The Story of the 1986 WSOP Main Event

In 1986, poker hit differently. Sixteen long years after the origin story of the World Series of Poker being formed, yet still several years before the ‘poker boom’, the 1986 event was a unique experience, standing alone in poker history. Like a beacon of how poker used to be, almost away from the narrative arc of arch rivalries, 1986 saw a quiet revenge story play out under the lights in Las Vegas as Binion’s Horseshoe once again played host to the World Championship. It was a Main Event that would never be forgotten by the winner but which over the years has, perhaps unfairly, faded from public consciousness.

Money Places Expand to Three Dozen

The controversial moment of 1986 came not at the poker felt but from the tournament organizers before the first card had even been dealt. Over the previous years, the WSOP Main Event had changed from being a winner-takes-all event for the first 6 years of its history to including members of the final table, first jumping to six, then all nine. In 1986, this changed again, and not everyone was in favor of the change. 

The expansion of players paid was huge, as with 141 entries – the exact same number as the previous year – an incredible 36 places would be paid. This decreased the top prize from $700,000 12 months earlier to $570,000 in 1986, as three of the final six in 1985 would end up replicating their runs, only for the order to be dramatically different this time around. 

Before the Main Event could take place, the preliminary events played out, a dozen of them in total. 

Early events saw less familiar names at the time become bracelet winners. Jim Allen defeated ‘Gentleman Jack’ Keller for the $1,000 Limit Omaha title (event #1) for $48,400 before David Baxter (event #2), Hamid Dastmalchi (event #3), and Ron Graham (event #5) all won WSOP events. Barbara Enright – now a legend in the game of poker – took the title in the $500 Women’s Seven-Card Stud event, winning $16,400 in the process after she beat Betty Carey heads-up for the title.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

Pioneering World Series for Female Players

Even excepting a Women’s Event that featured 82 unique entries and a prize pool of $41,000 in 1986, it was a superb series for female players. There was a first-time female runner-up in an open World Series of Poker event, as Alma McClelland finished second to the 1983 WSOP Main Event winner Tom McEvoy in event #7, the $1,000 Seven Card Razz event. 

McClelland, the late wife of the eventual WSOP Tournament Director Jack McClelland would go on to win her bracelet later in the decade but missed out on the headline maker of the 1986 series, Wendeen Eolis, who became the first female player ever to finish the WSOP Main Event in the money places when she finished in 25th place for $10,000 – her entry fee back. 

After bracelet wins for Jay Heimowitz (event #6), the aforementioned McEvoy – the third of four bracelets he has won to date – J.B. Randall (event #8), Tommy Fischer (event #9), Sam Mastrogiannis (events #10 and #12), and Mike Cox (event #11) – again edging out the luckless Jack Keller – all the attention was on the Main Event. From the previous year paying a sixteenth of the field to 1986 paying over a quarter of the field, there was a very different feel to proceedings. 

If the WSOP were looking for a narrative to come from the players who would reach the final, they got lucky… and so did one man in particular.

Alto and Tomko Make History

Heading into the latter stages of the 1986 WSOP Main Event, some of the biggest names had already fallen. Johnny Moss, The Grand Old Man of Poker, had cashed for $10,000 in 26th place, with actor and poker player Gabe Kaplan reaching 21st place. Bobby Baldwin, who in the early years of the 1980’s had acted as a de facto co-commentator such was his impressive punditry, made it to 16th place for $12,500 but couldn’t reach the final nine. 

Dewey Tomko, who was runner-up to Jack Straus in the year of the ‘Chip and a Chair’ in 1982, made 10th place as he too missed out on the lights and action of the final table. The cameras watched on as Roger Moore finished 6th for $39,900 and then the reigning 1985 world champion, Bill Smith bowed out in fifth, cashing for $51,300. 

Smith’s departure led to Jesse Alto’s latest high finish in the Main Event, as he reached the Main Event final table for the seventh and final time. Incredibly, given the fact that he made the final stages of the world’s biggest poker event seven times in its first 17 years, Alto never won the big one. Even more shocking, however, was that he never won a WSOP bracelet throughout his whole career.

Revenge Tastes Sweet for Berry

Alto’s exit in fourth for $62,700 was followed by a big pay jump to young Gary ‘Bones’ Berland, who came third nine years after finishing as runner-up to Doyle Brunson in 1977. Berland too would never reach the final table again. Heads-up saw the runner-up in 1985 Berry Johnston pitched against the outsider, Floridian Mike Harthcock (Mike Hart). More of a mixed game player, Harthcock would win four WSOP bracelets in his career but none of them were in No Limit Hold’em and in truth, he never looked like would prevent Berry Johnston’s revenge for his defeat in 1985. Finishing as runner-up in the previous year spurred on Johnston and, after knocking out Berland, he had a big lead heads-up which he never relinquished. Harthcock eventually shoved pre-flop with ace-eight of diamonds and Johnston called it off with an offsuit ace-ten. Both players watched a seven-high board – 7-6-3-2-4 – play out land to proclaim Johnston the world champion. 

Berry Johnston may not be a name you know as well as other poker legends like Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, or Erik Seidel, but he deserves his place amongst them. In his late seventies, he cashed in 113th place from over 6,000 players in the 2007 Main Event,  a good decade past retirement age. He was ranked in fourth place on the all-time list of players to cash in the WSOP, earning him a spot in the Poker Hall of Fame in 2004.

That’s Berry impressive.

1stBerry JohnstonUnited States $570,000
2ndMike HartUnited States $228,000
3rdGary BerlandUnited States $114,000
4thJesse AltoUnited States $62,700
5thBill SmithUnited States$51,300
6thRoger MooreUnited States $39,900
7thStephen LottUnited States $34,200
8thJim DomanUnited States$22,800
9thThomas JacobsUnited States$17,100

1985 WSOP Main Event                                          1987 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.