The Story of the 1987 WSOP Main Event

In 1987, a poker legend won the World Championship in a feat that has inspired millions of people to take up the game in the decades that followed. With the WSOP Main Event bigger than ever, the World truly came to the United States as the first player not to be born in the United States was crowned the Main Event winner. With 152 entrants into the big one, it was the biggest one yet and the year included bracelet wins for T.J. Cloutier and Billy Baxter along the way. 

Smaller Preliminary Schedule

Just 11 events took place before the WSOP Main Event in what was a slightly reduced schedule, in terms of the number of events, for 1987. There was, however, no shortage of attendees right from the opening event. The first event of the series was the $1,000-entry Limit Ace-to-5 Draw Lowball which had an incredible 216 entries. At the end of play, it was Bob Addison who topped them all to win the first bracelet of the 1987 series and a top prize of $86,400. 

Billy Baxter won the second event of the 1987 series, claiming victory in the $5,000 No Limit 2-7 Draw Rebuy event for $153,000. Event 3, which took place in Limit Omaha, saw T.J. Cloutier earn the first of his six lifetime WSOP bracelets as the former sports star and U.S army soldier won $72,000.

Event wins for Artie Cobb (event #4), Jim Craig (event #5), Hal Kant (event #6), Ralph Morton (event #7), Joe Petro (event #8), Carl Rouss (event #9) and Hilbert Shirey (event #11) followed. The Ladies Event of 1987 featured a $500 and still had 84 women join the field. Linda Ryke Drucker won the top prize of $16,800 when she beat Barbara Putterman to the title for event #10. 

It was time for the Main Event, and as it happened, this one is another that would change the face of poker forever.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

Lights, Camera... Action All the Way!

With 152 entrants, the Main Event was set to be the biggest yet and ESPN was now filming the final stages of the festival, making poker larger than life in an age where the WSOP was being beamed into increasingly more televisions across America and around the world. Ted Robinson fronted the action and the coverage was noticeably better, more detailed, much more personal, not to mention closer to the action, than commentators that had come before. 

With players such as Costa Ricas Jose Rosenkrantz (finished 36th for $7,500) and Humberto Brenes (14th for $12,500), as well as Irish pair George McKeever (30th for $7,500) and Mickey Finn (25th for $10,000) finishing in the money as part of the final 36 players, the 152 were eventually whittled down to three tables with just 24 players remaining. At that stage, Frank Henderson had the short stack but somehow made it all the way to the final table. 

Howard Lederer, at the age of just 23 was the youngest player ever to make the final six, but it was Johnny Chan who captured the imagination of the viewers. Just 30 years old, Chan worked in his parent’s restaurant but played cards in the background, and had since he was a child. At the age of 16, Chan allegedly made it into a cash game with $500 only to run it up to $20,000 before losing it all the very next day. By 1987, Chan, nicknamed ‘The Orient Express’ was one of the most revered players in Las Vegas and entered the final table with the chip lead. 

The last former champion to remain in the tournament was ‘Gentleman Jack’ Keller, who busted in ninth for $18,750, meaning there would be a new name added to the history books.

Young Lederer Goes Close in First Final

In the six-handed televised final, it was ‘Toymaker’ Dan Harrington who busted first, his ace-queen losing to James Spain’s ace-six when the latter hit a six on the flop and river. Harrington cashed for $43,750. On the rail, former world champion Jack ‘Treetop’ Straus said he wasn’t that upset about busting early in the 1987 Main Event. 

“I’m going to go to my room and sleep like a baby,” he said. “You know, cry an hour, sleep an hour, cry an hour, sleep an hour…” 

Jokes were in some frequency on the rail but at the felt, serious business was the only thing taking place. 

Howard Lederer was all-in soon after with ace-six. Called by Bob Ciaffone with pocket nines, Lederer needed to improve but the flop of Q-9-5 was no help at all, improving Ciaffone’s hand to a set. A seven on the turn gave the 23-year-old Lederer hope of a straight if he could hit an eight but instead, a fourth nine gave Ciaffone quads and sent Lederer to the rail. 

“I certainly felt that at some point in my poker career, I’d get to the final table,” said Lederer in his first TV interview as a poker player. “In my first effort in such a big tournament, I didn’t expect to get here.” 

ESPN reporters complimented Lederer on his achievement, stating unironically, “We’ll see much more of Howard Lederer in future years, you can bet on that.”

Chan the Man Breaks New Poker Ground

As the tension and excitement mounted, the former world champion Bobby Baldwin was asked about how the World Series had changed. “[The WSOP] began as a small group of Texans, Southern players. Now it’s evolved into an international event, with a contingency of players from England, Ireland and Africa. It’s expanded.”

Four became three when Spain pushed in with king-seven of diamonds only to run into Chan’s ace-jack also both diamonds. A flush coming in on the turn for both men, but ‘The Orient Express’ had the best of it. Chan went on the attack again to double through Ciaffone for almost all of the American’s chips, as Ciaffone called with ace-four on a flop of K-J-4 when Chan had check-shoved with king-queen. He easily rode the top pair home and that gave Chan a huge advantage for the remainder of the tournament. 

Ciaffone eventually fell in third with seven-five when all-in on a flop of J-7-6. Chan had ace-jack and top pair top kicker looked good for the win. Ciaffone was given a ray of hope when the turn showed a five, only for it to be dashed on the rivered ace. 

Heads-up, Chan maintained his impressive lead and all-in with ace-nine, flipped for the win against Frank Henderson’s pocket fours. Henderson looked good for a double-up when the flop of K-8-5 was followed by a ten on the turn. But a nine on the river gave Johnny Chan the victory and the $625,000 top prize. 

“I think I played well with the cards that I had. I’m not ashamed of any plays I made.” Henderson said afterward as his wife promised to ‘save’ his winnings of $250,000. 

“Lucky fifth street!” Chan enthused as he was asked how it felt to be the world champion. “It feels like a miracle. I was a little nervous but calm all the way through the tournament.” 

If 1987 felt like a miracle, 12 months on, the WSOP Main Event would feel very different. Johnny Chan had inspired players from all over the world to take on the best in Las Vegas.

1stJohnny ChanUnited States $625,000
2ndFrank HendersonUnited States $250,000
3rdBob CiaffoneUnited States $125,000
4thJim SpainUnited States $68,750
5thHoward LedererUnited States$56,250
6thDan HarringtonUnited States $43,750
7thEldon EliasUnited States $35,500
8thMickey ApplemanUnited States$25,000
9thJack KellerUnited States$18,750

1986 WSOP Main Event                                          1988 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.