The Story of the 1985 WSOP Main Event

In 1985, one of the most charismatic characters in the history of poker became world champion. A neat fortnight of 14 events, concluding in the by now world-famous World Series of Poker Main Event, saw Bill Smith win his one and only World Championship and an incredible $700,000 top prize – the biggest at the WSOP so far. The series also marked the first WSOP bracelet for a player who would go down in history as one of the best poker players ever.

The Orient Express Arrives on Time

The first event of the 1985 WSOP was in Ace-to-5 Draw and cost a significant $2,500 to play. Populated by 40 entries, Dick Carson was the winner, taking home the top prize of $50,000. Event #2 was a lower entry, costing just $1,000 but broke the attendance record, with 342 entries topped by a player who would go on to become a World Series of Poker legend.

Johnny Chan, born in China but with dual American-Chinese citizenship, took the title and top prize of $171,000. Chan’s nickname, ‘The Orient Express’ became a legend in Las Vegas, and over the course of his career to date, he has won an incredible 10 WSOP bracelets, second to only one player in poker history. 

Wins for players including John Lukas (event #3), Tommy Fischer (event #4), Rick Hamil (event #5), and Mark Mitchell (event #6) were followed by a well-populated Ladies Event. The 1985 edition of this event was first time that the female-only event was called ‘Ladies’ rather than ‘Women’s’ Seven Card Stud. Rose Pifer took the title and the bracelet, winning a huge $18,500 top prize.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

Slim Chance of Success

The $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha (event #8) event was won by ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston, who beat Chip Reese to the $85,000 top prize. Slim, whose victory in the 1972 World Championship was tinged with controversy … scratch that, it was overwhelmed by controversy. In case you’re unaware, that was the year that Doyle Brunson and Puggy Pearson didn’t want to win the World Championship for fear of their game being exposed to other players. 

Their perception of poker had changed in the intervening period, partly due to Slim’s own ability to publicize the game – hence his ‘winning ‘ the world title in 1972. Slim’s PLO event win in 1985 was his third bracelet win, with his fourth not coming for five more years. While others who played with him in the early years, such as Johnny Moss and Doyle Brunson, would end their careers with 10 WSOP bracelets, Slim’s career ended amid allegations of impropriety. 

Slim’s win – and indeed the next event winner Zorn Venture’s PLO bracelet (event #9) – came in two events that changed the face of the WSOP. They were the first ‘rebuy’ events. For the first time in WSOP history, players could buy back into the event for a certain period. Unfortunately, the records are unclear and the number of times Slim and Venture clicked the rebuy button between them is unknown. 

After other side events were won by the likes of Tony Thang (event #10), Harry Thomas (event #11), Don Williams (event #12), and Edwin Wyde (event #13), it was time for the Main Event. With 141 entries, it was the biggest yet, and the drinks were to be on the winner… and in him too!

Berry Crushed Near the Finish Line

With no former WSOP champions, like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim surviving long in the competition, the drama was saved for the money places. With nine places again paid, both John Fallon (9th) and Mark Rose (8th) would each with $28,000 – the equivalent of a min-cash back in the year that Back to the Future hit cinemas around the world.

One former world champion did remain, The Grand Old Man of Poker, Johnny Moss, but he would not repeat his previous feats, ending his battle in 7th place, busting for $42,000. Jesse Alto once again came close once the six-handed final table began, also scoring $42,000, before Hamid Dastmalchi, busted in fifth place for $70,000. Scott Mayfield joined him in cashing out for the same amount when he hit the rails in fourth place. 

Three-handed, it was the unfortunate Berry Johnston who missed out on the heads-up battle for the bracelet. Getting close, he eventually fell victim to Bill Smith, who had approached the final day with a novel sensibility to the tension. Starting the day sober, Smith sat there and drank beer after beer, steadily getting nicely merry along the way. It was a tactic that worked as the closer he got to the title, the better his free and aggressive play was rewarded. Johnston left disappointed but vowed to return the following year. There were only two men left vying for the bracelet and title of World Champion, Bill Smith and T.J. Cloutier.

Smith Toasts Supreme Victory

Down to the final two, it would have been impossible to find two more different men. Bill Smith was an inveterate gambler, a brilliant card player but one who associated the game with drinking, including at these very Championships. Taking him on was Cloutier, a former End in the Canadian Football League who returned through injury and found work on oil rigs before poker earned him more money than his regular job. 

Cloutier was a tournament poker specialist and has the rare distinction of finishing in the top five players in the world five times over his career. Heads-up, Smith had all the momentum, however, and when he moved all-in with pocket threes, Cloutier looked down at an ace and thought that he needed to take a stand. The other card was a three. Dominated worse than 2:1, Cloutier still needed help after the 9-5-5 flop. Another five on the turn did his hopes no favors and only a nine, an ace or the case five would allow him to double up. Instead, a king landed, and Bill Smith was the world champion, winning an incredible $700,000 top prize. 

Years after their clash at the felt, Cloutier would speak in retrospect about the perils of taking on Smith that year. 

 “Bill was the tightest player you’d ever played in your life when he was sober,” he said. “When he was halfway drunk, he was the best player I’d ever played with. No one could read opponents’ hands better than half-drunk Smith. But when he got past that halfway mark, he was the worst player I’d ever played with.”

Smith himself, was blunt when asked about his drinking immediately after his victory. 

“There’s not much to say – I just drink and gamble.” he told reporters. 

Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton remembers Smith very well – and the 1985 world champion’s journey home from Las Vegas. 

“All the guys I know from the Dallas area say he was as tough as anybody in the cash games until he had a few too many beers,” Sexton said. “Bill chartered a private jet back to Dallas and said, ‘Every poker player should experience this one time – becoming world champion and taking a private jet back home.’”

In 1985, Bill Smith celebrated his World Championship title with a toast to the rail. Of the six men who played at the final title in 1985, three of them would make it all the way to the same stage again in 1986, including Bill Smith. It would not be him who won in 1986, however, as one of his opponents got a very swift revenge.

1stBIll SmithUnited States $700,000
2ndT.J. CloutierUnited States $280,000
3rdBerry JohnstonUnited States $140,000
4thScott MayfieldUnited States $70,000
5thHamid DastmalchiUnited States$70,000
6thJesse AltoUnited States $42,000
7thJohnny MossUnited States $42,000
8thMark RoseUnited States$28,000
9thJohn FallonUnited States$28,000

1984 WSOP Main Event                                          1986 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.