It’s easy to look back at 1989 in the poker world and see it as a completely different world. The footage looks slightly grainy, almost like you’re looking back at it through sepia-tinted sunglass that would prevent any opponent looking into the whites of your eyes.
However, if you break it down, the 1989 World Series of Poker Main Event has more in common with modern poker than you might initially think. A young hopeful who was a wizard at mathematics overcame an established, battle hardened pro. Prize money was up, coverage was bigger than before and headlines reached the mainstream media.
A lot of the similarities between 1989 and modern poker are down to the presence of Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan’s opponent in the 1989 WSOP Main Event heads-up. It’s easy to say that The Poker Brat is a bigger draw even than ‘The Orient Express’, as Chan was known back then. In 1989, however, it was all about Chan, and for good reason.
Chan had won both the 1987 and 1988 WSOP Main Event.
Of course, men had won the Main Event twice before, and even back-to-back, Doyle Brunson having famously done just that in 1976 and 1977 with exactly the same winning hand, the infamous 10-2. In those years, however, the attendance of the $10,000-entry WSOP Main Event was 22 and 34 players respectively. No-one, however, had won three in a row.
In 1987, Johnny Chan was victorious in a field of 152 players, beating Frank Henderson to win $625,000. The following year, The Orient Express won $700,000 by beating Erik Seidel heads-up in a scene that would be immortalized in the 1998 Hollywood movie Rounders.
In 1989, there were even more entries, with a record 178 people ponying up the ‘stack of high society’. This time, $755,000 was on the line heads-up and Chan, who had been promised an L.A. Lakers Championship ring by then Lakers owner and High Stakes gambler Jerry Buss if he could win the third WSOP Main Event in a row.
Hellmuth, however, had other ideas. The youngster, aged just 24 at the time, was about to become the youngest WSOP Main Event winner in history and it wasn’t even close.
At the final table, the two seemed on a collision course, taking care of players such as Lyle Berman and Noel Furlong. So it would prove, as the Walkman-wearing Hellmuth – who reportedly knew the mathematical odds down to two decimal places off by heart at this stage of his career – went for it all in front of a deep rail.
Taking on the double champion, Hellmuth worked his way into the lead and then committed all of his chips with pocket nines. Johnny Chan, almost becoming the parody of his own ‘look to the sky’ the year before, thought long and hard about making the call, before doing so and changing poker history forever.
Watch what happened as Hellmuth took the title right here:
No-one will ever win a World Series of Poker Main Event how Phil Hellmuth did in 1989, but he laid the way for young players with superb mathematical knowledge to prosper, and that’s a legacy that is still having an effect on poker to this day.