The Story of the 1984 WSOP Main Event

In 1984, one year on from Tom McEvoy’s slow and methodical takedown of Rod Peate heads-up, a far more aggressive player became world champion. Slaying a field of 132 players – a significant increase of 24 entries from 1983 – was ‘Gentleman Jack’ Keller. A former U.S. Air Force pilot had a new style of playing poker, with his philosophy being that aggressive, risky poker, while making large bets was preferable to playing it slow and steady. 

Preliminary Events See Dewey at the Double

Once again, there were 13 preliminary events before the $10,000 Main Event World Championship. Only the $500-entry Women’s Seven-Card Stud event cost less than $1,000 to play, with bracelets awarded to players including Dick Albano, Todd Baur, William Bennet, Norman Berliner, and Paul Fontaine in the early stages (events #1 through #5 respectively) of the 15th annual World Series of Poker. 

Dewey Tomko, a prominent runner-up in the WSOP Main Event in the previous years, won two WSOP bracelets in 1984. It a marvel of poker excellence, Tomko pulled off an incredible back-to-back feat, taking down the $10,000 No Limit 2-7 Draw event (event #11) for $105,000 with 21 entries in the event, before also winning the $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha event (event #12) for $135,000, beating Roger Moore heads-up. The $1,000 Limit Hold ‘Em event (event #9) became the WSOP tournament to feature over 250 players, with 270 entries topped by the eventual winner of the event, Bob Martinez.

Other victories came for Mike Hart (Harthcock) and Mike Schneiberg in events #6 and #10. Sandy Stupak also won a bracelet in event #8 the $1,000 Employee Event, the first year such a tournament had been scheduled as a bracelet event. Since 1984, the event has been a staple, with 40 years of winners in the Casino Employees Event – which today costs only $500 to enter – includes PokerNews reporter Chad Holloway among others. 

The $5,000-entry Seven-Card Stud event was won by Jack Keller and ‘Gentleman Jack’, as he was known as, would be back in force for the WSOP Main Event. Just as in 1983, when a qualifier – Tom McEvoy – won the World Championship, plenty of players managed to win seats for a lot less than the stack of high society paid by legends of the game such as Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

Nine Make the Money

Although there were so many players in the 1984 Main Event, only nine would make money, just as in 1983. Out for a min-cash between 7th and 9th place respectively were Mike Allen, Howard Andrew and Rusty Lepage. The final six players convened around the felt and it was what would be the first of three consecutive appearances at the final table from Jesse Alto. 

Curtis Skinner (6th for $52,800) and Rick Hamil (5th for $66,000) both departed before David Chew cashed also for $66,000 in fourth place. 

Three players remained, with the talented Alto as the underdog. In 1976, Alto had become the first of two consecutive victims to fall to Doyle Brunson’s ‘Texas Dolly’ a.k.a. ten-deuce and lose the World Championship in the process. Having made the final table for the fifth time in 1984, Alto was determined to make it one step further than his runner-up result of eight years earlier. He took the lead three-handed, but after losing a chunk when he folded to a Byron Wolford bluff, Alto ended up busting in third place to Jack Keller, who took a massive lead into the final duel as a result. 

Heading into the heads-up finale, it was a clash of two exciting players. Jack Keller had quit the Air Force and left his home town of Philadelphia when he was drawn to the bright lights of Las Vegas to play poker for a living. A former Press Corps member, Keller had attracted the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’ when he worked at the Chicago options stock market. He was also someone to be feared. Once, when a new player sat down at the same cash table as him, they asked one of Keller’s tablemates, Seymour Leibowitz, if he was a good Texas Hold’em player. 

“Murderous.” Came the one-word reply from Leibowitz. 

Up against Keller was Byron ‘The Cowboy’ Wolford, who was a former rodeo cowboy having won back-to-back championships in the Calgary Stampede. Now his championship pedigree was taking aim at the poker World Championship.

Keller the Killer as Gentleman Scoops Record Prize

There was a big drop-off between top prize, $660,000, and the score reserved for the runner-up, a comparatively megre $264,000. The winner would receive the biggest in the WSOP’s history to date while second place would fade into obscurity, as runners up usually do. The author of Cowboys, Gamblers & Hustlers: The True Adventures of a Rodeo Champion & Poker Legend, Wolford, didn’t get off to the right start and Keller, never afraid to keep his foot to the pedal, made no mistake. 

On a flop of 9-6-5, Wolford moved all-in with six-four in his hand. But he was doomed. Keller, so often the aggressor in hands, slow-played pocket tens perfectly and called the shove. An eight on the turn and jack on the river signalled that ‘Gentleman Jack’ had secured the victory and the biggest prize by far of his poker career. Though he would go on to win two Super Bowl of Poker Main Events – a huge deal at the time – everyone would remember Keller for his World Championship win. Inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame later in his career, ‘Gentleman Jack’ Keller died in 2003, missing out on the life-changing poker boom that would take place in the months following the WSOP Main Event of that year. He was just 61 years old.

1stJack KellerUnited States $660,000
2ndByron WolfordUnited States $264,000
3rdJesse AltoUnited States $132,000
4thDavid ChewUnited States $66,000
5thRick HamilUnited States$66,000
6thCurtiss SkinnerUnited States $52,800
7thMichael AllenUnited States $26,400
8thHoward AndrewUnited States$26,400
9thRusty LepageUnited States$26,400

1983 WSOP Main Event                                          1985 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.