The Main Event – Gambling With An Edge

The WSOP Main Event (ME) is the pinnacle of the poker world and has been since its inception. It was the first-ever freezeout poker tournament and in the modern poker universe that features many thousands of tournaments every year, it still maintains a stature far above any other.

It’s also been a huge part of my poker life.

I have a lot to say about the ME, so I’ll break this into two parts. Part 1 is my take from an observer’s point of view. Part 2 will be from my experiences as a player.

I missed the earliest years, when the winners were well-known road gamblers: Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, Puggy Pearson, Sailor Roberts, Bobby Baldwin. The first year, 1970, there was no freezeout tournament, so Jack Binion asked the players to vote for the champion. They all voted for themselves. Binion asked who they’d vote for second. Johnny Moss won that vote. I played a lot of poker with Moss at the Horseshoe in the regular 10-20 limit hold ’em game, known as the “Moss game”.

Starting in 1971, at the suggestion of Jimmy “The Greek,” it was played as a freezeout, which Moss won. He didn’t get a bracelet, as the bracelet tradition didn’t start until 1976, although pre1976 wins count as bracelets in the record book.

I wasn’t in Las Vegas for Doyle’s win in ’76, but was there for the sequel the next year. I remember being completely taken with the scene. In a small room off the casino floor, at the time was a baccarat room, they had a couple of side games. I remember watching a player shuffle a stack of $100 chips. It took a few years, but I learned to nonchalantly shuffle those black chips like they meant nothing.

In ’79, a pure amateur, Hal Fowler, surfed an incredible run of luck to defeat 54 players, including a heads-up battle with the late Bobby Hoff, a great player who doesn’t get nearly the recognition he deserves. While many of the top road gamblers won the title, Bobby was in a group who came close, but never snagged the crown (and money), including Dewey Tomko, Jesse Alto, Crandall Addington, and T.J. Cloutier.

I moved to Vegas full-time in 1980, too late to catch Stu Unger’s first win, but as with Doyle, I was there for the sequel the next year. Like most modern players, I’d love to see how Stuey would have stacked up against today’s poker geniuses.

During my career, I played with almost all the greats. Two I missed were Sailor Roberts and Jack Strauss. Strauss won in 1982 in the famous chip-and-a chair incident, when Jack thought he had busted out, but found a single 500 chip under a napkin and went on to miraculously win the title.

Many of the old-timers were true characters of American legend, who grew up during the Depression and found ways to survive and prosper on the road. As entertaining as they were, you didn’t want to turn your back on them. They’d made it in a dangerous profession where honesty wasn’t a priority, but toughness was. As Benny Binion said, “Tough times make tough people.” He also said, “Trust everyone, but always cut the cards”. For the most part, ’82 was the end of the run of the road gamblers, as increased entries and other players developing their skills made winning a taller task.

WSOP Tournament Director Eric Drache invented the tournament satellite system, which allowed lower-bankrolled players a chance to win their way into the ME, thereby increasing the number of entries. In 1983, two satellite winners, Rod Peate and Tom McAvoy, battled it out heads-up for seven-and-a-half hours. I was playing poker at the old Bingo Palace with a bunch of locals, getting progress reports. I remember how proud we were that a couple of our peers were in the spotlight. Tom won out and it launched his poker career.

Starting in 1984, I watched pretty much every “ME” final table in person. In ’84, my friend and Las Vegas Advisor publisher Anthony Curtis and I had press passes and were ringside for Gentleman Jack Keller’s run to the title. That year, Binions replaced the chips with bundles of cash at the final table. Jack thought the 1983 heads-up battle was boring and that the cash might spice it up a bit, which it did. I watched Cowboy Wolford toss bundles at the pot in a famous bluff. Jesse Alto folded on the river. Cowboy showed him 5-3 offsuit on a AK9A2 board! Jesse went on tilt and basically gifted Keller his remaining chips. Gentleman Jack went on to win, denying another road gambler a title. Cowboy’s book, Cowboys, Gamblers and Hustlers is a fun read.

One of the benefits of the press pass was that it got you into the fabulous player’s buffet in a room off the coffee shop downstairs. If featured an incredible seafood tower and just about any kind of meat imaginable: elk, moose, rattlesnake (tastes like chicken!), bison, and so on. The security guard at the door was Kenny Lambert, who went on to a successful career as a tournament director.

In 1985, the road gamblers made their last appearance on the mountaintop, when Bill Smith took the title. Anthony and I again were close by to watch the action. I didn’t know anything about Bill, but he was our hero, as he was ordering beers at the table. According to T.J. Cloutier, “Bill Smith was the tightest player you’d ever played in your life when he was sober. When he was halfway drunk, he was the best player I’d ever played with. But when he got past that halfway mark, he was the worst player I’d ever played.” Apparently, he didn’t get past the halfway point that year. I saw Bill around town for years after, playing low limits, always with a beer in hand.

In 1986, Berry Johnston claimed victory. I’ve known and played with Berry for years and he’s a super nice guy and a great player. The only drawback—Berry’s from Oklahoma and has such a heavy accent that it sounds like he’s speaking some foreign language.

1987—Johnny fucking Chan. (See Rounders.) Dan Harrington came in 6th.

1988—Johnny fucking Chan again. Amazing. He beat Eric Seidel heads up. (See Rounders again.)

1989—Almost Johnny fucking Chan again! Otherworldly. What stood between him and a historic win was a brash kid from Wisconsin, Phil Hellmuth. In a key hand, Phil took A-T against Don Zewin’s TT and Steve Lott’s 22 and won a massive pot. Phil rode that bit of fortune to defeat JFC heads up, and to a legendary career in poker.

I played with Phil in a limit hold’em game one of the first times he was in Vegas. He was the same cocky kid then as he is today. He didn’t manufacture his recognizable personality. Honestly, it’s just him. Same with Mike Matasow. I saw him at a party when he first got here and remember thinking, “Who’s that idiot with the big mouth.” Sorry, Mike. I came to like you.

In 1990, the foreign invasion of the WSOP was in full swing. It started a few years earlier, led by Norway’s Thor Hansen and Sven Arntzen. Thor was loved by the poker world and we mourned his passing in 2018 after a battle with cancer. One of Thor’s famous lines, was when he was asked what he was going to do with the money when he won a tournament. He said he was going to pay off some poker debts. He was then asked what are he was going to do with the rest. He said they’d have to wait. Respected Iranian-British pro Monsour Matloubi became the first foreign champion, defeating Hans “Tuna” Lund, another great player who never quite got to the mountaintop.

In 1991, relative unknown Brad Daugherty beat 214 players to win the first million-dollar first-place prize at the Main Event. Brad’s a really humble and nice guy who has retired to the Philippines with his family. He tried to raise money for impoverished families there by auctioning his bracelet on eBay, but didn’t get a sufficient bid.

In 1992, another Iranian, Hamid Dastmalchi, took the million. First prize would never again dip below a million. I remember Hamid doing headstands on breaks to keep the blood flowing where it was needed. Hamid came in 4th in 1995, won three total WSOP bracelets, but has been out of the scene for many years. Tuna came in 3rd that year.

In 1993 I was covering the ME for Casino Player magazine, so I got to witness up close John Bonetti’s incredible run at the title. John played the best tournament poker I’d ever seen, only to make a single mistake in a key pot with eventual winner Jim Bechtel. His aggressiveness had gotten him that far, but he just couldn’t dial it back. It also benefitted Glenn Cozen, who was extremely short-stacked when Bonetti got broke. Bechtel played well and won the title, but my article focused on Bonetti’s amazing play. My editors weren’t happy, as they wanted to feature the winner. Sorry, I liked my story better.

1994 was the silver anniversary of the WSOP (it started in Reno in 1969 before being taken over by Binions in 1970). Binions decided to celebrate the anniversary by awarding the winner his weight in silver. A hefty Russ Hamilton won the title, a million dollars, and Jack Binion unhappily (the runner-up weighed far less) presented him with 43 bars of silver. I’d known Russ for a few years and found him to be one of the sharpest gamblers I’d ever been around. He was destined for legendary status. Unfortunately, a decade later, the UltimateBet scandal destroyed his reputation and poker career.

In 1995, an analytical player with the awesome nickname “Action Dan,” as he was anything but, Dan Harrington claimed the bracelet. He went on to write several acclaimed poker books. His ME resume included 17th in 1996, 3rd in 2003, and 4th in 2004. Pretty amazing considering the size of the fields, 893 in ’03 and 2,576 in ’04.

In 1996, Huck Seed, of the awesome name and mental and physical talents, got his name on the wall, beating 294 players. Huck’s prop bets are stuff of legend.

1997 was the swansong of Stu Unger. He beat casino executive John Strzemp in an outdoor arena set up on Fremont Street. It was hot and windy, making things difficult for spectators and players and the experiment was never repeated. Stuey beat countless opponents in gin and poker during his life, but he found one he couldn’t conquer, dying of a drug overdose in 1998.

Scotty baby! The 1998 final table was highly entertaining. Scotty Nguyen beat amateur Kevin McBride, who showed up sporting a tux and serving up bottles of champagne for the table. Not sure who imbibed. In the final hand, Scotty uttered the famous quote, “You call and it’s all over, baby!” And it was. TJ Cloutier had a close call, finishing 3rd.

Scotty has always been a character. He always assumes everyone is thrilled to be in the presence of Scotty. In 2004, I was in Melbourne for the Aussie Millions, as was Scotty. The Australian Open tennis tournament was running at the same time. I was walking with Scotty past a practice court at the Crown, where we and many of the tennis players were staying. A female player was practicing and waved to somebody behind us. Scotty of course, thought she was waving at him and gave her a hearty, “hey baby!” She stared at him like he was an alien.

But, while that player may not have recognized him, some did. Later that night I went to the VIP lounge at the Crown. When I got there, Scotty was at a table with a group and they were all laughing. I asked him what happened. Apparently, the Williams sisters were there with their entourage. A lot of celebrities hang out there, and there’s a strict “don’t bother the famous people” policy in the lounge. Scotty’s young nephew from Vietnam recognized the sisters and it took all Scotty could do to keep him still and quiet. He finally had him subdued when one of the sisters looked over and proclaimed, “hey, that’s Scotty Nguyen!” And they all met and took pictures and had a great time.

I’m Irish and love the Irish people. In 1990 they were well represented at the final table, with the highly entertaining Padraig Parkinson taking 3rd, while his buddy Noel Furlong took it down. Noel was an amateur who played like he didn’t care, which can be a powerful weapon. He came in 6th to Phil Hellmuth in 1989 in his first trip to the WSOP. He always drove Phil crazy because he refused to be bullied, which was Phil’s style. Phil would rant and rave and Noel would laugh at him, because he didn’t care. He rode his style to the title and was a popular champion. He passed in 2021.

In 2000, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson beat TJ Cloutier, who made yet another strong run at the title, having another 2nd, a 3rd, a 5th and a 13th on his ME resume. Of all those getting close, but not winning, I think TJ was the most deserving.

Ferguson, meanwhile, is a brilliant poker player, having collected six bracelets. But against TJ, at the time, he knew he was outclassed, so he adopted a variant of Kill Phil, using big moves, so TJ wouldn’t be able to grind him down, and a bit of luck to prevail. Sadly, Ferguson, who was one of the founders of Full Tilt, so his reputation took a hit with the online-poker scandals.

Carlos “El Matador” Mortenson, Ecuadorian-born but spending his teenage years in Spain, added some flair in taking down the 2001 title. Mortenson, interestingly, was the last recognized and established poker name to win the ME, as the onslaught of newcomer champions began the following year. Dewey Tomko was the bridesmaid, coming in 2nd for the second time, losing to Jack Strauss in 1982.

The 2002 ME wasn’t particularly notable, except as the last ME before the poker explosion, when things went crazy in the poker world. Robert Varkoni was an unknown amateur who managed to best 630 other players to get his picture on the wall, not to mention the $2 million first prize. The only really entertaining thing was that after Varkoni knocked out Phil Hellmuth, Phil was so disrespectful of Varkoni’s play that he announced he’d shave his head if Robert won. He did so in front of the cameras after the bracelet presentation, thereby grabbing Varkoni’s spotlight, which was pure Phil.

And then we came to 2003 and the Moneymaker miracle, captured perfectly in Eric Raskin’s book The Moneymaker Effect. The combination of Moneymaker’s improbable win over highly entertaining pro Sammy Farha, the rise of internet poker, and the invention of the hole-card cam changed poker forever, taking it from the backroom to a national mania. With 839 players, the ME set a new record, but it was nothing compared to what was to come.

The following year, a huge field of 2,576 players entered, with Greg Raymer barreling through to take it down to become the 2004 champion. First prize jumped to $5 million and Greg became a star. This was the last year the WSOP was held at the Horseshoe, which was bought by Harrah’s Entertainment. Harrah’s didn’t care much about the Horseshoe, but it came with the rights to the WSOP, which they really wanted.

The field jumped to 5,916 in 2005, with a 1st place of $7.5 million. Australian Joe Hachem rallied to cries of “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi” to beat Steve Dannanman for the fame and fortune. While the rest of the 2004 schedule was played at the Rio in the huge convention rooms, the final table was played at the ‘Shoe for the last time. It was also the year I ended my long streak of witnessing the final table. There were just too many spectators in the following years to get anywhere close.

Anthony and I went to see the 2005 final. This was just before Kill Phil was going to the printer. I’d asked Phil Hellmuth for a cover blurb and he kindly offered to write the forward. We ran into him that night and he told us he wanted to be on the cover. We kind of laughed and said, “No, Phil, the book’s not about you.” In the book, Phil represented all good players and there were also a lot of famous Phils in poker, such as Laak, Gordon, and of course Ivey. Then Anthony and I talked and decided, Hey! Phil’s Phil and it wouldn’t be bad to have Hellmuth on the cover. It turned into of the great titles (thanks to Anthony’s then-girlfriend Jessica) and covers in poker literature.

After 2005, my journalistic interest in the ME waned, but my playing days didn’t. In Part 2, I’ll give you my observations from a player’s POV.