The Story of the 1989 WSOP Main Event

For two years, Johnny Chan had been the world champion. In 1987, ‘The Orient Express’ claimed his first-ever Main Event victory earning $625,000. Incredibly, the very next year, he repeated the feat, becoming the fourth and probably final person to do so, winning a record-equalling $700,000. In 1989, one of those previous year’s victims was coming back to haunt Chan. Could ‘The Orient Express’ become the only man to win three WSOP Main Events in a row? It was all on the line in 1989.

Two Foreign Winners Headline Early Events

In 1989, there were 14 events in total, including the WSOP Main Event. The first event was a $1,500 Omaha Limit event with Lyle Berman walking away as the winner. A Pot Limit Omaha event followed, won by ‘Blacky’ Blackburn for $108,000. A $1,000 buy-in Limit Hold’em event followed and George Allen Shaw took the bracelet, winning a $179,600 top prize.

Alma McClelland won the Ladies Event of 1989 for $18,600. The event cost $500 and was played in Seven-Card Stud. McClelland—wife of popular WSOP legend Jack—beat Adrienne Rein heads-up for the title. Other wins for Don Holt (event #5), John Laudon (event #8), Harry Madoff (event #9), and Thomas Chung (event #12) were followed by the first bracelet win for future Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton, who took down the $1,500 Seven-Card Stud Split event for $104,400. 

Two non-American players won gold in 1989, with South African Norman Keyser taking the $2,000 NLHE Event #7 title for $244,000 and Australia’s first-ever bracelet winner Mel Judah winning a $1,500 Seven Card Stud event for $130,800. The final table of the event won by Judah set a record too, with Swede Gunnar Ostlind (6th for $13,080) and Thor Hansen (7th for $9,810) both making the final table.

WSOP Hold'em Event Gold Bracelet

Record Field Kicks Off Main Event Action

Two of the 14 events that took place in 1989 were rebuy events. Frank Henderson’s victory in the $2,500 PLO Event #4 scored the American $184,000 after 99 entries packed the field. In the $5,000 No Limit 2-7 Draw event, Bob Stupak, a name entrenched in Las Vegas legend, won out, taking home $139,500 and the bracelet, with Billy Baxter second and Chip Reese third in the event. 

Stupak was a fascinating character. He once told the story of his early heads-up clashes in private one-on-one games against the great Johnny Chan. In the late 1970s, Stupak didn’t lose in half a dozen games. Then, he noticed a step forward for the perpetually broke Chan, soon to become known as ‘The Orient Express’.

“I was known as a loose’ player – I played for the fun of it and I made it known I’d play anybody in a $5,000 head-up game,” Stupak said. “To get the $5,000, Johnny would form a ‘corporation.’ He’d get $500 off this guy and $1,000 off that guy. I’d wind up beating him and he’d get frustrated. People would come in all the time and pop me off. He was just unlucky. Then from 1980 to 1982, he just got real good. I played him in six $5,000 games . . . and he beat me six straight.”

Back to 1989 and everyone was ready for the Main Event. With a record 178 entries, plenty of big names made the money places, which once again saw 36 places paid. Players such as Crandell Addington (36th), Puggy Pearson (35th), Jim Bechtel (31st) and the 1986 world champion Berry Johnston (29th) all cashed for the minimum score of $7,500.

Chan the Master Again?

A year earlier, Phil Hellmuth had been busted by Johnny Chan in 33rd place. Now, though, both men were back and made it to the six-handed final table after legends such as Chip Reese (23rd for $10,000), John Bonetti (16th for $12,500) and Mike Picow (8th for $30,200) all fell just short. 

Six began, but the Irishman, Noel Furlong, didn’t last long. On a flop of K-T-2, Furlong shoved all-in with just pocket fours. Johnny Chan made the call with pocket queens and they held through turn and river to send Furlong to the rail with $52,850, catapulting Chan into the lead. 

“I thought Johnny had an ace-jack or ace-ten,” said a forlorn Furlong. Obviously, I was wrong. I learned its very, very difficult to win this tournament. I was out of my class here.”

Lyle Berman was all-in with ace-king on a flop of K-7-6. Called quickly by a grinning Chan with pocket sevens for middle set, Berman remained in his seat, desperate for a miracle to save him. A king on the turn at least made it possible for Berman to be saved, with an ace, a six, or the case king options. But a jack on the river sent Berman home with $67,950 and meant only four players were left, with Chan again in the lead. 

The Revenge of the Brat

Don Zewin, a furniture store owner from Niagara Falls, shoved with ace-jack and Chan called it off with pocket nines.

“Two black tens, I had,” said Hellmuth, having folded. The flop of J-4-6 gave Zewin the better hand, and a queen on the turn made no difference, nor did the ace on the river. Chan, with a face of stone, was in complete contrast to Hellmuth, who had saved his stack by folding pre-flop. 

A three-way all-in saw Hellmuth win a massive pot with an ace-ten against Zewin’s pocket tens and Steve Lott’s pocket deuces. An ace on the flop came and changed the course of history, as Lott busted in fourth for $83,050, and Zewin cashed for $151,000 in third. 

“I couldn’t ask to have been in better shape,” bemoaned Zewin. “It was just perfect. There were six outs against me. Then my luck ran out.” 

When the Main Event began, L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, one of Chan’s occasional opponents in cash games, who had gifted Chan a Lakers jacket in ’88, promised that if Chan won three in a row, he’d give him an NBA ring to go with it. For Johnny Chan, it was a potentially huge moment, the chance to win three in a row a long way from his earlier days of losing again and again to Stupak and so many others. 

“I had only played to play [back then],” he once described. “Just to be at the poker table with the boys. Now I am here to win… and I am going to win.” 

Chan’s opponent Hellmuth, aged just 24 at this formative point in his career, was just as determined. 

“I just want to play my best poker and win the match,” said The Poker Brat. “With a little more respect for him than anybody else I’d play.”

Hellmuth Makes History

The heads-up battle was over comparatively quickly to previous years, with Hellmuth in a 3:1 chip lead thanks to that ace coming to bust Lott and Zewin. All-in pre-flop, Hellmuth had two black nines and Chan called, but got it wrong finally, having only ace-seven of spades. The flop of K-T-K kept Hellmuth ahead, but counterfeit outs joined Chan’s ace hopes. A queen of spades on the turn helped Chan even more, with any ten or higher giving him a priceless lifeline in the final duel. Anything else would proclaim Hellmuth the champion.

“Fifth Street coming up, the World Championship riding on one card.” The commentator called, and then it landed: an ineffectual six gave Hellmuth the title, $755,000, and the bracelet. 

“I knew I was a two-to-one favorite,” said Hellmuth. I was just praying. Even if he wins it, I’d still have half a million chips, but it was a good opportunity. I was surprised when he rolled over ace-seven of spades. I thought he had ace-king or something. Hey, it feels great.”  

Taking over the title of world champion, The Poker Brat would go on to break records at the WSOP. As of writing this, he holds the record with an incredible 17 WSOP bracelets, seven more than anyone else. This epic victory represented his first. 

Here’s the moment that 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth won the 1989 World Series of Poker Main Event, making his mark in poker history.

1stPhil HellmuthUnited States $755,000
2ndJohnny ChanUnited States $302,000
3rdDon ZewinUnited States $151,000
4thStephen LottUnited States $83,050
5thLyle BermanUnited States$67,950
6thNoel FurlongIreland$52,850
7thFernando FisdelCosta Rica$45,300
8thMike PicowUnited States$45,300
9thGeorge HardieUnited States$22,650

1988 WSOP Main Event                                          1990 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.