A look at the WSOP winners from the 1970’s and 1980’s

The World Series of Poker was the brain-child of Horseshoe Casino founder Benny Binion, who may have gotten the idea from an event that took place in 1969 called the Texas Gambling Reunion (which was won by Crandall Addington a two-time WSOP Main Event runner-up). In 1970 the game was played as an invitation-only cash-game, where the players chose the winner by voting, and the following year, in 1971, the WSOP took the familiar form that we know today of a freeze-out poker tournament. The final change to the WSOP format came in 1972, when the buy-in was increased from $5,000 to $10,000 –where it has remained since.

In this article I’ll take a look at the winners from the early years of the WSOP, beginning with Johnny Moss’ voted-on win in 1970 all the way through Phil Hellmuth ending Johnny Chan’s quest for a WSOP Three-Peat in 1989.

  • 1970: Johnny Moss (USA) n/a

According to the legend, Johnny Moss won the 1970 World Series of Poker on the second ballot (remember in 1970 the WSOP Champion was decided by a vote from the players) after Benny Binion informed the players they could not vote for themselves –which each player did on the first ballot! Moss would go on to win two other WSOP Main Events and an impressive eight bracelets overall.

  • 1971: Johnny Moss (USA) $30,000

Moss became the first back-to-back WSOP Champion after winning the first two WSOP events ever held. The 1971 WSOP was the first WSOP tournament played as a freeze-out tournament, with Moss coming out on top of the 6-player field!

  • 1972: Amarillo Slim Preston (USA) $80,000

Amarillo Slim’s win in 1972 is what put the WSOP on the national radar thanks to the Texan’s colloquialisms and penchant for the camera. Born Thomas Preston, Slim as he was often called, would go on to be a regular on the Tonight Show, regaling the crowd with his gambling tales.

While even his contemporaries felt he was far from the best poker player in town, nobody could have chosen a better spokesman for the game.

  • 1973: Puggy Pearson (USA) $130,000

Pearson was the first non-Texan to win the tournament, but he was already established in the Road-Gambler crowd that dominated the WSOP from 1970-1978. Pearson finished second the previous two years at the WSOP, finally breaking through in 1973. Pearson, with his bulldog-like personality and ever-present cigar was the quintessential Las Vegas gambler.

1973 also marked the first year the tournament exceeded 10 participants, topping off at 13 entrants.

  • 1974: Johnny Moss (USA) $160,000

Moss won his third WSOP in 1974, beating the 16 player field that now started to include some semi-pro amateur types.

  • 1975: Sailor Roberts (USA) $210,000

1975 saw 21 players enter the ever-growing event, and it was yet another of the old Texas Road Gamblers, Brian “Sailor” Roberts, who would go on to claim the title. Although few of today’s poker players would recognize the name, Doyle Brunson always mentions Sailor Roberts when talking about the best poker players of all-time.

  • 1976: Doyle Brunson (USA) $220,000

Doyle Brunson won the first of his two WSOP Main Events in 1976. Long considered one of the top players, Brunson’s WSOP wins would cement his legacy and lead to his authoring Super System, which may have changed poker as much as Chris Moneymaker’s win in 2003.

  • 1977: Doyle Brunson (USA) $340,000

Brunson joined Moss as the only back-to-back winners of the WSOP Main Event, but unlike the single tables Moss contended with just half a decade before, by 1977 the WSOP Main Event had grown to 34 entrants.

  • 1978: Bobby Baldwin (USA) $210,000

1978 saw the first non-Road Gambler win the WSOP, poker pro Bobby Baldwin. 1978 was also the first year the tournament was not a winner take all affair. Baldwin would go on to be one of the biggest casino executives in Las Vegas, and is probably best known to today’s poker players as the namesake for “Bobby’s Room” at the Bellagio.

  • 1979: Hal Fowler (USA) $270,000

In1979 the WSOP was forever changed when amateur Hal Fowler won the title. The next year the field size grew by almost 50%, likely caused by amateurs trying to duplicate Fowler’s feat – it would take until about 2002 before another true amateur would win the Main Event!

  • 1980: Stu Ungar (USA) $385,000

The Kid, used an ultra-aggressive style to win the 1980 WSOP, and would go on to be one of the most enigmatic poker players of all time. Still talked about in legendary terms, Ungar’s feats around Las Vegas are comical and sometimes unbeleivable.

  • 1981: Stu Ungar(USA)  $375,000

Ungar joined Brunson and Moss as the only back-to-back winners in 1981, and would make it three wins some 16 years later. Unfortunately his life would end soon after, when one of the greatest gamblers in history died in 1998.

  • 1982: Jack Strauss (USA)$520,000

Strauss’ run in 1982 gave rise to the “chip and a Chair” mantra touted by so many short-stacked players. According to legend Strauss was down to a single chip at one point in the tournament.

  • 1983: Tom McEvoy (USA) $580,000

McEvoy became the first satellite winner to win the WSOP Main Event, and parlayed his fame with the first tournament specific poker book. One of true nice guys in poker, McEvoy is currently on a crusade to get into the Poker Hall of Fame, having been a finalist the past two years.

  • 1984: Jack Keller (USA) $660,000

Jack Keller won two bracelets in 1984, including the Main Event; he would go on to win a third bracelet in 1993. At the time of his death in 2003 Keller had amassed over $3 million in career tournament earnings.

  • 1985: Bill Smith (USA) $700,000

Smith, known as a terrible player when he was sober, a fearsome player when he was buzzed, and a terrible player when he was drunk, won the 1985 WSOP by besting one of the greatest tournament poker players of all-time TJ Cloutier heads-up.

  • 1986: Berry Johnston (USA) $570,000

Berry Johnston is a long-time poker pro who has quietly amassed a very impressive resume. In addition to his 1986 WSOP Championship, Johnston has a total of five WSOP bracelets, nearly $3.5 million in career tournament earnings, and was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2004.

  • 1987: Johnny Chan (USA) $625,000

Chan brought a new style to poker, playing an even more aggressive game than Stu Ungar, and it took years before the poker world would adjust to this new style by the “Orient Express”.

  • 1988: Johnny Chan (USA) $700,000

Chan went back-to-back in 1988, beating Erik Seidel heads-up for the title in the hand that would become the most well-known in poker history thanks to the movie Rounders. “Johnny f***ing CHAN!”

  • 1989: Phil Hellmuth (USA) $755,000

The 24 year-old Hellmuth (then the youngest main Event winner ever) ended Chan’s run for a third straight WSOP win by defeating the Orient Express heads-up for the 1989 WSOP title. Chan would continue to have success in the poker world, but the era of the Poker Brat officially began on this day.

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