The Story of the 1978 WSOP Main Event

After two years of domestic dominance from Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson in 1976 and 1977, the 1978 World Series of Poker saw a new world champion win the famous gold bracelet in Las Vegas. A total of 11 events took place in Las Vegas, Nevada between May 7 and May 22 as the ninth WSOP concluded in dramatic fashion. The youngest winner in the World Series of Poker Main Event history lifted the title but didn’t win all the money as a revolutionary change was made to the biggest poker tournament in the world. 

Baxter and Berland Star in Early Events

Billy Baxter was the first winner of a bracelet in 1978 as he took down the $10,000-entry 2-7 Draw Lowball event for $90,000. Baxter, a Poker Hall of Famer and poker players hero after beating the IRS in court, won six of his seven lifetime WSOP titles in lowball events. In this event, he got the better of Byron Wolford heads-up for the win.

Gary Berland followed his amazing 1977 WSOP by winning Events #2 and #3, the $1,000 Limit Razz and $500 Seven-Card Stud events. The young Berland, who had finished as runner-up to Doyle Brunson in the WSOP Main Event of 1977, couldn’t repeat the trick in the next event, a $5,000 entry Limit Seven Card Stud tournament, with ‘Texas Dolly’ himself taking it down. 

Coming second in Seven-Card Stud for $34,500, while Brunson won $69,000, was Bobby Baldwin, a 28-year-old up-and-comer. Baldwin’s star was on the rise as one of a pack of new young players who hailed a state other than Texas. Until the latter years of poker’s formative decade, the best poker players had largely originated from the Lone Star State. 

After event wins for Aubrey Day (Event #5: $1,000 No Limit Hold’em), Terry King (Event #6: $200 Ladies Limit Seven Card Stud),  Lakewood Louie (in the first-ever Five-Card Draw event), and Hans Lund (Event #8: $1,500 No Limit Hold’em Non-Pro), players turned to watch Event #9: $1,000 Limit Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo. David ‘Chip’ Reese won this event for $19,200 beating Jerry Pruitt heads-up for the title. Reese won the first of three career bracelet events at the World Series and was later christened the best Seven-Card Stud player Doyle Brunson ever faced, with ‘Texas Dolly’ describing the 27-year-old  as “one of the two finest young poker players in the world” at the time. 

The last of the preliminary events was Event 10: $1,000 Limit A-5 Draw Lowball. The event finished with Henry Young defeating well-known youngster Gary Berland for the only bracelet and significant cash of his career.

The Main Event Produces Early Shocks

In 1978, the field may have been its biggest yet at 42 players, but the top prize was to get smaller than in previous years. After paying out multiple places in the preliminary events, it was decided that, in the WSOP Main Event’s ninth year, money would be paid to places other than the outright winner, changing the world’s favorite poker tournament forever. Changing from the ‘winner takes all’ format, the Main Event would see five of the 42 players earning a profit on their $10,000 entries, with the final table of six players playing it out under the lights of a televised final table. 

The awarding of extra prizes in the Main Event split opinions in the poker industry at the time. Paying only follows 50% of the prize pool to the winner, $210,000, 20% to the runner-up, then 15% for coming third, 10% for coming fourth, and finally 5% of the pot for coming fifth was controversial. Senior players needn’t have worried about such matters, however, as many of them were knocked out before the end of Day 1! 

Aggression really came to the fore for the first time in WSOP Main Event history and scores of young players weren’t waiting for premium hands to get their money in the middle. Past WSOP Main Event winners Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim, and Puggy Pearson all saw their hopes of victory crash and burn on Day 1.

“I think we’re slowing up,” said Pearson in an interview on CBS Sports before the final table took place. “The young players… there are a lot of them. They’re aggressive and they’ve had a better education than the older fellas.”

Two-time world champion Johnny Moss, known as the Grand Old Man of Poker, agreed and hinted that he wouldn’t return to the Main Event in 1979. 

“I got three hands beat in a row and I’m getting so old I can’t stand it no more,” he laughed. “I had an ace-high flush beat, a five-high straight beat and two kings beat.”

“If he’s living this time next year, he’ll be playing.” Quipped Pearson in return.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

The Owl Flies Highest as Dandy Sees Hopes Dashed

With six players left, the WSOP Main Event’s first ‘money bubble’ was about to burst. It was the founder of Chess Digest, Ken Smith, who eventually busted for nothing, dressed immaculately in top hat and tails at the felt! Smith’s departure put everyone else in the money and with the crowd six deep around the table, a fog of cigar smoke enveloped proceedings, with Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandalos claiming in co-commentary that of all the remaining players, former 1974 runner-up Crandell ‘Dandy’ Addington wanted it most. 

“He’d rather win this tournament than eat for a week.” Dandalos claimed and it was impossible to disagree. For most of the final table, Addington and Baldwin stayed out of each other’s way as Jesse Alto lost with ace-queen to Louis Hunsucker’s queen-ten when four cards came on the board for a straight and Alto left with a score of $21,000. 

Buck Buchanan lost with ace-four to ace-queen for $42,000, and Hunsucker left in third for $63,000 when his ace-nine on a flop of K-9-3 was no good against Baldwin’s king-nine, which filled up with a king on the turn. Suddenly, play was heads-up and the younger man, who had just turned 28, was in the ascendancy. 

Bobby Baldwin, from Oklahoma, took on “the oil and gas man, Crandell Addington” and as the commentator said, “one plays poker for a living, the other for fun, but today both are playing for a lot of money.”

The New Guard Takes Over

“In a head-to-head match you’ve got the be the aggressor.” Said Dandalos and his prophecy came true as ‘The Owl’ Baldwin, nicknamed for his wise, thoughtful outlook on the game, prevailed. In the final hand, Addington committed his chips with pocket nines only to be crushed by Baldwin’s pocket queens. Both men made a set on the flop and by the river, Addington needed a one-outer miracle that never came. Nor did a WSOP Main Event victory, his two runner-up finishes representing the closest he ever came to winning a ranking poker tournament, something he never achieved. 

For Baldwin, however, it was the start of a long and glorious association with the World Series of Poker. Eventually ending up with his name on the high-stakes cash game poker room at the Bellagio, ‘Bobby’s Room’, Baldwin remains a WSOP legend to this day and in 1978 became its youngest-ever Main Event winner. 

That record, however, would last only two years.

1977 WSOP Main Event                                          1979 WSOP Main Event

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.