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The Main Event

This summer marks the 41st year of the World Series of Poker Main Event. The tournament has provided some sensational stories over the past four decades and has introduced the world to many charismatic competitors. Gareth Bracken tells the story

The modern-day World Series of Poker Main Event is a glitzy, glamorous, awe-inspiring affair. The best players on the globe converge on the Las Vegas felt to do battle for the much-feted bracelet, considerable prize money and, most importantly of all, title of Main Event champion. Television cameras are present to catch every bet, raise and fold as the world watches on.

It wasn’t always that way though. Back in 1970 the first ever World Series took place with the tournament contested by six big-name players of the era, all invited to compete by the son a notorious mobster, with the winner chosen by a vote and not receiving any prize money. Poker has come a long way in the last four decades.

THE EARLY YEARS

Benny Binion was a convicted felon who had served time for murder. He was also the man who helped poker become a popular form of entertainment as well as an acceptable career path. It is said that he first had the idea for a tournament involving the best players after he arranged and hosted a heads-up marathon between leading players Johnny Moss and Nicholas ‘Nick the Greek’ Dandolos at his casino. The public interest the contest generated told Binion that top-level, organised poker had room for expansion.

It was Moss who emerged victorious from the first Main Event held at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in 1970, albeit after a ballot and not the now commonplace freezeout method. All competitors were invited by Benny’s son Jack and included legendary players such as Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim. Moss took home a silver cup for his efforts but perhaps even more importantly he helped create a legacy. He retained his title the following year, thus becoming the World Series’ first trivia question.

Moss also claimed victory in 1974. Other victors during the decade included Doyle Brunson and Brian ‘Sailor’ Roberts. These were men who were more used to travelling the country searching for illegal ring games than they were playing in organised casino tournaments. Brunson is a particularly fascinating character. Still competing today, he has seen everything there is to see in poker. The man known as ‘Texas Dolly’ recalls having a gun pulled on him more than once during games in the old days. He is famous for winning the Main Event twice during the 1970s and now stands proud as one of poker’s unofficial old guard.

The number of Main Event entrants gradually rose year on year and indeed continued to do so until the early 1990s. Prize money generally increased as well, Johnny Moss’ $30,000 winnings in 1971 appearing positively small-time in comparison with the combined half-a-million-plus that Brunson picked up for his two successes. The tournament was garnering quite a following and in 1979 the number of entrants passed the 50 mark for the first time, a number that Benny Binion had previously stated he hoped the competition might one day be able to attract.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

The 1980s saw the emergence of younger, brasher players like Stu Ungar. Ungar’s defeat of Brunson in 1980 – a win that made him the then youngest Main Event victor ever – ensured a new star was born, a star that was shining just as brightly when he became only the third player to retain the Main Event title the following year. Sadly, while he could match Brunson at the poker table, Ungar couldn’t do the same in the longevity stakes. Years of drug abuse eventually took its toll on the New Yorker and he was found dead in a Las Vegas motel in November 1998. Ungar’s tale was a tragic one, his cocaine addiction preceded by divorce and the suicide of his adopted son.

There is more to the Ungar story however. Despite his 1980 and 1981 successes he is probably best remembered for completing one of the greatest career comebacks in poker history. In 1997 a deeply indebted Ungar borrowed the $10,000 Main Event buy-in from fellow player Billy Baxter. Having been up the whole of the previous evening attempting to secure the entry fee Ungar was exhausted as play began. Encouraged and chastised by Mike Sexton and Baxter respectively he eventually made it through to the final table. Going heads-up for the title against John Strzemp, a two on the river sealed a memorable victory, a full 16 years after his last.

It was another young gun, Johnny Chan, who was to become the only player since Ungar to win back-to-back Main Event titles. His 1987 final table contained some formidable players including past and future Main Event champions but ‘The Orient Express’ was not for stopping. Much like Ungar 10 years later Chan found sympathy on fifth street. Holding A-9, he watched as his heads-up opponent Frank Henderson went all-in with pocket fours. A nine on the river secured an impressive victory for the man from China.

A year later he did it again, sealing the triumph with one of the most famous hands in poker history. Having flopped the nut flush the reigning champion gave no hint of his strong position, neither in his expression nor betting. A small bet was raised by Seidel and Chan responded with a call. The turn revealed a deuce and Chan checked. Seidel was trapped – not that he knew it. The American pushed all-in and Chan called, triumphantly revealing his cards. The final hand achieved further fame after it appeared in the 1998 poker movie Rounders, a film that many younger players point to as their inspiration for getting involved in the game.

BIG CHARACTERS, BIG CASH

In a moment that can perhaps be likened to Stu Ungar’s 1980 win over Doyle Brunson, the 1989 tournament saw a fresh-faced Phil Hellmuth defeat the more experienced Johnny Chan, stopping the Chinese player’s bid for an unprecedented third title in a row. At 24 years old Hellmuth became the then youngest ever Main Event winner. Despite not claiming another Main Event crown to date the ‘Poker Brat’ still holds the record for the most WSOP bracelets – currently he has won 11. As poker moved through the 1990s and into the 21st century big characters like Hellmuth became commonplace, as did bigger entry numbers and prize funds.

One such personality was Scotty Nguyen, a five-time WSOP bracelet winner who claimed victory in 1998 main event. Nguyen’s win is famous for the psychology he employed during the final hand against Kevin McBride. Holding 9c-Jd, a full house board of 8c-9d-9h-8h-8c put ‘The Train’ in a strong position. With McBride considering a call, Nguyen uttered the famous line “You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby!”

McBride took the bait, made the call and Nguyen was soon the champion, claiming $1,000,000 for his victory after seeing off a field of 350. The prize money had sat at the million mark for most of the decade, while the number of entrants had generally risen year on year. This was partly due to an increase in interest from abroad. It was in 1990 that a non-American first won the Main Event, Iranian Mansour Matloubi taking the plaudits. Noel Furlong was the first European to taste glory, the Irishman claiming the prize in 1999. Carlos Mortensen secured his place in the record books by winning the 2001 tournament, becoming the first South American to do so.

By the time of Mortensen’s victory the prize money was up to $1,500,000 and the number of entries 613. The following two years saw increases in both. The reach and reputation of the Main Event had gone far, far beyond even the most extravagant hopes and expectations of its founder. Yet the best was still to come. The 2003 tournament would change the Main Event – and poker in general – forever.

THE ONLINE REVOLUTION

For all the big-name professionals who have made the WSOP Main Event what it is today, the man who has had probably the biggest impact on the tournament was actually an amateur at the time of his groundbreaking success.

Chris Moneymaker was working as an accountant when he gained entry to the 2003 competition via a $39 online satellite. He took his seat at the Main Event as a live tournament debutant, a virtual unknown. He battled all the way to the final table and then the final two, going heads-up against wily, old-school Lebanese professional Sam Farha.

Probably the most famous hand on his run to the title involved Moneymaker bluffing all-in against Farha holding just K-9, causing Farha to fold a pair of nines. Victory was later sealed with a full house, fives full of fours.

Aside from being one of the most remarkable results in Main Event history, Moneymaker’s success also led to a surge in interest in poker, known as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’. Amateur players considered that if someone like him could find success at the World Series then so could they. The seasoned pros were no longer seen as unbeatable or even unchallengeable. His win also did a lot for internet poker itself and more and more players now realised the rewards that could be reaped from playing online. Entrants into the following year’s Main Event rocketed to 2,576 with prize money of $5,000,000. That tournament was won by semi-professional Greg Raymer as once again the pros failed to take home the big prize.

In 2006 the Main Event peaked in terms of both entry levels and prize money. A record 8,773 players threw their hats into the ring for a chance to claim a staggering $12 million purse. American Jamie Gold emerged victorious with a pair of queens to take home the mega jackpot. While the prize since then has remained above the $8 million mark – and the entrants above 6,000 – those records of 2006 are unlikely to be broken anytime soon. This is mainly due to the global recession, although it is testament to poker’s popularity that numbers have still managed to remain at an extremely respectable level.

THE FUTURE

The sheer size of Main Event fields these days, coupled with the continuing cultivation of online talent, means it appears highly unlikely that any one player will be able to assert any sort of dominance in the coming years. For a player to win two Main Events in a row in the current era would be an incredible achievement. Even winning it twice in a lifetime seems like a long shot now. It’s difficult to even pick out future winners as nowadays players can transport themselves from online obscurity to world fame in the space of a few days.

Entry levels may have dropped somewhat from the 2006 heyday but the quality of play remains high. There’s even a European counterpart too – the World Series of Poker Europe’s Main Event, launched in 2007, is very popular with the top pros (not to mention 18-to-20-year-old whiz kids too young to play in Vegas). It will be fascinating to see how young internet phenomena match up to the more seasoned live pros in future years. Either way, the WSOP Main Event remains a spectacularly exciting and unpredictable event and long may that continue.

THE LUCKIEST PLAYER IN MAIN EVENT HISTORY

The epitome of Main Event good fortune has to be Jack Strauss’s ‘chip and a chair’ incident in 1982. After pushing all-in early during the second day of the tournament, Strauss lost the hand and stood up to leave the table. As he was about to depart he realised he still had one $500 chip remaining, previously hidden under a napkin. Having not officially declared himself all-in he was allowed to resume. He went on to win the event, completing the most astounding comeback in Main Event history – and possibly in the history of organised poker.

And the unluckiest?

When actor Oliver Hudson secured a full house on a A-A-T flop in his first hand at the 2005 Main Event he must have thought it was going to be his day. Sadly for him it was actually the end of his day. Responding to a Sam Farha raise on the turn Hudson went all-in. Unfortunately for him his pocket tens weren’t quite enough against 2003 runner-up Farha’s A-T, and home he went.

VITAL STATISTICS

World Series of Poker Main Event records

Most wins: 3, Johnny Moss (1970-71, 1974), Stu Ungar (1980-81, 1997)

Most wins in a row: 2, Johnny Moss (1970-71), Doyle Brunson (1976-77), Stu Ungar (1980-81), Johnny Chan (1987-88)

Youngest winners: Joe Cada (age 21, 2009); Peter Eastgate (age 22, 2008); Phil Hellmuth (age 24, 1989)

Most top 10 finishes: 8, Crandell Addington (1970, 1972, 1974-76, 1978-1979, 1983)

Highest number of entrants: 8,773 (2006)

Greatest prize money: $12,067,292 (2006)

Longest final table: 22 hours/434 hands (2008)

MEMORABLE COMPETITORS

Before a card has even been dealt some players command immediate respect for even making appearance at the Main Event.

Jack Ury: When he entered the 2009 Main Event aged 96 Jack Ury of Indiana broke his own record as the oldest player to ever compete in the tournament, and in fact in the World Series in general. He received a standing ovation when eventually knocked out.

Hal Lubarsky: Lubarksy become the first blind player to cash in the WSOP Main event – indeed in the WSOP full stop – when he finished 197th in the 2007 tournament, earning $51,398. He used a reader to whisper his cards to him.

William Rockwell: Disabled player Rockwell competed in the 2005 Main Event despite not having the use of his arms. He held his cards with his feet and had an assistant to count out his bets for him.
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