The Story of the 1988 WSOP Main Event

Which World Series of Poker Main Event has been shown more than any other? If you go by one single moment, then the answer is clear: 1988. The final hand of the World Championship in 1988 was not only one of the best hands ever to be broadcast on television but it became an iconic scene in the 1998 poker movie Rounders, which has gone on to be shown millions of times around the world. 

Record Breakers

While the 1988 World Series of Poker will undoubtedly stay in poker fans’ memories because of its final chapter, the pages that came before are also well worthy of recollection. Several WSOP records were broken in the year that table tennis became an Olympic sport, Britain elected its first female Prime Minister and Stephen Hawking released his legendary bestseller A Brief History of Time

The opening event of the 1988 WSOP became the best-attended event of the series, and indeed of the World Series’ 19-year history. A total of 400 players paid $1,500 – or qualified for – the Limit Texas Hold’em event won by Val Carpenter for $223,800, as ‘Gentleman Jack’ Keller was beaten to the bracelet by one place yet again. 

All 27 players who made the money in that opening event were from the United States, which was the opposite of another of the records that was broken in 1988. Norway’s Thor Hansen became the second foreign-born player to win a WSOP bracelet. when the ‘Godfather’ of poker in Norway collected $158,000 for winning the 79-entry $5,000 buy-in Seven Card Stud event #4. Hansen, one of poker’s most loved players, would have to wait 14 years to win another bracelet in 2002, before sadly passing away from cancer in 2018 at 71 years of age.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

The Grand Old Man Wins Oldest Bracelet

The day before Thor Hansen became the second overseas player to grab gold, the foreign seal had been broken. French player Gilbert Gross said ‘GG’ to 110 opponents in the $2,500 Pot Limit Omaha rebuy event #3, winning $181,000. Outlasting stars such as the 1986 Main Event champion Berry Johnston, Perry Green, Steve Zolotow and Jay Heimowitz. Gross never followed up on his victory, cashing just a dozen times in his career but a bracelet win means so much more to players than the money, as it comes with an immortality that over the years has only grown. 

The oldest winner of a bracelet throughout the series’ dozen bracelet events was Johnny Moss, The Grand Old Man of Poker. Just ten days after he turned 81 years old, Moss rolled over the field in the $1,500 Limit Ace-to-Five Draw event #10 to win his ninth and final WSOP bracelet – a record for the oldest winner of a bracelet that still stands to this day – for $116,400, topping a field of 194 players. 

Others to win gold in 1988 included Russell Gibe (event #2), David Helms (event #5), Lance Hilt (event #6), Merril Hunt (event #8), Seymour Leibowitz (event #9), and Don Williams (event #11). The Womens’ Seven-Card Stud event of 1988 cost just $500, a decrease of $1,000 from the buy-in the year previously, with Loretta Huber taking down her 84 opponents on way to the title. Beating Esther Rossi to the bracelet, Huber won $17,000 and the now world-famous bracelet. 

It was time for the Main Event, and it took five days to find a winner in the $10,000 buy-in World Championship.

The Poker Brat Bites the Dust

Having 167 players participate, creating a prize pool of $1.67 million, meant a top prize of $700,000, equalling the biggest prize ever won at the World Series of Poker, with Bill Smith’s victory three years earlier also worth that amount. With 36 players again making the money, there was an appearance inside those paid places from Phil Hellmuth Junior, a mathematical whizz kid from Madison, Wisconsin. 

At just 23 years of age, Hellmuth had yet to earn his nickname of ‘The Poker Brat’, and was knocked out by Johnny Chan. As he departed in 33rd place for $7,500, Hellmuth might well have sworn to get even with The Orient Express, without any clue about just how big that revenge would be for the poker industry as a whole. 

Cashes for former world champion Jack Keller (31st for $7,500), final table regulars Jay Heimowitz (15th for $12,500), and Jesse Alto (9th for $21,000), only six would appear on the final table that was televised by ESPN. Erik Seidel – listed as ‘Eric’ on screen – was billed as the youngest and most inexperienced of all the players at the age of just 28. 

Jim Bechtel’s departure in sixth place for $49,000 was followed by that of another WSOP legend, T.J. Cloutier, who busted in fifth for $63,000. With four players remaining, Johnny Chan was not the only foreign-born player at the felt as the Costa Rican Humberto Brenes, otherwise known as ‘The Shark’ had navigated his way through choppy waters, following the scent of blood with just three opponents between him and the pot of gold.

The Orient Express Takes on The Big Apple

Brenes had all the swagger but sadly for him and his legions of fans in Las Vegas, not the chips. The Costa Rican was all-in with pocket deuces but Erik Seidel had pocket aces and the board came clean to send the charismatic Brenes home with $77,000. The pot gave Seidel a huge chip lead. 

“I like Johnny Chan, but he don’t look like he has a great chance.” Said Johnny Moss, The Grand Old Man of Poker, from the rail when he was asked who he thought might win. The three-time WSOP winner would turn out to be absolutely right in his prediction. 

Ron Graham moved all-in with ten-four offsuit. Seidel snap-called with ace-jack. 

“Ron looks worried, and he should be with ten-four.” Said the commentator and Graham cashed for $140,000. 

Heads-up, Chan got into the lead, but a huge hand came when Chan’s eights were all-in against Seidel’s pocket nines. The board of J-6-5-K-4 gave Seidel a full double-up and the New Yorker had renewed hope that 1988, the first year he entered the WSOP Main Event, could be his year. 

“If you make one mistake, you’re out of the tournament,” he told reporters in an interview away from the table. “If you push all your chips in at the wrong time, that’s it, you’re done. Towards the last few days, there are a lot of people who become affected by the pressure and they want out. They put all their chips in in a spot where they would never usually do it.”

Chan is the Man Again

Chan, meanwhile, faced the cameras before the final duel confident that he could turn the chip lead around. 

“I’m a little behind right now,” he admitted. “I’ve got to play the waiting game. He plays good, real aggressive; maybe when I get hold of some chips I’ll be the aggressive one in the game.” 

Those words turned out to be true, as Chan became the chip leader and then, holding jack-nine, saw the flop land Q-T-8, giving him a straight. Erik Seidel held top pair, with queen-seven, a strong hand, but flattened by The Orient Express. Chan called a small 50,000 bet on the flop and the turn of a deuce helped neither man. 

“Erik Seidel cannot win this hand and yet he doesn’t know it. Chan is trying to sucker him in, taking his time. Look at that look…” 

Johnny Chan’s look to the sky, the look that would make Matt Damon’s character Mike McDermott sit forward, rapt, looking at the TV Screen ten years later in the hit movie Rounders, in the moment made Erik Seidel ship it all in on the river. 

“Will Erik Seidel fall for the bait?” the commentators asked, and Seidel did it, shoving with a pair of queens only to run headlong into Chans flopped straight. After an inconsequential six on the river, it was all over. Chan was once again the world champion, this time in back-to-back years becoming the most recent Main Event champion to defend his title successfully. 

“He was trying to play fast and bluff his money off. He just bluffed all his money off to me. It’s a lot better [this year].” 

“I was an 11/10 favorite to win the tournament and he hit a straight. From there my inexperience showed – he’s the best in the world and he outplayed me.” 

Erik Seidel would rarely be outplayed again and over the past 36 years has become one of the best ever to have played the game, easily outstripping Chan’s results over the years and leveling with his old adversary on 10 WSOP bracelets to date. 

Back in 1988, however, Chan really was The Man and in 1989, he was going to be almost impossible to stop in his bid to become the first man to win three WSOP Main Event final tables in a row. Could anyone stop him?

1stJohnny ChanUnited States $700,000
2ndErik SeidelUnited States $280,000
3rdRonald GrahamUnited States $140,000
4thHumberto BrenesUnited States $77,000
5thTJ CloutierUnited States$63,000
6thJim BechtelUnited States $49,000
7thQuinton NixonUnited States $42,000
8thMike CoxUnited States$28,000
9thJesse AltoUnited States$21,000

1987 WSOP Main Event                                          1989 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.