The Main Event at the World Series of poker has provided electric action and incredible drama for half a century.
Since 1970, poker stars from around the world have made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the annual event.
Let’s take a look at nine of the greatest WSOP victories of all time.
Amarillo Slim – 1972
In the event’s third year, a star was born. Thomas Preston burst onto the scene, preventing the only man to ever take home the title, Johnny Moss, from claiming a 3rd consecutive victory.
Okay, some of you have probably never heard of Thomas Preston. That’s because he’s better known by his alias, Amarillo Slim.
Amarillo Slim became a media darling and the instant face of real money poker in the United States. In fact, Amarillo Slim made a total of 10 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Amarillo Slim won the 1972 Main Event and was able to help integrate poker into mainstream America.
Amazingly, only eight of the registered players even bothered to show up for the event. So, essentially in 1972, you could’ve bought your way into the final table for $10,000.
Last year’s event had over 2,800 players advance to Day 2 of the event. Clearly, the media efforts of Amarillo Slim did wonderful things for growing the game.
Doyle Brunson – 1976, 1977
Doyle Brunson is a poker legend. Many would argue that the man who penned one of the must-read poker books, “Super System,” is the first face on the Mount Rushmore of poker.
Spend much time in poker circles, and you’ll quickly hear poker hands being referred to by names like snowmen, cowboys, bullets, or Big Slick. Doyle Brunson is such an icon that he’s even got a hand named for him.
The first time I heard another poker player refer to the “Doyle Brunson” hand, I mistakenly thought they were referring to cowboys.
After all, you’ll rarely see him without his trademark cowboy hat. So, it seemed logical.
Besides, he’s considered to be a king by many in the poker world. I was caught completely off guard when I learned that the Doyle Brunson hand is actually 10-2.
Why such a mediocre hand for such a pioneer of the game?
That’s because Doyle turned 10-2 at the final table into a WSOP Main Event victory. Even that in itself may not be worthy of naming a hand for a player.
However, accomplish the feat in two consecutive years, and suddenly you’ve got a hand named for you. That’s exactly what Brunson accomplished in 1977 when he took down his second consecutive title with 10-2.
So, the next time you’re dealt 10-2, give the nod to Doyle and see what the flop has in store for you.
Jack Strauss – 1982
The 1982 event was the first World Series of Poker Main Event to draw over 100 entries.
Strauss wasn’t a WSOP rookie; he’d actually won a bracelet in the 1973 Deuce to Seven Draw event. In 1981, Strauss nearly took the title but was forced to settle for a fourth-place finish.
Strauss took that single $500 chip and fought his way back to the top, earning $520,000 and coining the phrase “a chip and a chair.”
As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest underdog story of all time, and I have little doubt that it would make for a far more interesting 90 minutes than “Rudy.”
Phil Hellmuth – 1989
By 1989, Johnny Chan seemed unbeatable. Chan had won the Main Event in 1987 and 1988 and was poised for a third consecutive title.
The 1989 win would have further cemented him as the GOAT, making him only the second three time winner. Chan must’ve thought he had it in the bag as he headed to the final table.
That’s where up and coming poker professional Phil Hellmuth was waiting to challenge Chan. Hellmuth defeated the field, and Chan was resigned to a second-place finish.
Hellmuth became the youngest player ever to win the event at the time and has had a massively successful career as a professional poker player.
Stu Ungar – 1997
The 1997 running of the Main Event is a story of redemption. Stu Ungar had won back to back World Series of Poker titles in 1980 and 1981.
However, by 1997, Ungar had largely disappeared from public view as he struggled with addiction. Fortunately, poker pro Billy Baxter decided to give Ungar the financial backing to take another swing at glory.
Ungar, who had dedicated his performance and his attempt at turning around his life to his daughter, played brilliantly.
Ungar went on to become only the second 3-time champion, and hope abounds. Ungar even made another run in 1998 but fell short.
A few months after his failed attempt in 1998, Ungar was found deceased in a Vegas motel room. Ungar died without a penny to his name.
It was a sad end to an amazing gambler, and one of the best poker stars of his generation.
Scotty Nguyen – 1998
The 1998 Main Event made history for having only five players make it to the final table. These five were whittled down from a player pool of 367 entrants.
This final table was down to only two remaining players, Scotty Nguyen and Kevin McBride. That’s when Scotty Nguyen delivered possibly the greatest line in poker history.
As Nguyen coolly smoked his cigarette and sipped his beer, he told McBride, “You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby.”
McBride foolishly called, and it was all over, baby. Scotty won a cool million for his troubles and, of course, another coveted World Series of Poker bracelet.
Scotty has five WSOP bracelets to his name, and in 2007 he was on the cusp of another huge payday. Unfortunately, his cocky style and big mouth backfired on him as he fell apart heads up versus Phillip Hilm.
Chris Moneymaker – 2003
If you’re heads up against a player named Moneymaker, do you just get up and leave?
Sam Farha is certainly not one to back down from a challenge. Moneymaker and Farhas battled it out at the final table, with Chris Moneymaker edging out the charismatic pro.
Moneymaker turned his $39 investment into a $2.5 million payday and earned the World Series of Poker Main Event title. More importantly, Moneymaker was the catalyst for the immense expansion of the online poker boom.
Online poker went from the fringes into mainstream poker culture. It legitimized the activity in a way that nobody could’ve imagined.
Joe Cada – 2009
Several times throughout the WSOP Main Event’s history, a young and shining star has risen to the occasion.
That’s exactly what happened in 2009 when Joe Cada became the youngest player to win the Main Event.
Cada found himself at the final table with juggernauts in the poker world like Phil Ivey and Jeff Shulman. Initially, Cada floundered and was down to only four big blinds left.
Then he went on a tremendous run and ultimately found himself heads up against the chip leader at the beginning of the day, Darvin Moon.
Moon definitely had the crowd on his side, but Cada came out the champion after a lengthy game of cat and mouse.
He earned over $8.5 million while becoming the youngest winner in the event’s history.
Greg Merson – 2012
2012 was quite the year for an American player, Greg Merson.
More specifically, the 2012 World Series of Poker was extremely lucrative for the poker star. First, he won the No-Limit Texas Hold’Em Six-Handed event, which netted the young player his first WSOP bracelet and over $1.3 million.
He didn’t stop there, though. Merson locked horns with Jesse Sylvia and Jacob Balsiger at the final table of the Main Event.
After 11 hours of 3-way play and about 250 hands, Merson emerged victoriously and earned his second bracelet. He also picked up another $8.5 million.
Making for a nearly $10,000,000 week and earning himself 2012 Player of the Year honors. Definitely an impressive accomplishment for a professional poker player, but the real story is the epic battle from that final table.
The best part about making a list of nine of the greatest WSOP victories of all time is the nostalgia of childhood favorites like Scotty Nguyen.
The worst part is deciding on only nine when the event is overflowing with wonderful champions and battles.