By the 1970’s it was clear that not only was poker going to remain a permanent fixture in Las Vegas, but players were growing more and more fond of the freeze out tournament format as well. Consider the first WSOP, played as a prolonged cash game. It featured one table of participants, and they voted on a winner at the end of the game. Since each player would no doubt vote for himself, they then had to vote on SECOND best player, and Johnny Moss won that vote handily. That first game was played in 1970, and Moss won again the following year when the event first became a winner-take-all shootout. But as the decade progressed and poker became more a part of the public consciousness, no player or event director could have imagined what would go down in 1979: Amateur player Hal Fowler defeated a field chock full of the game’s brightest pros, and a poker boom of sorts was underway. After all, tournaments offered a unique format that made the playing field more even, and with equal chip counts and steadily escalating blinds, a player could put pressure on professionals in a way that just might not be possible in cash game.
Tournament poker as you know it today firmly espouses aggressive accumulation of chips in order to not only survive, but to thrive in later rounds when the stacks get shallower in relation to the blinds. If you sit tight and wait too long, you won’t survive. Fortunately patience was in no way a part of Stu Ungar’s vocabulary, and so it was that a precocious little New Yorker with gambling addictions and substance abuse issues for most of his life made his way to Las Vegas to compete with the very best. Ungar was legendary in New York for his prowess not in poker, but in gin rummy, to the point where he could not even get a game there anymore. Poker, and specifically poker tournaments, fit his intensely aggressive nature, allowing him to storm into the Horseshoe, win the Main Event in his first try (1980), and follow it up with a repeat win in 1981. He won again in 1997 to stand beside Moss as the only three time winner of the event, and it is a record that will likely stand permanently as the WSOP fields continue to grow.
But the story of why the fields continue to grow is notable in and of itself, not only in the WSOP but in tournaments around the globe and now online. The Satellite Tournament seems to be such an obvious concept to today’s player. It’s nothing more than a smaller tournament that pays its prize in the form of entry to a larger event, but it was, like most things, the brainchild of an entrepreneur who saw great opportunity in making bigger events more accessible to smaller bankrolls. WSOP Tournament Director Eric Drache realized that if 10 players agreed to put up $1,000 and the winner of their event won a Main Event entry, then not only would the main event grow larger, but more intermediate level players would show up at the card room, play in these events, and continue to generate revenue for both the Horseshoe and the WSOP brand. Satellites are a unique invention within the poker world, but let’s not kid ourselves – they exist because they are profitable for the host venues, plain and simple. They do, however, offer a more economical entry route into big events, and for Tom McEvoy in 1983, a satellite entry would be enough to catapult him into the winner’s circle. Twenty years after McEvoy’s historic win, another satellite qualifier would permanently shift poker’s tectonic plates and alter the way that everyone thinks about anything in the world of Tournament Poker.
We will talk more about Tennessee’s most famous accountant and his dramatic impact on our game in Part 3 of this series (The Boom and Beyond), but until then we leave you with our list of Tournament Poker’s 10 Most Significant Contributors. Please note that it is not a simple rehearsal of the All-Time Money List, the purpose here is to recognize lasting impact on the game, which has not always translated directly into dollars won. With that being said, we bring you:
10. Lyle Berman — If you are scratching your head, then go look him up. You’ll find 3 WSOP bracelets to his credit, but what is far more significant is his leadership in the WPT, where he serves as Chairman of the Board. Worldwide Tournament Series didn’t exist outside of Las Vegas until Berman’s brand and its televised success made the possibility of selling pre-packaged, tournament poker a reality around the world. Any other tournament series out there today (EPT, NAPT, LAPT, APPT, etc.) can thank Berman and his vision for making poker tournament broadcasts what they have become.
9. Johnny Moss — Without him, there wouldn’t be tournament poker in Las Vegas or anywhere. Not only did he win the Main Event 3 times, including its inaugural running, but he helped to usher poker into Vegas card rooms in the first place, giving it a platform to stage global events with enormous prize pools ever since. In the same way that you have to credit your grandfather with you being here in the first place, Moss’ indelible mark on the poker family cannot be overlooked here or in any list.
8. Daniel Negreanu — Known as a great all-around player, his success has been more limited to the tournament arena. He is in fact the #2 all-time money winner, and has also been a worldwide ambassador for the game of poker since well before there was any kind of poker boom. He has managed to brand himself as a fearless tournament player and has the earnings to back it all up, with over $14 Million in Tournament winnings.
7. Johnny Chan — His Orient Express nickname is specifically based on his tournament playing style (You ran ’em over like the Orient Express, Johnny!), and he came within 1 Phil Hellmuth showdown in 1989 of being the 2nd 3-Time Main Event winner. He has 10 bracelets to his credit, and his cameo in the move Rounders introduced No-Limit Hold ‘Em to untold millions of future players.
6. Eric Seidel — The victim in Chan’s movie-star moment (although the moment itself is a real WSOP Final Table), Seidel has gone on to become the all-time money winner in Tournament earnings. His career has held up to multiple waves of so-called new generations of players, as evidenced by his recent run at the Aussie Millions and the NBC Heads-Up Championship. Any up and coming tournament player will have to get through Seidel to prove his or her mettle.
5. Stu Ungar– Calling this guy a legend is like calling Nolan Ryan a pretty good pitcher. He won the Main Event 3 Times, and had drugs not been in the picture, I’d say he would have won it 5 times at least. He was an entirely different breed of fearless, taking down every legend that he faced to win almost one third of the relatively few tournaments that he entered. When the lists of top poker players are passed around the table, Ungar’s name has no choice but to come up regularly and with high regard.
4. Phil Helmuth — Say what you want, the 11 bracelets speak for themselves. No player has hinged more on his tournament prowess than Hellmuth, and no player has more celebrity status (even if much of it is self sought out) based solely on tournament play than Hellmuth.
3. Phil Ivey — 8 Bracelets. None of them in NLHE. Winner of every big tournament you can name outside of the Main Event, participant in the November 9, 3rd all-time money winner in tournament history. I can almost guarantee you that Ivey will end his career at the top of this list, with 15 or more bracelets to his credit by the time its all said and done.
2. Doyle Brunson — A man with 10 bracelets and over 5 dozen cashes in the WSOP cannot be ignored, particularly when he is the highest-profile player to span multiple generations of poker players who have come and gone in Las Vegas. He’s not new school or old school. He’s every school when it comes to the poker table, and continues to play at age 77 as his health allows. He is easily the most recognizable and respected player in the game today, and it has been that way for 30 years or more.
1. Chris Moneymaker — Gotta be the most controversial pick on this list, but be honest with yourself — has anyone else generated more interest in tournament poker or in the game in general? An entire era of poker was ushered in by one unassuming amateur player, his epic bluffs, and his subsequent Main Event win in 2003. We’ve separated calendar time on the basis of one man’s life, and in a similar vein I’d suggest that all of poker time can be broken down into BM (Before Moneymaker) and AM (After Moneymaker). While he’s not my favorite player, he is certainly the most influential tournament player on the game as a whole.
Want to make a comment or tell us what we missed? Feel free to comment below, and Good Luck at the Tables!!