Over half a century, there have been dozens of iconic moments. We’ve broken WSOP history down to seven seminal successes that have changed the course of poker history, made stars of the winners and helped change the game we play and love to this day.

1. 1972 – Amarillo Slim is Gifted the World Championship

If the first two World Championships were slightly controversial, the 1972 iteration wandered blindly into corruption. In 1970, the best six players in America voted for their favorite player to become world champion. Johnny Moss was given the nod and in 1971, The Grand Old Man of Poker won at the felt as the process for finding a world champion was set in stone that it still exists in today – a single tournament of No Limit Hold’em poker, with no rebuys permitted. The following year, however, three players remained in contention for the title when two of them – Doyle Brunson and Puggy Pearson – agreed to ‘let’ Thomas ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston become the winner.

Brunson virtually sacrificed his stack, while Pearson was more than happy to lose heads-up, with neither Texas Dolly or Puggy happy for other players on the cash game circuit to know their playing style. Amarillo Slim took poker by the scruff of the neck and with his limitless charisma, helped popularize the game to millions via talk shows and interviews. Just a few years later, Doyle Brunson would win back-to-back world championships, by which point the benefits of winning far outweighed the perils of broadcast. All that was down to Amarillo Slim.

2. 1988 – Erik Seidel Falls for Johnny Chan’s ‘Look to the Sky’

Over the 1970s and early 1980s, there were many great stories from the WSOP. Doyle Brunson won back-to-back Main Events in 1976 and 1977 with the same hand, ten-deuce, now known as the Texas Dolly. Jack ‘Treetop’ Strauss famously won from leaving a single chip under a napkin and believing himself to have been all-in, spun that single chip back to the world championship. Stu Ungar won back-to-back world championships in 1980 and 1981. But arguably, none of these terrific stories actually moved poker on from being a tournament that up to 100 great players took on to one that the average joe believed he had a chance of winning.

In 1987 and 1988, Johnny Chan won the world title, and while ‘The Orient Express’ was also a professional, his dual nationality with Taiwan was an important marker in opening up the World Series of Poker to truly being a worldwide competition. Chan’s victory in 1988 was legendary, as he made mincemeat of New York debutant Erik Seidel heads-up with his infamous ‘look to the sky’. Holding the nuts, Chan pondered his call on the turn before Seidel shoved on the river and the masterstroke of a trap slammed shut on him.

Chan’s first and second Main Event victories were an inspiration to other foreign-born players to play the World Championship. He nearly made it three in a row…

3. 1989 – Phil Hellmuth Derails the Orient Express

Chan’s three-in-a-row bid went all the way to the final duel in 1989. Promised a Super Bowl ring if he could pull it off, The Orient Express was a runaway train all the way to his final opponent, a young math prodigy by the name of Phillip Jerome Hellmuth Junior. Hellmuth had been eliminated by Chan on the reigning champ’s way to making it two in a row but a year later, the Poker Brat was determined to change the narrative.

Heads-up, Chan would later admit that he was not on his game and Hellmuth took full advantage. Winning the world title by denying the best in the world, Phil Hellmuth catapulted himself into the poker spotlight, one he has never relinquished. Chan has never made it back to the final table of the Main Event since, and Hellmuth held the record as the youngest-ever winner for 19 years.  The Poker Brat’s mathematical capabilities and youthful exuberance meant that young players could play the Main Event with confidence and they haven’t looked back since.

4. 1997 – Stu Ungar Beats Everyone… Except Himself

In 1997, Stu Ungar returned to the Main Event having missed out on the fun for many years due to a drug dependency problem. The 1980 and 1981 world champion took the 1997 Main Event by storm, cruising to a comfortable victory to become the only player in poker history to win three WSOP Main Events at the felt (Moss having been voted as champion in 1970).

In his post-victory interview, Ungar declared himself clean and sober, dedicating the million-dollar win to his daughter Stephanie who he pledged to be around more in the future. As Gabe Kaplan expressed fond hopes that Ungar meant those words, the cameras faded on the Main Event coverage. Just a year later, Ungar – penniless – was found dead in a Vegas motel room with less than $80 in his pockets, all the money having gone on drugs. Ungar’s tragic tale has acted as a lesson of caution against celebrating WSOP success too excessively for legions of winners since that day.

5. 2003 – Chris Moneymaker Wins the ‘Poker Boom’ Main Event

In the early years of the 2000s, poker players began to qualify for the $10,000-entry Main Event by virtue of online poker satellite qualifiers. Costing as little as $40 in some cases, the number of online qualifiers had increased in the first couple of years of the Millennium, but it hadn’t blown up. Not until Chris Moneymaker, an accountant who qualified for $80 on PokerStars, won the whole thing for $2.5 million in his first-ever live event.

Moneymaker’s victory – including a miraculous hand where he rivered Phil Ivey to bust the poker legend – made average poker players around the world look at his achievements and believe they could be next. They could, and from 839 entrants in 2003, the field trebled in size in 2004 and increased almost year-on-year. As a result, 20 years one from Moneymaker’s incredible win, over 10,000 players took on the Main Event in 2023.

6. 2014 – Martin Jacobson Wins the ‘Solver’ Final

In 2014, a little-known Swedish player Martin Jacobson won the Main Event for $10 million. While many Americans had never heard of him, and today celebrate other more iconic victors than him, what the Swedish former chef did has laid groundwork for much of today’s poker strategy.

Jacobson reached the ‘November Nine’ in bad shape, but on the summer hiatus, ran the numbers, crunching situation after situation, playing out hundreds of scenarios to the point where he had a plan for dozens of different eventualities come the final.  While other players didn’t put in the same work, Jacobson’s game theory work paved the way for ‘solvers’ and computer programs on gameplay to be respected. They are now a crucial part of today’s ‘GTO’ (Game Theory Optimal) playing style.

7. 2021 – Koray Aldemir Wins ‘Second Boom’ Title

If anyone had any doubts as to whether poker would be able to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, the affirmation to that question came in 2021. For the first time in many years, the winner wasn’t crowned in the summer but in November once more. After an Online and Hybrid version of the Main Event the previous year, the world was hungry for a proper live World Championship.

The German player Koray Aldemir was victorious, but his personal victory was less important than the overall turnout. Live poker was back in a big way, and the success of the 2021 live World Series of Poker in Las Vegas meant a full all-summer return in 2022 and paved the way for a move to the Las Vegas strip in 2023. Poker was back!

Over the coming years, there will be many magical moments at the World Series of Poker. Anyone can become a part of poker history – including you!

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Paul seaton


Paul Seaton,  poker luminary with over a decade of experience, has reported live from iconic poker events, including the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, and World Poker Tour. He’s not just a spectator; he’s been the Editor of BLUFF Europe Magazine and Head of Media for partypoker. Paul’s poker insights have graced publications like PokerNews, 888poker, and PokerStake, where he’s interviewed poker legends such as Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel, Phil Hellmuth, and The Hendon Mob’s, entire lineup. His exceptional work even earned him a Global Poker Award nomination for Best Written Content. In the poker world, Paul Seaton’s expertise is a force to be reckoned with, captivating enthusiasts worldwide. 

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