Over the 44 years of its existence, the World Series of Poker has been the stage of the most memorable wins in tournament poker history. Here’s a look back at some of the biggest, in chronological order.
Johnny Chan, 1988 WSOP Main Event
Already a 1985 WSOP bracelet winner in limit hold’em, Johnny Chan earned his second bracelet in 1987 with a win in the WSOP Main Event. Poker’s reigning world champion came back the next year and found himself heads-up with a young Wall Street refugee with no previous WSOP cashes named Erik Seidel.
The final hand of the tournament saw Chan start off on the button with J-8 and Seidel with Q-7. Chan caught a straight on the flop, and Seidel caught top pair. The champ played it smooth and drew Seidel in, resulting in one of the most famous endings in WSOP history when Seidel moved all-in on the river only to see that Chan had played a perfect hand masterfully. With the victory, Chan became just the fourth back-to-back Main Event winner in the tournament’s history. He remains both the last player to win the tournament in two consecutive years and the last two-time champion, two marks unlikely ever to be matched again now that the Main Event routinely attracts more than 6,300 players every year.
Stu Ungar, 1997 WSOP Main Event
The 1997 Main Event final table would have been a memorable one no matter who won it. It was played outside on Fremont Street under the sun and in the desert wind, under the new Fremont Street Experience electronic canopy. The gimmick that would never be used again, but the tournament remains an all-time classic because it marked the third and final Main Event win by the legendary Stu Ungar.
If anything in poker has ever felt like it was meant to be, Ungar’s third Main Event win is it. He was the last player to register for the tournament, only after Billy Baxter paid his buy-in. It had been 14 years since he won his fourth gold bracelet – 16 since winning the second of his back-to-back Main Event titles – and the intervening years had been largely a mess of drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Despite these facts, Ungar played his best poker, arrived at the final table with the chip lead, and carried all the way through to the end. He won big pots throughout the final table by bluffing and by making big calls – and then caught up from behind on the river of the final hand to win his third WSOP Main Event title.
Johnny Moss also had three WSOP Main Event titles to his credit, but one of them was by vote in the WSOP’s first year. All three of Ungar’s came by taking all of the chips on the table in a freezeout, making him the only player ever to accomplish that feat. Sadly, he died one year later, having failed to show up and defend his title in 1998 despite an offer from Baxter to back him once again.
Scotty Nguyen, 1998 WSOP Main Event
In the absence of Stu Ungar at the 1998 WSOP Main Event, a new champion was guaranteed to be crowned. ESPN was on hand for the most professional production of its WSOP coverage to date, and after the departure of T.J. Cloutier in third place, they had two remaining players who could still lay claim to the world championship.
Kevin McBride, an amateur player from Florida who won his Main Event buy-in through a satellite, had only been playing hold’em for five months and as the Day 3 chip leader was still sometimes confused about the rules of the tournament. Scotty Nguyen, a 1997 WSOP bracelet winner in Omaha Hi/Lo, entered Day 3 with the chip lead and carried it through to the final table, where McBride caught the right cards at the right time and claimed the chip lead going to heads-up play.
Nguyen had McBride outclassed from the start. He reclaimed the lead, surrendered it momentarily, and then took it back one more time, only to let McBride back in the match. He was finally able to put McBride away with three eights and two nines showing on the river, Nguyen moved all in and rose from his chair. As McBride considered the call, Nguyen sipped from his Michelob and uttered one of the most famous lines in WSOP history: “You call now, it’s all over, baby.” McBride, startled, fell into Nguyen’s trap and called, playing the board for eights full; Scotty showed J-9 for nines full and won the tournament.
Chris Moneymaker, 2003 WSOP Main Event
Amateur Chris Moneymaker’s win in the 2003 WSOP inspired the poker boom not just because he was an amateur who overcame a table full of professional players, but also because of how he beat them. That year’s Main Event was the first to feature expanded ESPN television coverage, including players’ hole cards, which added to the drama on two key hands.
The first came with 10 players left when Moneymaker, the chip leader and an online satellite qualifier to the Main Event, squared off against four-time bracelet winner Phil Ivey. The amateur flopped three of a kind with A-Q but bet small enough to keep Ivey in the hand with 9-9. Then Ivey turned nines full of queens and moved all-in, a bet which Moneymaker called almost instantly. Disgusted with himself, and a 5-to-1 dog to win the hand, he caught an ace on the river to knock out Ivey and enter the final table with a big lead.
The second, and even bigger, hand came during heads-up play against Sam Farha. A 1996 WSOP bracelet winner in pot-limit Omaha and renowned cash game player, Farha entered the critical hand trailing the amateur but closing in, having made up about 20 big blinds of his 60-big-blind deficit from the start of heads-up. Moneymaker raised before the flop and Farha called, then both players checked the 9-2-6 flop with two spades. The 8 of spades came on the turn and Farha bet, only to be raised by Moneymaker on a semi-bluff with straight and flush draws. Farha called quickly but was put to the test after the 3 of hearts hit the river and Moneymaker moved all-in:
Right after Moneymaker’s all-in move, Farha told him he must’ve missed his flush – and he was right. But with a mere pair of nines, he had to go into the tank and consider all the possibilities. Had Farha called, he would have won the pot and had an overwhelming chip lead, likely leading to him becoming the 2003 WSOP Main Event champion. Facing elimination if he called and were wrong, Farha opted to fold instead – and Moneymaker got away with the Bluff of the Century. He didn’t show his K-7 to let Farha know he’d made the wrong decision, but the audience at home knew what the champ had done. That erased Farha’s progress and gave Moneymaker the momentum, which carried him to the world championship shortly afterward.