40 Years of the WSOP: The 80s

Tom McEvoy
'Winning wasn't nearly as dramatic as it is now.'

As the World Series of Poker approaches its 40th anniversary in less than two weeks, PokerListings is looking back in a series of articles at how the event has evolved. This third part looks at the 1980s.

The first World Series of Poker of the 1980s is most remembered for its Main Event winner, 26-year-old Stu Ungar.

Part poker genius, part enigma, Ungar would amaze and baffle throughout his lifetime and his first of two back-to-back Main Event wins ushered in the second decade of the WSOP.

There were 73 entrants that year, including players from outside of the U.S for the first time.

In the end, Ungar beat a final five that included Johnny Moss and runner-up Doyle Brunson to take down the $365,000 top prize.

"Stu Ungar's first WSOP victory in 1980 marked the beginning of a new era in poker," said Nolan Dalla, author of One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player.

"It arguably slammed the door shut on the good old days, symbolized best perhaps by Ungar actually defeating the representation of all that the WSOP was before, personified in Doyle Brunson.

"The magnitude both actual and symbolic of this victory cannot be overstated. Ungar not only went on to revolutionize poker and strategy, he quickly became an icon for his eccentricities and unprecedented accomplishments."

1981 saw barely a ripple of an increase in Main Event entrants, as 75 ponied up the $10K buy-in.

This year is best remembered for Ungar's successful defense of his title, which was aired as an hour-long broadcast as one of CBS' sports specials.

Doyle Brunson
The good old days personafied.

"All one must do is look at the champions before and after Ungar," Dalla said. "The previous winners were mostly table-hardened, nerve-tested older men in cowboy hats from the American South.

"But Ungar, being young, from New York, Jewish, and unlike any of his contemporaries in the way he acted at the table, left an indelible impression on the game unlikely ever to be equaled."

The very next year was one for the books.  With over 100 entrants, the 1982 WSOP Main Event had its biggest top prize ever at $500,000 and an all-star final table including Brunson, Dewey Tomko, Jack Straus, Berry Johnston and Brian "Sailor" Roberts.

The legend of "a chip and a chair" was born that year when Straus came back from a single $500 chip to win it all.  Bill Baxter and David Sklansky each won two bracelets and Vera Richmond became the first woman to win a bracelet in an open-field event.

The biggest change for the WSOP came in 1983 with the introduction of the satellites, which is exactly how Main Event winner Tom McEvoy snagged his seat.

McEvoy told PokerListings he had tried to win a seat in one of the four $100 satellites held at the Bingo Palace earlier that year, just as eventual runner-up Rod Peate had.

He was unsuccessful and therefore signed up for a one-table $1,160 satellite at the Horseshoe, but not before some quick thinking.

When McEvoy saw that up-and-coming player Johnny Chan was signed up for the same satellite, he approached Chan.

"I don't want to play it if you're going to play it," he said to Chan. "So if you're going to take the seat, I'll wait until the next one."

Chan sat out and McEvoy beat out David Sklansky, James Doman and six others to win his seat to the big show.

"Winning the Main Event did not have the impact then, of course, that it does now, with so much money at stake," McEvoy said. "Then there was not much TV coverage to speak of. Winning wasn't nearly as dramatic as it is now."

Johnny Chan
You made a move on Chan?

1983 also saw the first bracelet won by an African-American as Carolyn Gardner took the Ladies 7-Card Stud event. Two new games were introduced, Match Play and Omaha, and the heads-up Main Event match between McEvoy and Peate set a record at seven hours.

CBS did not cover the Main Event in 1984, so future Hall-of-Famer Jack Keller's championship win, and the fact he had also won a bracelet in stud, did not get widespread attention.

Then in 1985, Bill Smith won the Main Event, but runner-up T.J. Cloutier is by far the more famous figure today.

Johnny Chan won his first bracelet that year and Johnny Moss, who went on to win his ninth and final bracelet three years later, made his last Main Event final table.

Twice runner-up Berry Johnston finally won the Main Event in 1986 and in 1987, ESPN took over coverage of the WSOP, introducing the viewing public to Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan for the first time.

A year later, a watershed moment in WSOP history occurred when ESPN aired Chan's final table showdown with Erik Seidel at the 1988 Main Event, bringing him back-to-back titles.

The scene was immortalized in the movie Rounders years later, becoming one of the main catalysts to poker's big boom with a whole new generation of players wanting to be Matt Damon and stare down Chan.

But even before Rounders came a win for the ages.

It was 1989 and a 24-year-old Wisconsin student named Phil Hellmuth became the youngest champion in WSOP history, derailing The Orient Express and closing out the 1980s.

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FAPORT International 2009-05-22 07:33:00

Wonderful post...
i also like poker very much...

LoneRuss70 2009-05-20 06:31:00

Not a whole lot of media or X-citement in the 80's... coming down from the 70's obviously took some time. Poor Stuey... R.I.P. man.