The World Series of Poker offers more than its fair share of breathless moments every year, even if you only consider the Main Event—but some of those moments transcend the ‘hand of the day’ acknowledgements to become a part of the legend. Even moments that seemed trivial at the time end up becoming memorable, while others shaped the event’s future development (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Together, these ten legendary moments embody the rich tapestry of amazing comebacks, agonizing defeats, and bizarre plays that make the WSOP so famous.
#10 The Biggest Pot in Main Event History
It took a series of unusual decisions to create the biggest pot in Main Event history. With three players remaining at the final table, and only 10% of the chips in John Racener’s hands, Jonathan Duhamel and Joseph Cheong worked themselves into a head-to-head all-in hand which put nearly 185 million chips into the pot — ultimately dropping Cheong from chip leader to third place.
#9 Phil Ivey’s Big Mistake
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Few would argue Phil Ivey to be anything other than a foremost professional in the poker world; in 2009, he was even further on top, the undisputed king of the game. Which is what made his amateur mistake on Day 8 so utterly bizarre. Playing against Jordan Smith, Ivey found he was holding a winning flush against Smith’s pair of aces—and didn’t realize it, tossing his cards away with a shake of his head. Ivey couldn’t explain it, either, and reportedly received a near endless stream of mockery from his friends for the blunder.
#8 The Return of Stu Ungar
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After taking the championship twice in the early 80s, followed by a few bracelet wins, Stu Ungur’s life took a nasty turn. However in 1997, Ungar paid the $10,000 buy-in to the Main Event with money from Billy Baxter, joining the roster only seconds before signup closed. Despite exhaustion putting him to sleep and rattling his confidence throughout the first day, Ungar gradually build momentum until he reached the final table (that was unusually held outside in the street as documented by the 888Poker) the undisputed favorite to win — an expectation he met, claiming the $1,000,000 first prize and splitting it with Baxter.
#7 Chris Moneymaker’s Perfect Storm
Poker faced Moneymaker may not be one of the truly great players of the game, but few have played so important a role in the WSOP’s growth. When he hit the tables in 2003, ESPN had just expanded its coverage of the game in a big way, the Hole-Card Camera had arrived, and Moneymaker had entered via online qualifier. So when he won the tournament over top contenders, it left an impression that would inspire players around the globe to try their hand and see if they could make it.
#6 The First Amateur Win
Speaking of wins that expanded the game’s appeal, we should also talk about Hal Fowler’s 1979 win. Before Fowler, the game primarily catered to professional players; after his win, the WSOP grew explosively as every poker player in the country flocked to try their luck.
#5 Barbara Enright Reaches The Final Table
To date, no woman has ever taken the championship at the World Series Main Event, but in 1995 Barbara Enright struck closer than any woman before or since. Shocking many, Enright’s play that year secured her as not merely one of the best female players of the game, but one of the best players period. Other notable female players have risen up in the years since, so it seems to be only a matter of time until Enright’s legacy is surpassed — but until then, she remains a goal and an inspiration to every woman not content to settle for winning with an extra adjective.
#4 Phan and Neckar Lose Their Minds
Some legends grow only as proof of how bizarre things can get, even at the highest levels of poker. In 2008, Johnny Neckar and John Phan had played back and forth for over six hours. When some began to predict the game would never end, Phan and Necker decided to speed up the proceedings with blind all-in play. This continued for three hands of traded wins before sanity returned and the game continued to a more mundane victory for Phan.
#3 The First WSOP Millionaire
While some might consider it merely another notch on the ever-increasing Main Event prizes, there’s still something to be said for winning the first $1 million prize and becoming the first WSOP-made millionaire, as Brad Daugherty did in 1991.
#2 A Chip And a Chair
Few legends from the WSOP offer quite as much ‘legend’ as the Chip and a Chair story of Jack Straus’s 1982 comeback. The details of the story aren’t confirmed, but the most frequently told variant has Straus pushing his chips into the pot and losing the hand, only to find a single $25 chip tucked away under a napkin. Since he hadn’t actually declared “all-in,” he was allowed to continue playing, eventually clawing his way to the championship. In some version of the story, this occurred at the final table, in others it occurred early in the tournament; the value of the chip remaining also varies with the telling, but everyone agrees it happened.
#1 Moneymaker’s Monster Bluff
Despite a huge chip lead heading into heads-up play in the 2003 Main Event, few expected Chris Moneymaker to come out of his match with Sam Farha intact—including Moneymaker himself. That didn’t stop him from pressing through with respectable play, holding his own until the cards turned against him and presented him with a near-unwinnable situation. Nothing in his hands, sure Farha had something strong, he bluffed for all he was worth. Farha lingered for a while before reluctantly folding—giving Moneymaker the win and setting into motion the perfect storm to which many attribute the Poker Boom.
Events like these built the legend of the World Series of Poker into what it is today: an incredible worldwide event where amateurs and professionals face off for the opportunity to claim a fortune, where skill reigns but chance still rears its head to throw chaos into the proceedings.