and in tournament poker you can go from the field of dreams to the rail in the blink of an eye. And while we feel for these players, it’s also good to point and laugh…

1. It’s all over baby

2007 WSOP Main Event
Scotty Nguyen
Finished: 11th, $476, 926
First prize: $8,250,000

Scotty Nguyen was going for his second Main Event bracelet. Back in 2007 everyone loved Scotty and he was loving the adulation. Maybe too much.

Holding a big stack with two tables left, Scotty let his ego take control, playing as many marginal hands as he could to prove he was the man. Scotty’s stack was such that the commentator said, ‘Scotty could go home, rest up and come back as the clear favourite to win it all again.’

Nguyen didn’t want to be outplayed by anyone though, let alone a cocky Danish player to his left called Philip Hilm. They’d already enjoyed a few tussles when Nguyen picked up A-Q in the small blind with Hilm holding 5-5. Seeing he was about to raise Hilm said the masterful line, ‘Let’s go baby, I need to double up.’ This probably sealed Nguyen’s fate more than the Q-5-6 flop. With Hilm staring him dead in the eye, Nguyen made a half-pot bet which Hilm called. Then, in probably the biggest misstep in the WSOP Main Event, Nguyen decided to check-raise all-in on the King turn.

Left with a couple of million, he got it all-in shortly after with a flush draw and bricked – to Hilm again ironically.

2. Red Mist

1984 WSOP Main Event
Jesse Alto
Finished: 3rd, $132k
First prize: $660,000

Watch the meltdown: n/a

These days it would be a feat of heroic proportions to make more than one Main Event final table. Back in the day, with much smaller fields, the same players played for the bracelet again and again. One player you might not have heard of is Jesse Alto, but he’s made the biggest final table on seven different occasions.

He never won it though and perhaps the single biggest reason is this: TILT! This came to the fore in 1984. He started the final table as chip leader and was still sitting pretty when he continued to use his chip stack as a weapon with three left. His aggression was not common in 1984 but Byron Wolford seemed to have him clocked when – after another preflop raise from Alto – he decided to defend with 5-3. Wolford went on to triple-barrel the A-K-9-K-2 board, moving all-in on the river. Alto, who’d called twice, folded the river and was promptly shown the bluff. This tilted him so hard he moved all-in blind the next two hands and was picked off both times by Jack Keller, the eventual winner.

3. The aggro donk

2007 WSOP Main Event
Philip Hilm
Finished: 9th, $525,934
First prize: $8,250,000

In poker you’re meant to leave your victories and defeats at the table. However, Scotty Nguyen must have allowed himself a chuckle when he saw what a pig’s ear Philip Hilm made of the 2007 Main Event final table.

After seeing off Nguyen in two hands (see no.1) Hilm went to the final table as chip leader. Unfortunately he ran straight into the all-praying, all-dancing Jerry Yang juggernaut, and was out in ninth after just 15 hands. After Yang made the textbook play of raising 10x with Eights, Hilm called out of position with K-Qo. Yang hit his set and won a big pot after Hilm called with a gutshot.

The next hand Hilm called a Yang bet with 5-8 – Yang had A-K. On the J-K-5 flop Hilm check-called and check-raised all-in when a brick hit the turn. With the commentator saying, ‘It seems improbable, Hilm was chip leader like 15 seconds ago’, and with Hevad Khan dancing like a loon opposite him, the dealer bricked the river.

4. I’ll give you a gamble

2005 WSOP Main Event
Scott Lazar
Finished: 6th, $1,500,000
First prize: $7,500,000

The pay jumps on the 2005 WSOP Main Event final table were enough to make anyone think for a minute before making a decision. Except Scott Lazar.

With six players left Lazar correctly folded A-5o with a raise and a call before him only to see three Aces come down on the board. This was obviously playing on repeat in his head during the next couple of hands.

First he tangled with sixth placed Joe Hachem. Raising with K-9, Hachem moved all-in with A-Q and Lazar called in a heartbeat. ‘Gamble gamble’ he said as the dealer gave him no help.

Shortly after he suffered his second brain bubble. Raising with Q-To he put his tournament life on the line against Andy Black. ‘Call, I’ll give you a gamble’, Lazar said, almost before Black had committed with pocket Jacks. Lazar admitted afterwards he’d self-destructed.

5. Don’t forget the stacks

1993 WSOP Main Event
John Bonetti
Finished: 3rd, $210,000
First prize: $1,000,000

Watch the meltdown: n/a

With three players left in the 1993 Main Event, Bonetti – a tough-talking self-appointed table captain – was almost guaranteed second place. With blinds at 5,000/10,000 Glenn Cozen was down to just 60,000 when he inexplicably decided to call chip leader Jim Bechtel’s raise to 30,000 with an unidentified pocket pair. Perhaps he knew what was going to happen next.

With A-K, John Bonetti also decided to call. And then got it all-in with the chip leader on a K-6-4 board. Cozen folded with his three big blinds intact, Bechtel showed a set of Sixes and Bonetti was out in third.

6. Hot Flush

2009 WSOP Main Event
Billy Kopp
Finished: 12th, $896,730
First prize: $8,546,435

With the final table and a place in the November Nine beckoning, sound advice would be not to get tangled up with another monster stack, unless you’ve got the nuts. With 12 players left Billy Kopp, holding 3-5 and 20m in chips, thought otherwise and tussled with Darvin Moon (25m in chips) – the loveable amateur who might rank as one of the worst players to go this deep in the WSOP. Unfortunately his low suited connectors got him in trouble when he found himself up against Moon’s J-Q on a K-9-2 flop.

It might be bad luck to flop a smaller flush than your opponent but when the turn paired the board, and with only 3.1m in the middle, Kopp should never have gone broke. Instead he decided to play a 40m pot drawing dead.

7. A-J no good in 2002

2002 WSOP Main Event
John Shipley
Finished: 7th, $125,000
First prize: $2,000,000

Watch the meltdown: n/a

Starting the final table of the 2002 WSOP Main Event with as many chips as the other players combined, UK player John Shipley was confident he was going to end the day with the bracelet. Unfortunately he made a few early mistakes, doubling some short stacks up before the following hand played out.

Robert Varkonyi (a tight amateur) raised preflop to 60k and Shipley re-popped to 150k with A-J. Varkonyi moved all-in for 750k with Jacks and Shipley made the call. Due to the situation, and the player he was up against, it was a catastrophic mistake.

Shipley lost a race shortly after and was out in seventh for $120k. He picked up a percentage of friend Julian Gardner who finished second, but while Gardner was celebrating his $1.1m win Shipley was crushed. ‘Obviously, I’m not celebrating’, he said afterwards. ‘I’m the guy who blew it.’

8. Six-bet showdown

2010 WSOP Main Event
Joseph Cheong
Finished: 3rd, $4,130,049
First prize: $8,944,310

Proof that there’s fine line between genius and meltdown comes courtesy of the biggest WSOP pot of all time between Joseph Cheong and eventual winner Jonathan Duhamel. With Cheong on 95m chips and Duhamel on 88m chips (83% of the chips in play between them), Racener must have been resigned to third place money, until this crazy hand played out.

Cheong raised with A-7 in the small blind, Duhamel three-bet with Queens, Cheong four-bet, Duhamel five-bet and Cheong six-bet shoved. You can take the blind-on-blind dynamics and argue all day whether Cheong’s play was great or utter madness, but one fact remains – before the flop was dealt the happiest player at the table was Mr. Racener, who was now almost guaranteed to make an extra $1.4m for sitting and doing nothing.

9. Blackout

2005 WSOP Main Event
Andy Black
Finished: 5th, $1,750,000
First prize: $7,500,000

With around five players left and 20m in chips – around a third of the entire chips in play – you’d have to fancy your chances of winning the bracelet. You’d probably say it was more unlikely that you’d finish in fifth place but that’s exactly what happened to Andy Black.

First, he lost a third of his stack to Aaron Kanter who made a full house with Kings to beat Black’s A-x on the 5-3-K-3-8 board. Then he got it all-in good with 9-10 on a nine-high flop, only to lose to an Ace on the river for Steve Dannenman. Black then finished himself off with Tens against Dannenman’s A-K. This might class as a meltdown, but you can’t really accuse Black of being anything but unlucky. The pain on his face says that wouldn’t be any comfort.

10. Sometimes you win

1979 WSOP Main Event
Hal Fowler
Finished: 1st, $270k

Watch the meltdown: n/a

What’s this? How can we feature a triumph in our list of biggest meltdowns? Well, sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t lose.

54 players entered and the final table was a fearsome collection of old-school pros… and Hal Fowler, an amateur who kept hitting cards. In the end it came down to Fowler and Bobby Hoff, both under the influence of drugs – cocaine for Hoff and Valium for Fowler.

Fowler popped so many pills he lost connection with reality. Not wanting to play anymore he asked Hoff if they could finish it off the next day. With TV cameras running Hoff said it wasn’t his decision to make. So Fowler – in the biggest game of his life – announced he was going to move in blind every hand. And he did, catching the cards he needed to win the bracelet.

What you can learn…

Make a note of the following – they could save you from being a laughing stock if you go deep in the WSOP:

  • Don’t let your ego run wild
  • Don’t let your mouth say call before you engage your brain
  • Don’t forget the stack sizes of your opponents
  • Don’t play huge pots with marginal hands if you’re up against a nit
  • Don’t see red and tilt all your chips off
  • Don’t get unlucky
  • Don’t pop pills at the final table of the WSOP Main Event
Pin It

Comments are closed.