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40 years of the WSOP: The 90s
As the World Series of Poker approaches its 40th anniversary in just one week, PokerListings is looking back in a series of articles at how the event has evolved. This fourth part looks at the 1990s.
The 1990 World Series of Poker started with the same 14 preliminary events as there had been during the last few years, but it saw a record 194 players sign up for the Main Event.
Sadly, the event will be remembered as the time Stu Ungar lost his chip lead and a shot at a third bracelet when a drug overdose left him unable to play.
He was blinded off at the final table on the third day and finished in 9th place.
The winner of the 1990 Main Event, Mansour Matloubi, was the first non-American to win the championship. He was propelled to victory by what the late Chip Reese characterized as, "without question the most incredible hand in the history of the World Series of Poker."
Late in the tournament, Matloubi had put himself at risk with pocket tens against Hans Lund's ace-nine, on a nine-high board. The ace on the turn seemed to guarantee the bracelet to Lund, but Matloubi hit one of his two outs on the river.
During the broadcast of the final table, Jack Binion guaranteed that the top prize for the 1991 Main Event would be $1 million dollars.
One year later, Brad Daugherty bested 215 entrants to become the first WSOP million dollar winner at a final TV table that had only one player with prior final table experience.
The number of preliminary events increased again at the 1992 WSOP, but with only 201 players, the Main Event showed a slight decrease from the previous year.
Main Event winner Hamid Dastmalchi, born in Iran, took home the $1 million dollar top prize. Preliminary event winners that year boasted a who's who, with Phil Hellmuth, Men Nguyen, Erik Seidel, Lyle Berman, Eskimo Clark, Hoyt Corkins, Tom McEvoy and Mickey Appleman each taking home a bracelet.
Jim Bechtel bested the 220 who entered the Main Event including the chip leader going into the final table John Bonetti, who Bechtel went after right from the first hand.
"Well, if you're going to win a tournament, you're going to have to get it from the guy who has the chips," Bechtel told PokerListings.
In their now-famous final confrontation, Bechtel had a pair of sixes.
"Shorthanded, a pretty strong hand," he said.
Both players checked a K-4-6 flop with two spades, but when the Jack of spades turned over, Bonetti pushed in for over $1 million in chips.
With barely a hesitation, Bechtel called, much to the delight of the microscopically short-stacked Glen Cozen.
"Bonetti was the type of player that if he had any type of decent hand he was willing to play a big pot," Bechtel said. "He didn't have to have the nuts to stick all his money in the pot."
Bechtel was right, Bonetti turned over A-K and went out third. Soon after, Bechtel was the champion.
Russ Hamilton, a name now sadly considered an anathema in the poker world, surpassed 268 players to win the 1994 Main Event. He took home more than the $1 million dollars prize, receiving an additional $30,000 to represent his then-considerable weight in silver, commemorating the series' 25th Anniversary.
The only woman to make a Main Event final table was Barbara Enright, who placed fifth in 1995.
"Action" Dan Harington actually went on to win, beating a field of 273 after earlier winning the $2,500 NLHE event - earning bracelets in the only two events he entered that year.
The WSOP had a then-whopping 23 preliminary events, including two Chinese poker tournaments.
Huck Seed won the 1996 Main Event, but it was the 1997 event that was the most memorable of the decade.
Stu Ungar made a triumphant return to take his third Main Event title after outlasting a field of 312 at an outdoor final table in the sweltering Las Vegas heat. Ungar, who died the next year, prophetically proclaimed, "There's no one who could ever beat me playing cards. The only one who could beat me was myself."
"When I was there in 1997 all anyone talked about was the comeback story," said Nolan Dalla, author of One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player. "No one talked about skill. It was about Stuey, the man and tortured soul."
On the final hand, with the board showing eights full of nines, Scotty bet enough to put his opponent, Kevin McBride, all in.
"You call this one and it's all over baby," Scotty memorably told him. McBride called, playing the board, and Scotty turned over jack-nine. It was all over.
Almost 400 signed up for the 1999 Main Event and Noel Furlong won at a final table that included Huck Seed and Erik Seidel, among others.
"Every year it seemed it probably couldn't get any bigger," said Bechtel, who in addition to his 1993 win, was runner up in 1979, made two final tables in the 80's, and the H.O.R.S.E. final table in 2006.
"It was standing room only at Binions. At the time, every tournament seemed as big as it could ever get."
As we know now, the WSOP had not yet seen its true explosion.
By the end of the 1990's, the second place prize money for the Main Event was larger than the prize money earned by the first six champions combined, and twice as many entered the Main Event as at the start of the decade.
But that was nothing compared with what was about to happen to the WSOP.
Next article: 40 years of the WSOP: The new millenium