The History of the World Series of Poker: 1970-1989

Chan and Hellmuth Provide Thrills as Eighties End 

As the 1980’s progressed, the inclusion of satellites, a growing sense of grandeur around the Main Event in the world of poker, and the overall size of the festival catapulted the World Series of Poker to the nation’s living rooms via televised main event coverage and highlights. By 1987, over 2,000 poker players took to the felt across the entirety of the World Series of Poker’s event schedule, all 12 events, and the Main Event was the biggest it had ever been. 

Racing along like a runaway train in 1987 was Johnny Chan. Known as ‘The Orient Express’, Johnny Chan hailed from the Far East. He ploughed through 150 opponents before facing Frank Henderson heads-up for the poker championship. Johnny Chan beat Frank Henderson to win the title and took home the $625,000 top prize. Emulating Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar, Johnny Chan would win back-to-back open WSOP Main Events as he claimed the win in 1988 too, getting the better of Erik Seidel in a hand that lives on in poker folklore and was immortalised in the movie Rounders. 

With a ‘look to the sky’, Chan – the only man to win 2 Main Events when the number of opponents can be measured by the hundreds – convinced Seidel to shove after checking the turn with a strong hand. Chan won the poker tournament to take the title of world champion in 1988.

Chan looked unstoppable and in 1989 he found a way to reach the latter stages yet again. Spurred on by the offer of an NBA Championship Ring from Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, if he could win three in a row, ‘The Orient Express’ lived up to his nickname as he raced to the end, facing heads-up against a young unknown poker player. 

The unknown 24-year-old newbie, Phil Hellmuth Junior, was about to become a poker hero overnight. Wearing Walkman headphones and a lop-sided grin, the young maths whiz became the youngest ever winner of the Main Event, a record that would stand until 2008. Hellmuth’s triumph denied Chan three in a row, and ‘The Orient Express’ has not been back to the final table since. Meanwhile Hellmuth, would go on to become one of the, if not the most successful poker player in the history of the World Series of Poker. 

Hellmuth’s victory for $755,000 in an event populated by 178 players was seen as a watershed event, after all if a 24-year-old unknown could win, why couldn’t anyone? 

Over the next two decades, that was to prove the case, as a variety of winners took home the title of world champion from Las Vegas. 

In Part 2 of this series, we look at how poker continued to grow until one fateful year, a winner, with a very appropriate surname, changed the course of poker forever in a single moment that had a spectacular ‘effect’ on the game.

Author: Paula Allen