Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Ten Most Significant World Series of Poker Final Tables

In honor of the 40th Anniversary of the World Series of Poker this year, I'm taking a moment to give my take on the Top 10 Most Significant WSOP Final Tables:

10. 1995: Winner: Dan Harrington Number of Players: 273

This year is notable for two reasons. One, the winner, Dan Harrington, went on to make two more final tables (and he had already made one before) and to write some of the best known books on tournament Texas hold'em, Harrington on Hold'em, where he talks about, among other things, his thought processes in tricking Howard Goldfarb to bluff all-in against him on the final hand when Harrington held top pair. And two, it featured the presence of Barbara Enright, the first, and to date only, woman to make the final table.

9. 1972: Winner: Amarillo Slim Preston Number of Players: 8

Notable Line: Slim: "It feels better in!"

The second main event ever, what makes this one notable is how it ended. Back in 1972, poker was a game of smokey backrooms, and unlike today, no one was interested in becoming a celebrity, save one: Amarillo Slim Preston. When it reached the final three, Doyle Brunson simply took his money and withdrew, an option not available today, and Puggy Pearson dumped to Slim to avoid the spotlight. Slim made the most of the win though, and by appearing on programs like the Tonight Show, became the first poker celebrity and helped to improve the game's image, decades before the poker boom.

8. 1998: Winner: Scotty Nguyen Number of Players: 350

Notable Line: "You call, gonna be all over baby!"

What's memorable about 1998 is it was one of the most watched finals before the poker boom. Scotty's goading comment to runner up Kevin McBride, causing him to go all in when he could only play the board, is one of the enduring memories of older poker fans, and Scotty remains one of the most well-known and top pros in the game today.

7. 2001: Winner: Carlos Mortenson Number of Players: 613

Two years before Chris Moneymaker and hole card cameras put the WSOP on the map was a final table that ESPN would drool at the prospect of televising today. In addition to eventual champion and future WPT main event champion Carlos Mortensen, the final six featured two time 2nd place finisher Dewey Tomko, former champion and all time bracelet holder Phil Hellmuth, two time final tablist and well-known poker celebrity Mike Matusow and popular player and commentator Phil Gordon. Even more amazingly, probably the most recognizable face in poker today, Daniel Negreanu, just missed the final table, finishing 11th.

6. 1977 Winner: Doyle Brunson Number of Players: 34

1977 represented Doyle's second consecutive WSOP victory, putting him in rarified company with Johnny Moss, Stu Ungar and Johnny Chan. Amazingly, Doyle won both with the same hand, 10-2. Would Doyle have the same legendary status as the Godfather of Poker and the author of poker's bible, Super/System, if he had not won two in a row? Who knows?

5. 2000 Winner: Chris Ferguson Number of Players: 512

Famous Line: T.J. Cloutier: "You didn't learn THAT in my book!"

When the 2000 World Series came around, T.J. Cloutier was widely recognized as the strongest tournament player in the game, and was favored to win it all. He might have, too, had not the dominated Ferguson spiked a nine on the river to suck out on Cloutier on the final hand. Also notable was the final table presence of Harper's Magazine reporter Jim McManus, who entered the tournament while researching a story on women and poker and went on to make the final table. McManus' story, which later became the book Positively Fifth Street, may have been one of the early contributors to the poker boom.

4. 1987 Winner: Johnny Chan Number of Players: 152

In addition to being the series that introduced the world to Johnny Chan,who would go on to win two series in a row and almost three, this final table featured some impressive future poker stars, including Dan Harrington, who would go on to be the most successful WSOP main event player of all time with four total final tables and a win, including two final tables in the post boom era, and Howard Lederer, a frequently seen face on the poker tour.

3. 1989 Winner: Phil Hellmuth Jr. Number of Players: 178

The final table that should have cemented Johnny Chan's legend as the greatest of all time instead gave birth to a new legend. When Hellmuth's pocket nines held up on the final hand, thwarting Chan's bid for a third consecutive championship, Hellmuth became the youngest champion ever, and went on to create a new dimension of self-branding in poker.

2. 1988 Winner: Johnny Chan Number of Players: 167

One of the major contributors to the poker boom was the movie Rounders, staring Edward Norton and Matt Damon, possibly the best poker movie ever made. The WSOP main event featured was this one, specifically, Chan trapping Erik Seidel for all his chips on the final hand. Chan and Seidel both went on to achieve great poker success, and became the first poker celebrities since Amarillo Slim.
1. 2003 Winner: Chris Moneymaker Number of Players: 839

Notable Line: Sammy Farha: "I could make a crazy call on you."

Of course, the series that gave birth to the poker boom was the 34th series in 2003. Due to hole card camera technology, viewers at home could see and understand every bit of action, resulting in the most comprehensive coverage ESPN had ever given to the WSOP. This enabled a growing faction of poker fans to see that anyone, even an accountant from Tennesse, could achieve poker fame and fortune, and poker has been growing ever since.

If you liked this, you might like my Ten Most Influential Mainstream Comic Books in History. Then again, you might not.

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