One year before Chris Moneymaker and online poker ignited the Texas hold’em boom heard ‘round the world, another amateur player came out of nowhere to win the World Series of Poker Main Event. In May 2002, New Yorker Robert Varkonyi played the role of the upstart amid a final table of veterans and although he walked away with a $2 million payday, he never received a fraction of the media attention Moneymaker did only a year later. The eight men he defeated also missed out on the media blitz, although many of them have gone on to successful careers on the felt. Let’s take a quick trip back to 2002.
Ninth place, Minh Ly ($85,000)
Following his final table appearance at the 2002 WSOP Main Event, Minh Ly maintained his focus on cash games and was a frequent presence in the “Big Game” at Bellagio. While many of his contemporaries in the high-stakes crowd found fame on television, the Vietnamese pro had a more difficult path toward mainstream recognition, as he speaks very heavily accented English (remember Daniel Negreanu’s uncanny impersonation of Ly in Season 2 of High Stakes Poker?). 2005, however, was a banner year for Ly. He cashed four times at the WSOP, finishing second to Johnny Chan in the $5,000 Short-Handed No-Limit Hold’em event and 19th in the Main Event. That fall, he won more than $1 million and a World Poker Tour title at the Doyle Brunson North American Poker Championship at Bellagio. Ly made two final tables at the 2008 WSOP, but has been far less visible around the tournament circuit since then.
Eighth place, Tam Minh Duong ($100,000)
Here’s a fun fact. En route to his final table appearance at the 2002 Main Event, Tam Duong eliminated a then-unknown Greg Raymer a few spots shy of the money (Raymer successfully picked off Duong’s bluff, but he made a straight on the river). Also known as “Tony D,” Duong cashed the 2003 Main Event in 40th place, but his tournament record since then has been primarily confined to lower buy-in events. Duong’s last recorded tournament cash was the $2,212 he earned for third place in a $200 Omaha 8 or better event in Reno this past February.
Seventh place, John Shipley ($125,000)
Arriving at the final table as the chip leader and bowing out in seventh place had to sting terribly, but John Shipley more than made up for his disappointing 2002 Main Event finish when he won the first-ever EPT London in 2004, earning nearly $360,000. Shipley has appeared on numerous poker television programs in his native England, including the Party Poker World Open, the Sky Sports Poker Million, and the 888.com Pacific Poker Open. Shipley has recorded another seven cashes at the WSOP since the ’02 Main Event including two final-table appearances.
Sixth place, Russell Rosenblum ($150,000)
The 2002 WSOP was only the beginning for Russell Rosenblum. Two years later he made the final table of the $25,000 buy-in WPT Championships, his fifth-place finish earning him $332,660. An attorney by profession, Rosenblum does not play full time, but has still managed to amass more than $1 million in career tournament earnings. Most recently, Rosenblum cashed the 2010 WSOP Main Event and finished second in a $1,000 NLHE side event at the 2010 Bellagio Five-Star World Poker Classic.
Fifth place, Harley Hall ($195,000)
His finish in the 2002 WSOP Main Event still marks Harley Hall’s largest single-tournament cash; however, he came close to eclipsing that number when he made the final table of the 2005 WPT L.A. Poker Classic Main Event. Hall finished in sixth place, earning himself a bit of TV time and $155,992. Since then he has only recorded one additional cash at the WSOP, a 17th-place finish in the $2,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em event in 2006.
Fourth place, Scott Gray ($281,480)
Scott Gray was a successful cash game grinder in his native Ireland long before he made his Main Event final table appearance in 2002. Although he played the European tournament circuit for a bit during the boom years, he scaled back his travel schedule in 2004 not only to spend more time with his family, but because the cash games were more profitable for him. Gray represented Ireland in the 2006 Poker Nations Cup, which was televised in the U.K. on Channel 4 and also appeared on TV in the World Speed Poker Open and the 888.com Pacific Poker Open. Earlier this month, Gray cashed in the UKIPT Dublin Main Event and is still an active online player.
Third place, Ralph Perry ($550,000)
Walk into the Bellagio poker room today and there’s still a good chance you’ll find Ralph Perry behind a chip stack in the top section. A professional cash-game player since 1992, the 2002 Main Event marked Perry’s first six-figure tournament score and he used the bankroll infusion to climb up to the highest-stakes cash games in Las Vegas. Since then, Perry has made seven more final tables at the WSOP and won his first bracelet in 2006 in the $1,500 Pot-Limit Omaha event. In 2008, he came within a whisper of the final table of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, but bubbled off in ninth place for a $177,000 score. Perry, however, is best known to poker fans for being on the receiving end of one of our own Tony G’s most infamous rants, when they played together at the Intercontinental Poker Championship in 2006. On your bike!
Second place, Julian Gardner ($1,100,000)
When he finished in second place at the 2002 WSOP Main Event, Julian Garnder was the youngest poker player ever to win $1 million in a tournament. Although that record has been broken many times over, Gardner, now 32, is still raking in the cash in both live and online events. Gardner made an additional 13 cashes and two final tables at the WSOP since 2002, finishing sixth in the $5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha event this summer for more than $91,000. Gardner is a Full Tilt red pro and a fixture on televised poker programs in the U.K., including Late Night Poker and the Full Tilt Poker Million. The Manchester native has more than $2.5 million in career tournament earnings.
First place, Robert Vankonyi ($2,000,000)
Although he was the first player to win $2 million in a single tournament, Robert Varkonyi is often referred to as the unluckiest man in poker for missing the boom by a single year. Even when he won the Main Event, his victory was overshadowed when Phil Hellmuth made good on his promise to shave his head if Varkonyi shipped the bracelet. Varkonyi found financial security, but not fame or renown after his win. He was never signed by an online poker site and did not turn pro, returning to his home in Brooklyn and his career in finance rather than embracing the Vegas lifestyle. Varkonyi’s poker career, however, has seen a bit of a mini-renaissance in the last two years. He got some ESPN face time when he finished runner-up to Tom McEvoy in the WSOP Champions Invitational in 2009, won a Venetian Deepstack event this summer for more than $65,000, and made a 14th-place finish in the $2,500 No-Limit Hold’em event at the 2010 WSOP.
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