In 1988 the WSOP Main Event finished with a hand so epic people are still talking about it today. Johnny Chan trapped Erik Seidel to go back-to-back as poker's world champion.
“Erik Seidel cannot win this hand, and yet he doesn’t know it!” uttered an excited commentator when the hole cards were revealed on the turn of what was the last hand. Neither of them could have guessed just how immortal that moment would become, thanks to the power of Hollywood.
The Final Hand
The scene was so iconic that John Dahl used it 10 years later for his modern poker classic Rounders, where it inspires protagonist Matt Damon to finally overcome his nemesis and win the last, crucial hand of the movie. Chan had a cameo appearance as himself in Rounders – actually, he asked for it because his daughter wanted to meet Matt Damon – but it still shows the reverence the poker world had for him at the time. Watch the hand play out below:
Meeting of Worlds
Back in 1988 the heads-up between Chan and Seidel was also a battle between two worlds. Chan had won the Main Event the year before. He'd make it heads-up again one year later when he lost to another completely unknown player named Phil Hellmuth. Chan was at the peak of his career. Barry Greenstein called him “the best player of the eighties."
Erik Seidel was that kid from the East Coast nobody had ever heard of – at least in Vegas. His 1988 runner-up finish was literally Seidel’s first international result whatsoever. Technically Seidel is only two years younger than Chan, but in 1988 they were miles apart when it comes to poker.
After the final blow you almost expected Chan to say “You’re good, but as long as I’m here, you’re only second best," like Edward G. Robinson to Steve “Cincinnati Kid” McQueen.
A Tale of Two Careers
For the next 20 years the career paths of these two icons of poker would cross frequently. But they went down completely different paths to get there first. Chan is originally from China. His family moved to the US when he was a boy. He grew up in his parents' restaurants in Phoenix and Houston and learned poker in a bowling alley. Seidel on the other hand, was born into an affluent family, went to college in Brooklyn and then worked in the stock market. He was also one of the first generation players of the legendary Mayfair Club in New York City, where he got to know poker.
Chan took $500 to Las Vegas when he was 16, turned it into $20k within a day and lost it all again on the next. Seidel played in the evenings for years for a little extra income before he started to take it more seriously. When Seidel came to the WSOP for the first time in 1988 he already had poker backers so he could buy-in for 10 tournaments - of which he didn’t make the money in nine.
At the end of the day they both ended up in the Nevada desert, and after their famous heads-up they went on to collect result after result. In the coming 15 years Chan had 46 cashes, of which 39 were final tables. He came second in the WSOP main event in 1989 and then seventh in 1992. Overall Chan won 10 WSOP bracelets, which for a long time was a record he shared with Doyle Brunson. And all that time, he was a cash-game specialist.
Chan Gets His Cake
When the poker boom hit in 2003, Chan was in perfect position to take advantage. He was an A-list guest on numerous TV poker shows, like Poker after Dark, where he holds the record for the most wins (4 out of 6, with one second place). He also wrote two books, like many players did at the time. The first one, Play Poker like Johnny Chan (2005), received mostly friendly reviews. The second, Million Dollar Hold'em (2006), was viewed as an attempt to milk the industry for a little more money.
In 2007, Chan opened his own online poker room, ChanPoker, but it only lasted about a year before it was shut down. He even opened the Johnny Chan Academy, a casino dealer school that was also rather short-lived. He invested in a fast-food business in the Stratosphere Tower and he made another cameo appearance in the Hong Kong poker movie Poker King in 2009. Orion Energy Drink and rap video appearances were also a thing.
In 2015 he was alongside Phil Ivey and Tom Dwan at the Grand Opening of the King Club in Macau but, comparatively, ii’s pretty quiet around Johnny Chan these days. “The Orient Express,” as Chan has been called since the early 1980s, has long stopped running along the strip -- at least when it comes to the big tournaments.
He’s still a regular in the big games, though. His last results are from $100 buy-in tournaments at Caesars Palace, but he likes coming back for the WSOP main event so keep an eye out for him at live tournaments. Lately Chan has promoted Breakout Gaming, a new, crypto-currency based gaming company that already has its own poker room – Breakout Poker – live on the net.
Seidel Keeps Climbing
Meanwhile, Erik Seidel’s path has always been tournament poker and his career has never stopped climbing. After the 1988 heads-up he returned to New York and the stock market. It took him four years to win his first WSOP bracelet. He waited three more years before he brought his family to live in Las Vegas. He’s now at eight bracelets and counting. In opposition to the general notion that poker is a young man’s game, Seidel seems to get better the older he gets.
The first year in which he won over $1m in tournament winnings was 2007, almost 20 years after his first appearance at the WSOP. His most successful years were 2011 and 2015, when he made more than $5m each. 2011 was also the year Seidel moved to the top spot of the all-time money list for the first time. Currently, he’s second behind Daniel Negreanu. Today Seidel is #12 on the Global Poker Index while Chan is #53,755. On the all-time money list, Chan is 57th.
They've both been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame – Chan in 2002, Seidel in 2010 – so that’s a tie. When it comes to cult factor Chan might have a slight advantage, thanks to his turn in Rounders and Poker King, although Seidel's restaurant cameo in Curb Your Enthusiasm and in the short-lived series Tilt are catching up.
30-Year Grudge Match Coming?
Remember the made-for-tv grudge matches of the 2011 WSOP? Chan actually played one of them but it was against Phil Hellmuth, not Seidel. In just two years we'll hit the 30-year anniversary of the only WSOP main event heads-up duel to make it to Hollywood. It's not hard to imagine it might be a storyline for the 2018 WSOP. Who would have the upper hand? As it stands now, it would be hard not to pick Seidel as the heavy favorite this time around.
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