Best Poker Moments: Hellmuth Dethrones Chan at Legendary 1989 WSOP

Published on 13 July 2015 by Pokerlistings 2008
In the latest episode of Best Poker Moments, Phil Hellmuth takes us all the way back to his historic victory over defending world champion Johnny Chan at the 1989 World Series of Poker Main Event. At 24 Hellmuth became the youngest world champion of poker ever and now he takes us behind the scenes at one of poker's most legendary heads-up matches. Chan had won the Main Event the previous two consecutive years but recognized Hellmuth's potential in 1989 when he predicted Hellmuth would one day win the Main Event. Amazingly the next year the two would face off heads-up for that very same title.
In April of 1989 an article came out in Esquire Magazine, an interview with Johnny Chan, and my name came up and he said, “That kid, when he learns to reign it in, he's going to win the Main Event.” I was never a big drug guy. I was never a big drinker. But it was April of 1987 and I was drinking, and I smoked pot and it was like two in the afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin.
I go to this little bar and my friends are playing pool for $10 a game. Maybe I had $15,000 in the bank and I'm trying to have fun but I'm like ... I went over to the door and I opened this door and boom and the sunlight and it's just dancing around, all the sunlight. And I'm like, “What the hell are you doing with your life?”
Got in a taxi and went straight home and rolled up all these goal sheets for the rest of my life. The number one goal was to win the Main Event and it was like a year and a half later that I actually pulled it off. Announcer: Welcome to the 20th annual World Series of Poker. It's the biggest game in town.
There's $1,780,000 in prize money with the winner of this tournament getting a whopping $755,000 and a solid gold bracelet commemorating the victory. Very cool moment. I told everyone I was going to win in advance. My answering machine had a message that said, “You're talking to the 1989 world champion of poker,” before it happened.
And everyone kept asking me if I'd make a deal. You're talking about a lot of money, $750,000 for first and three or four hundred thousand for second. I kept telling people I wouldn't make a deal with anybody. I was going to play for it all unless I end up with Johnny Chan heads-up.
Sure enough we get down to Johnny Chan and I heads-up and he's going for three in a row. Announcer: Two-time defending champion Johnny Chan is among the field of 178 players. I leaned forward and I said to him, “I'm going to play great poker. I'm going to play perfect poker and you're going to have to play perfect poker and get lucky to beat me.” That's what I whispered.
And 32 minutes later it was all over. The script was in my mind. I'm going to open for 35, he's going to make it 130 and I'm snapping all-in. So now I'm studying and I can't tell what I want him to do. I'm sitting on the back of my chair. If I influence the action it could cost me for the rest of my life. Like if I let him know I'm really strong and he folds maybe I won't win.
But I knew he didn't have ace-jack or ace-ten because he would have called for sure. I was scared he had king-queen and I didn't want to race for the Main Event.
So I decided to just zip it, shut up and see what happens. And he called with ace-seven of spades. King king ten was the flop and then a queen and I knew in my mind, wow, I was a 2.5 to 1 favorite to win before the flop and now I'm a 2.5 to 1 favorite to win with one card to come. I'm this close to my dream.
My father had flown in just to watch me, for the first time ever. And this silly little network no one had ever heard of. ESPN I think it was, were there recording it. And the river was like a six and my hands go up in the air and I turn around and running up the aisle is my dad. I hadn't let him watch me the whole tournament because I didn't want to see him and flip out. I made him stay in the background but now he comes running up the aisle and just to embrace my dad, one of the best moments of my life.
Because he was a PHD, JD, MBA and he just hated the fact that I was the oldest of five, and a guy, and dropping out to play poker. He was ready to kill me but I bought him a new Mercedes Benz, married a doctor and he's been happy ever since.