World Series Of Poker

History of the World Series of Poker Main Event: 1980-1989

Yesterday we looked back at the first decade of World Series of Poker Main Events, talking about the inaugural WSOP in 1970, the introduction of a freeze-out tournament to determine a champion in 1971, and the steady growth of entrants from single digits to more than 50 players by 1979.

By the end of that first decade the WSOP had evolved into something more than just a “gamblers reunion” as it had essentially been during those first few springs at Binion’s Horseshoe, earning increased attention from media with each successive year. Winners of the Main Event began to achieve modest fame beyond the close community of poker players and gamblers, thanks in part to “Amarillo Slim” Preston’s publicity efforts following his victory in the 1972 Main Event.

Doyle Brunson was among the original participants in the WSOP. In fact, when Brunson made the money in the 2013 WSOP Main Event, he achieved the distinction of cashing at least once in all five decades of the WSOP Main Event


“For the first time, I wasn’t afraid of the publicity that winning would generate,” writes Brunson, alluding to the 1976 WSOP Main Event. “Not that I wanted public notoriety, because I didn’t — but the WSOP had received so much press over the previous years that the stigma of being a professional gambler was diminished. And by now, my competitive instincts overrode everything.”

Brunson would win titles in both 1976 and 1977 — famously holding {10-}{2-} on the last hand on both occasions, a hand that subsequently came to be known as “The Brunson.” He’d continue to be a favorite in the event over the coming years, too.

Indeed, Brunson was poised to win a third ME title in 1980 after having made it all of the way to heads-up out of a then-record field of 73 players. “All that stood between me and my third championship was this brash young kid out of New York,” writes Brunson.

That brash young kid was 26-year-old Stu Ungar, a gin rummy whiz who had only begun playing no-limit hold’em tournaments shortly before that year’s Main Event. Ungar enjoyed a 2-to-1 chip lead to start heads-up play versus Brunson, then after Brunson closed the gap Ungar would win the title on a hand that saw Brunson flop two pair but Ungar hit a straight on the turn, after which all of the chips went in the middle. The river brought no improvement for Brunson, and Ungar had won.

Ungar would repeat with a second Main Event win in 1981, with that year’s World Series of Poker receiving comprehensive coverage in The Biggest Game in Town, Al Alvarez’s excellent book-length narrative describing the WSOP and Las Vegas in particular while also discussing the place of poker in American culture, more broadly speaking.

The last two chapters of The Biggest Game in Town focus on the 1981 Main Event. Alvarez quotes future Poker Hall of Famer Jack “Treetop” Straus complaining about the relatively new division of prize money (introduced in 1978) that saw the winner only take half of the prize pool and other deep finishers dividing the remaining money.

“I don’t reckon it should be divided up — half to the winner, 20 percent to the runner-up, and so on,” Straus told Alvarez. “That’s not what a competition is about. The winner should take the whole seven-fifty.”

Indeed, the total prize pool was $750,000 that year, with Ungar earning $375,000 of it for his win. Here’s a clip of the final hand of the 1981 WSOP Main Event, with sportscaster Curt Gowdy providing the call and interviewing Ungar and runner-up Perry Green

The next year saw the number of entrants in the WSOP Main Event exceed 100 players for the first time, with Straus breaking through to earn the title, doing so after having been down to a single $500 chip on the second day of play. His comeback has often been credited with having inspired the much-used poker phrase “chip and a chair” — an encouraging refrain for tourney players not to lose hope when down to a short stack.

Straus was also the first WSOP Main Event winner to take away more than half a million dollars, earning $520,000 for his win. In 1983, Tom McEvoy would likewise earn more than half a million after topping a field of 108 to win.

The Michigan native won his $10,000 seat into that year’s tournament via a one-table satellite, besting Rod Peate — who also won his seat via a satellite — heads-up to win. “Texans got some competition!” said McEvoy afterwards.