2021 World Series of Poker

Four Memorable WSOP Main Events

The WSOP Main Event champion earns a place in history.

The World Series of Poker Main Event has produced countless amazing moments over the years. There's something indelible about becoming a world champion in any competitive arena, after all.

But even among those moments, a few stand out as the most poignant or the most historically significant. Here, PokerNews will run down four of the most standout WSOP Main Events, ones that left a mark on the game for good, represented incredible accomplishments or just reflected a seismic shift in the industry.

1988: Chan's Iconic Victory

In 1988, Johnny Chan was at the top of the poker world. He had just won the WSOP Main Event the year prior in a field of 152, and with two bracelets in his early 30s, had a promising career as one of the top players in the world ahead of him.

Few would have imagined he'd already cement legend status before the year's end, but that's exactly what happened.

While making back-to-back final tables was a bit easier in those days due to fields in the triple digits, competition was still stiff without the hordes of recreational opponents that fill the tables of modern WSOPs. Chan did just that, though, and he'd find himself heads up with fellow up-and-coming pro Erik Seidel, cashing for the first time in the big one.

Johnny Chan
Johnny Chan reached legend status in 1988.

Their heads-up match finished on one of the most replayed hands in poker history.

Chan limped in and Seidel checked, bringing a {q-Spades}{8-Diamonds}{10-Hearts} flop. He bet the flop and called a small check-raise from Seidel after double-checking his holding. Chan seemed almost bored as he checked back the {2-Spades} turn, as if he'd mentally moved on to the next hand.

Of course, that's exactly what he wanted Seidel to think, and Seidel's shove on the {6-Diamonds} river with top pair was met with Chan standing up, turning his cards over and perfunctorily sliding in some chips for completion's sake.

The moment resonated enough with Brian Koppelman and David Levien that it eventually played a key role in their script for "Rounders," the movie that inspired a generation of poker players.

1997: Ungar's Final Act

In the 1980s, few players had brighter futures in poker than Stu Ungar. A two-time WSOP Main Event champion after he burst onto the scene and won in 1980 and 1981, Ungar cashed for hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next 10 years but tailed off by the mid-1990s as drugs and poor money management caused him to fall to ruin.

When a debt-ridden Ungar showed up for the 1997 WSOP Main Event after securing backing from Billy Baxter, he was anything but the favorite, with but a single cash in the previous six years.

However, Ungar managed to fight off his demons and make a run through the 312-player field to the final table.

"Someone literally living in a homeless state, and all of a sudden, next minute, he's a millionaire."

That final table, in an unusual set-up, memorably took place outside in the Vegas heat, on a sunny day with an occasional breeze relieving the players and the crowd in the "bleachers." There Ungar sat in a brown long-sleeved shirt, nose wrecked by years of cocaine abuse, eyes behind circular blue sunglasses. Footage can be seen in this documentary available on YouTube.

When the final card was dealt and Ungar defeated John Strzemp II heads up, Ungar clapped his hands and hardly looked surprised, but his comeback had shocked many in the poker world.

"Someone literally living in a homeless state, and all of a sudden, next minute, he's a millionaire," said poker historian and Ungar biographer Nolan Dalla in the documentary.

Aged 43, Ungar had a chance to turn things around with a fresh bankroll. But, his old demons took hold of him, and just over a year later, he was found dead in a Vegas motel room. The memorable comeback in 1997 would be his final recorded cash.

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2003: Moneymaker Changes Poker Forever

Perhaps no single moment in poker history can match Chris Moneymaker's unforgettable run to the 2003 WSOP Main Event title.

It all started with the WSOP making a historic decision to offer satellite entries to poker's biggest event through partnered online poker sites. The online game was only a few years old and had yet to really catch on in a major way.

Tennessee accountant and recreational gambler Moneymaker entered a super-satellite by accident and won a seat into a tournament that awarded three WSOP packages. Despite angling for the fourth-place finish initially — he preferred to pocket a quick $8,000 — Moneymaker wound up winning a seat after a friend talked him into going for it in exchange for buying some action.

A small-time rec player who frequented the smokey rooms of Tunica versus the best in the world? Norman Chad famously called it inconceivable, but it come into being it did as Moneymaker conquered the 839-entry field to win $2.5 million. Of course, it helps to have a little luck against the world's best.

Sure, other factors like the availability of the game online and the World Poker Tour's TV breakthrough contributed to poker's boom, but Moneymaker authored a story that came at the perfect time in the perfect manner with the perfect name. The ESPN coverage played it all up perfectly and folks around the world started trying to figure out this hold'em game so they could be next.

That makes the 2003 WSOP arguably the most memorable of all.

Chris Moneymaker
Moneymaker remains a marquee name at the WSOP.

2006: The Last Echo of the Boom

After Moneymaker's landmark win, the WSOP surged, becoming so big that the very halls in which it had been born at Binion's could no longer contain it. First 2,576 the next year, 5,619 in 2005.

In 2006, the most massive turnout yet crammed into the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. When the final $10,000 was logged, there were 8,773 entries for a staggering prize pool of $82,512,162 — a record to this day for any tournament.

One name stood out above the rest in the ESPN coverage as the updated chip counts were shown throughout the latter day of the event: Jamie Gold. Gold's staggering chip counts dwarfed those of the other players, particularly as the tournament wound close to the final table.

And it wasn't only his chip count that had opponents wary when tangling with Gold. Gold's table talk bewildered opponents to into blundering into his nut hands and folding to his airballs.

He seemed made for the camera, playing up each encounter and even playing off his previous gab to fake the other players out. He knew what he'd said days before when he'd shown a bluff, and he went to the same lines the next time he had the nuts.

Jamie Gold
Gold rarely had a quiet moment in 2006.

When it was all over, he'd won a record $12 million, gathering an unprecedented prize for collecting an unprecedented number of chips against an unprecedented number of opponents. He even inspired an infamous rule change that's debated to this day.

The gravy train, while not about to screech to a halt, was about to lose some steam, though. The first wave of anti-poker legislation came in the following months, and the fracturing of the industry led to a decline in the size of the WSOP.

While it came close in 2019, the Main Event has yet to reach those 2006 heights in the years since.

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Last Chances to Play GGPoker $25 Million GTD Main Event

The WSOP Main Event may not be taking place in the hallowed grounds of the Amazon Room this year, but that doesn't mean poker players have no chance to compete for millions in prize money and the honor of WSOP Main Event champion.

It may be slightly different and hold half the buy-in, but GGPoker and the WSOP have teamed up for the $5,000 Main Event online.

What's more, they've attached a staggering and highly ambitious $25 million guarantee, making it one of the biggest tournaments in the history of online poker.

Time is running out to join in the historic event, which just may offer an overlay with 16 flights in the books, three remaining and only about half of the guarantee met. The weekend flights will offer the final chances for the $25 million to be met, and either way, players have an opportunity to be a part of the biggest online bracelet event ever.

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  • Some of the greatest WSOP moments came in 1988, 1997, 2003 and 2006.

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