The History of the World Series of Poker: 1990-2003

In the first article in our series on the history of the World Series of Poker, we looked at the formation of the world’s oldest and most revered poker title, the original world championship, and which legendary names were the first to be able to call themselves the best. 

From Doyle Brunson to Johnny Chan, Johnny Moss to Stu Ungar, poker games changed dramatically between 1970 and 1989. As the World Series of Poker evolved from a vote between six men to a $10,000 showdown between 178 players for the title of world champion, the World Series of Poker grew and changed. But what happened after the unknown rookie Phil Hellmuth won? The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. 

The Nineties Begin with the First Foreign Winner

By the time the dust had settled from the championship poker game in 1989, Phil Hellmuth’s legendary victory over Johnny Chan had sent shockwaves throughout the poker world. The unheralded 24-year-old was a prodigious talent and represented a new wave of poker players. Even if the next age of poker players weren’t ‘The Poker Brat’, they could work Hellmuth’s talent and application for mathematics and percentages into their own poker games. The age of mathematics over instinct had been born.

Poker games began to change from a game that was played, traditional moves that were permissible amid the culture of the game – such as only c-betting if you hit the flop – to a game where the rules were merely a framework upon which mathematical and logical decisions could be built to influence the outcome. In short, Hellmuth blew the doors off the game and this young generation, with Phil Hellmuth at the forefront, would march through and alter the poker landscape and how everyone would play poker. 

In 1990, the year after Hellmuth’s triumph, the first-ever foreign player won the WSOP Main Event in the form of Britain-based Iranian Mansour Matloubi. Taking the title and top prize of $895,000, Matloubi’s heads-up victory over Hans Lund marked the first time a non-American had become the world champion of poker. Over the course of the decade this victory would inspire countless foreign players to travel to Las Vegas in order to play poker and prove their prowess on the greatest stage.

poker room floor during a tournament

Winning Pieces of Silver

The early nineties saw the Main Event spring surpass 200 entries as 215 players took on the 1991 iteration of the world’s favorite poker tournament. This was the first year that the main event prize for this poker tournament reached $1,000,000 and it has never dropped below that. That year the event was won by Brad Daugherty and followed next year by the second Iranian winner, Hamid Dastmalchi. 1993 saw the largest field to date as 231 players paid the $10,000 buy-in for the Main Event, all vying to be the next poker champion. As the 231 poker players were whittled down to the winner, Jim Bechtel, claimed the victory, the bracelet, title of world poker champion and one million dollars.

In the 25th year of the World Series of Poker, 1994, an added prize was offered. Whoever took the title of Main Event winner would also win their weight in silver. That lucky winner turned out to be Russ Hamilton, who later in life was caught up in the UltimateBet online poker scandal. 

Hamilton won not only the million dollar top prize but 330lbs of silver. If ever Benny Binion had wished Stu Ungar to make a return, that would have been the year; however, it was not time for ‘The Kid’ to return to play poker. The year Hamilton claimed the victory there were 268 entrants. That number increased again in 1995 when Dan Harrington outlasted 272 opponents, and again in 1996 when Huck Seed finished top dog from a poker field of 295 players.

Ungar Makes a Bittersweet Return

In 1997, the return of a double poker champion shook the poker universe. Stu Ungar had largely been off the grid since his back-to-back victories in 1980 and 1981 and certainly in terms of the Main Event. ‘The Kid’ returned in devastating fashion, winning the $1 million top prize. The final table was played ‘al fresco’ right outside at Binion’s in the Las Vegas sunshine.

Ungar’s return inspired fans to believe that the now three-time poker champion was back in action and would become a permanent fixture in the live poker games. Sadly, that was just a dream and far from the reality that would transpire. After the last bet Stu Ungar, live on TV, promised to change his life as he was declared the victor. Sadly he was not able to live up to his promise,  succumbing to his demons just over a year later. Found dead on the floor of the Oasis Motel in Sin City with just a few dollars to his name, Ungar’s passing saw all of the greatest players from all the poker games mourn his passing.

“Everybody felt terrible, but it wasn’t a surprise,” said Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson. Crediting his supreme gameplay, Mike Sexton said of his long-time friend, “In the game of life, Stu Ungar was a loser.” 

Ungar was inducted posthumously into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001, just three years after his death. In 1998 when he died, it was just a few months after the World Series of Poker Main Event victory of another big personality – Scotty Nguyen.

The Nineties are All Over, Baby 

The final moments of the 1998 WSOP Main Event are the stuff of legend and created a poker hero in Scotty Nguyen. An effervescent personality at the felt, Nguyen was drinking bottles of beer at the five-handed final table, as he outlasted well known poker players, like T.J. Cloutier, to face Kevin McBride, the last remaining player, heads-up. Getting to the river of the final hand, with a nine to add to the board of 8-9-9-8-8, Nguyen’s poker hand full house was better than the board and the winning hand. Nguyen looked at his bottle and said to McBride: “You call, it’s gonna be all over over, baby.” McBride was hooked and declared the call, announcing that he played the board. “Party time, baby!” yelled Nguyen and a star was not only born, but an era of celebration was kicked off. 

Nguyen’s win was followed the next year by the Main Event’s first European winner as Irishman Noel Furlong took the poker title and the $1 million. In the following year, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson won $1.5 million as the Main Event jumped from 393 entrants to 512. The Full Tilt Poker professional inspired many to play at the time, and while the same wasn’t as true when Carlos Mortensen of Spain (2001) and Robert Varkonyi (2002) became world poker champions, the Main Event was building and growing year on year.

The Moneymaker Effect 

In 2003, online poker was a route to the WSOP Main Event, with satellite packages available for much less than the $10,000 entry. One of the 839 who took on the Main Event in 2003 was a young accountant named Chris Moneymaker (since revealed as a name given by Chris Smith to ESPN’s reporters). Moneymaker played an online poker satellite costing around $86 and qualified for the Main Event.  In a stunning final couple of days in the event, the imagination of the wider world was captured by the irrepressible Moneymaker, who qualified while playing online poker, outlasted pro Phil Ivey (10th for $82,700) to make the final table. Once there, Dan Harrington was the favorite, but ‘Action Man’ wasn’t able to utilize his decades of poker experience and in an incredible finale, the online poker player Chris Moneymaker beat Sammy Farha heads-up to take the title and top prize of $2.5 million.  As commentators Norman Chad and Lon McEachern declared Moneymaker’s win “almost inconceivable”, the average poker player, who sat at home tuning in on ESPN, were inspired en masse. The legacy of Moneymaker’s victory was unparalleled. Showing that amateur players could not only qualify through online poker for the WSOP Main Event, but go on to win life-changing money and the title. The numbers were self-evident in reflecting what would be become known as ‘The Moneymaker Effect’; in 2004, just one year on from Chris Moneymaker’s stunning win, the entries into the World Series of Poker Main Event jumped from 839 to an amazing 2,576 – more than three times the previous year’s total. All because of the emergence of online poker.  The face of poker had been irrevocably changed and what would happen next would do the same…. but not all in a good way.

Part 1                                                 Part 3

About the Author: Paul Seaton has written about poker for over 10 years, interviewing some of the best players ever to play the game such as Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Over the years, Paul has reported live from tournaments such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the European Poker Tour. He has also written for other poker brands where he was Head of Media, as well as BLUFF magazine, where he was Editor.