While it may seem commonplace now, the World Series of Poker wasn't always the worldwide event that it is today. In the early years of the event, it was thoroughly dominated by Americans. Over the years, however, this has changed radically.
The first international blood to break into the tournament was in 1976, when Jesse Alto (Mexico) was the runner up to Doyle Brunson in the final "winner takes all" Championship Event. Alto was an excellent player who would continue to make the final table several times in the $10,000 tournament in the years following 1976 but was never able to capture the World Championship. Alto was just a man ahead of his time though, as the 80's brought the first championships at the World Series for the international players.
The first foreign player to win a World Series of Poker event was Scotland's David Baxter in 1983. He captured his championship in the $1,500 No Limit Hold 'Em event that year and showed that poker was definitely played outside of the United States. This point was further driven home by the first trip to the final table for Irish legend Donnacha O' Dea in that same year. Baxter was to come back to the winner's circle three years later when he captured the second of his bracelets in Las Vegas and Iran's Hamid Dastmalchi (whom we will learn more about later) won his first bracelet. Other notable poker professionals such as Australia's Mel Judah and Norway's Thor Hansen wrapped up the eighties by taking World Series championships, but one name dominated this decade more than the other foreign born players and that man was Johnny Chan.
Chan, born in China, won his first bracelet in 1985 and showed the world then what was to come from him. A short two years later, "The Orient Express" became the first foreign born player to win the Championship Event and then became only the fourth man ever to go back to back when he defended his crown in 1988. Chan was only derailed from a "three-peat" in 1989 by a brash young man from Wisconsin by the name of Phil Hellmuth, otherwise he would have become the only player ever to take down three consecutive Championship Event titles. Since that time, he has gone on to take seven more bracelets, far and away leading not only the foreign born players but also (along with Doyle Brunson) to hold the lead among all World Series players.
The 90's marked the arrival of many other Asian players' arrival on the world scene. Men "The Master" Nguyen, An "The Boss" Tran, Chau Giang and Tony Ma (all from Vietnam) and David Chiu (representing China) all won their first bracelets in this decade. The nineties also saw the first foreign born double bracelet winner when Costa Rica's Humberto Brenes won two events in 1993 followed by "The Master" achieving the same feat in 1994. All totaled in the thirty six years of the World Series of Poker, over two dozen nations can claim a World Series championship won by one of their citizens (this encompasses over fifty bracelets) and many nations are competing (such as Russia, the Netherlands, Mexico and others) that have yet to crack this exclusive fraternity.
The Championship Event has been captured by six foreign born players. Including Johnny Chan, this list includes Wales' Mansour Matloubi (1990), Iran's Hamid Dastmalchi (1992), Ireland's Noel Furlong (1999), Spain's Carlos Mortensen (2001) and the defending champion of this year's tournament, Australia's Joseph Hachem. Is there the potential to add to this list for 2006?
The answer there is a definitive yes. In 2005 more than forty nations were represented at the poker tables during the World Series and that number should be surpassed this year. The only questions that remain as to the international players are how many of them will distinguish themselves on the international stage of the World Series and if a foreign born player can capture the Championship Event. Poker is the world's game, after all, and the World Series of Poker certainly proves it.
In our final two segments of the "Countdown To The World Series", we'll look back at 2005 and, as we wrap up the series before the cards fly on June 25th, we'll break out the crystal ball and see just what will happen in 2006.
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