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The World Series of Poker - Part II

by James McManus |  Published: Aug 06, 2008


Since 1973, Benny Binion and sons Jack and Ted had run the tournament with Eric Drache as their principal lieutenant. In '79, they established the Poker Hall of Fame, essentially a row of plaques hung along a wall of the Horseshoe — a Wall of Fame, then, in the cathedral of tournament poker. Four of the charter members were fairly obvious choices: Johnny Moss, Nick Dandalos, Felton McCorquodale, and Wild Bill Hickok. The other three were "all-around player" Red Winn, about whom little else is known; casino owner and high-stakes player Sid Wyman; and Sir Edmond Hoyle, the white-wigged London authority on whist and other card games who died in 1769, decades before the first hand of poker was dealt - though by 1979, playing "according to Hoyle," by the rules, that is, was probably used in poker at least as much as in any other card game.

The Binion team also realized that a legitimate world championship would eventually have to involve more than three
or four-dozen contestants. But given that only a handful of pros and well-to-do amateurs could afford to risk $10,000 in a winner-take-all freezeout, what was to be done?

Drache claims he came up with the idea of one-table, $1,000 feeder tournaments by accident in either '78 or '79. Noticing that about $10,000 in chips were at stake on one of the Horseshoe's no-limit tables, the light bulb switched on. He suggested that the players put up $1,000 each and play winner-take-all for a seat in the main event, which they did as soon as 10 had agreed. In 1978, Drache also began paying the top five places, instead of just a single survivor. He figured a more gradual payout structure would tempt a few extra players to try their luck against the veteran road gamblers. It worked. Fifty-four hopefuls entered the main event in '79, when 9 percent of the field was paid, ranging from $27,000 for fifth (Johnny Moss) to $270,000 for the winner.

The kicker was that first-place money and the bracelet went to Hal Fowler, a public relations executive in his late 50s from Ventura, California. In a bona fide secular miracle, the PR man had arrived at the final table with 2,000 of the 540,000 in chips in play. Making the odds against him even more prohibitive, he was up against the likes of Moss, Crandall Addington, Bobby Baldwin, and a young cocaine-addicted poker genius out of Houston by the name of Bobby Hoff. Yet, Fowler somehow managed to surf a tsunami of luck — hitting inside-straight draws, backdooring flushes, sucking out in huge hands, all while popping as many as 20 Valiums for his nerves — to a showdown with Hoff. Handicappers rated Hoff, called "The Wizard," among the strongest no-limit hold'em players alive at the time. It was laughable to believe he would have any trouble with Fowler.

Almost three decades later, long after he had kicked his drug habit, Hoff still gets emotional about the result. Heads up, he had used his talent and experience to chop away at the overmatched amateur's chip stack. "I won all of the little pots, but every time we had a big confrontation and a big pot, Hal won every single one." We can hear the pain in Hoff's voice as he recalled for journalist Dana Smith the nastiest series of beats ever suffered at the main event's final table. To take but one example, Fowler called all in with second pair against Hoff's top pair. "With one card to come, I had two queens and a six kicker," said Hoff. "Hal had two jacks and a king kicker. He had all of his money in the pot, and I still had 150,000 in chips." Fowler, of course, caught a king on the river. In the next big hand, both players pushed all in on the turn with the same straight, but Hoff had a diamond-flush redraw — and no diamond came. As rodeo rider and bracelet winner Byron "Cowboy" Wolford observed fatalistically, "The luck of the draw can make you rich and famous or send you to the rail whimpering and broke. If a diamond had come, you'd be the world champion — but it didn't and so you aren't."

Yet, the final hand really took the cake. Hoff squinted down between his knuckles at the A and the … A. He made a substantial preflop raise, which Fowler impetuously called with 7-6 offsuit. On a flop of J-5-3, Hoff bet half of his remaining chips. Fowler thought for a moment, dragging deeply on a cigarette, then made the call with nothing but an inside-straight draw: four outs. When the inevitable 4 appeared on the turn, the rest of the money went in. As Slim Preston put it, the lamb had just slaughtered the butcher. T.J. Cloutier called it the biggest upset in the history of poker. "You could've played as good as God can play and still not have beaten Hal on that day." There's also no doubt that thousands of ordinary players found it cause for a compensatory toast.

Fowler defended his clearly incorrect call with the classic novice's rationale: "I had a feeling [a 4] was going to fall on fourth or fifth street. I play my hunches. Sometimes when you have a hunch, it means something." Not surprisingly, the '79 main event would prove to be the only WSOP tournament in which he ever cashed. It would be another 23 years before so rank an amateur would win it again.

In part because of "the Fowler Effect," 73 players proved willing to risk $10,000 to challenge the bracelet-laden Texans amid the stagflation of 1980. "Ten dimes" wasn't what it used to be, and besides — if a short-stacked novice like Fowler had beaten the likes of Hoff, Moss, and Brunson by catching some cards, a lot of serious amateurs thought, "Hell, I can too!" They included a pair of Nebraska ranch hands calling themselves "Maverick Mike" and "Buffalo Butch," San Diego's Barbara Freer, Ireland's Collette Doherty, fierce and beautiful Betty Carey, and the 35-year-old star of Welcome Back, Kotter, Gabe Kaplan. Meanwhile, the Binions had struck a deal with a start-up cable outfit, unpromisingly called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, to broadcast the poker World Series.

This was also the year in which Stuey "The Kid" Ungar arrived at the Horseshoe. He also quite simply arrived. An out-of-control gambler and nearly unbeatable gin artist from the lower east side of New York — "hands down the greatest player that's ever lived or maybe that will ever live," said an expert who saw him play many times — Ungar had recently taken up poker because he'd run out of gin victims, even when he spotted them a peek at the bottom card of the deck. Gin tournament officials banned him because people avoided any events that he played. He was also an obnoxious winner and a terrible sport when he did lose the occasional match.

But gin was one thing; no-limit hold'em was dominated by Texans who had more or less invented it. These were tough, savvy veterans who tended toward physical amplitude. Brunson was six-three and 300 pounds, Hoff and Baldwin about the same height. Preston was a lanky six-five in his custom cowboy boots with SLIM stitched in contrasting leather up their sides. In stocking feet, Treetop Straus was six-six. Ungar was barely five-four and weighed 110 pounds. At 25, he was the youngest player in a field that believed hard-bitten experience was the only way to learn what they called "The Cadillac of Poker Games." In his Rolling Stones haircut and skinny black pants, the Kid could have passed for 18, and he'd been playing hold'em for only a few months. The photographic memory he deployed to annihilate gin opponents would have been invaluable if the WSOP championship were decided by stud, but in hold'em, it was relatively useless.

Yet, Ungar's phenomenal card sense and IQ of 185 helped him in all games, of course. And even though a freezeout didn't allow him to buy more chips if he lost his initial 10,000, he began the main event with his usual hell-bent aggression. "I just have to make myself hate my opponents," he said. "I just want to rip their throats out." Once he had doubled through to 21,000, the freezeout aspect worked even more heavily in his favor. Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson's biography perfectly captures his tablemates' predicament: "Many players who bought in for 10,000 and a chance to play in the world's most prestigious poker event wanted to savor the experience for as long as possible. Their fear of elimination played right into the hands of Stuey, whose cutthroat style definitely served him well. He immediately sized up those players who were content to wait patiently for a good hand — and even then were loathe to lose too many chips to it — and when he sensed any weakness in them, he put them to the test."

By the end of day 2, Ungar was in second place among 16 survivors, with 93,500. Holding better than a 2-to-1 chip lead, however, was the crowd favorite, Kaplan, a talented mimic of Texans and Irishmen who also did a mean Groucho Marx. His biggest hand so far had come against Robert "Red" Bone, an Arkansas commodities trader and friend of Gov. Bill Clinton who was advising Hillary Rodham as she traded cattle futures, occasionally executing orders when her account had insufficient funds to cover them. Bone, in any case, flopped a set of tens against Kaplan and bet out on every street, pushing all in on the river when he made a full house. Kaplan, who had slow-played aces full, was only too happy to call, knocking out Bone and taking the lead in the tournament.

On the young side but no beginner, Kaplan had recently beaten stud artists Baldwin and Bill Boyd in $100,000 heads-up matches, and won the Super Bowl of Poker in Reno, outlasting a no-limit hold'em field even tougher than the one here at Binion's, which now included a sizable fraction of tourists. If Kaplan could hold on and win the main event, as bookies had made him a 5-2 favorite to do, it would be a major PR coup for the Series.

On day 3, however, the bearded comedian suffered a string of bad beats that not only kept him from winning, but made him the "Bubble Boy" — eliminated in sixth place, that is, when only five would be paid. What Kaplan called "the last straw" was a hand against Moss, who had raised from the button with the A 8. Kaplan, in the big blind, just called with 4-4. When the flop came J 6 4, Kaplan led out with a sizeable bet. "Moss thought for a few seconds," says Kaplan, "and then in his Texas drawl said, 'All raht, Ah'm all in.' He even removed his Rolex and put it on top of his chips." Kaplan called with the rest of his chips, adding his own watch and ring for good measure. "John, if you have three jacks, you might as well take my ring also." (Jewelry, of course, doesn't actually play in a tournament.) After the holecards were exposed, Kaplan, a 3-1 favorite, watched the dealer turn a fatal diamond then fail to pair the board on the river. Moss chuckled as he raked in the chips. "If you'd had a Rolex, Ah'd have to let that bet stand too."

The other finalists were Ungar, Brunson, New York beer distributor Jay Heimowitz (who'd already won a bracelet in a $5,000 no-limit hold'em event), and another talented semipro, Charles Dunwoody. Brunson trailed the field with 44,000 at a point when Ungar led with more than 300,000, but he managed to outplay and outdraw the other veterans to finish heads up with the Kid.

With 310,000 to Ungar's 420,000, Texas Dolly was still made a 6-5 favorite by bookie Jackie Gaughan to win his third championship. Dolly took $50,000 of that action, though he had plenty of respect for his diminutive opponent. "In all the years I've played poker," he said, "I don't think I've ever seen another player that actually improved as the tournament went along. He used the World Series and all of us as a training ground."

Ungar also got lucky, as anyone who wins any tournament must. On the final hand, with the chips fairly even, Brunson was dealt the A 7, Ungar the 5 4. As Brunson recalled with impressive humility, "I made two mistakes in the same hand, one of the worst plays I've ever made. Before the flop I brought it in for a raise and Stu called, making about 17,000 in the pot." The flop came off A-7-2, giving Brunson the top two pair, Ungar an inside-straight draw — the same four outs that Fowler had against Hoff. "A lot of time in this situation," Brunson said, "I would bet big (overbet the pot) to throw off my opponent, but this time I decided to trap Stu and so I only bet the size of the pot, 17,000. Stu called. That was my first mistake." He went on: "When a three came on the turn, Stu led at the pot for around 30,000, and I moved all in. Stu called. That was my second mistake. I should've just flat-called, because at the river, when a deuce fell that paired the board and also made a flush possible, Stu would've shut down — and I wouldn't have got broke to the hand."

Having played no-limit hold'em for just a few months, Ungar had beaten a field that had been playing, on average, for at least a dozen years to become poker's youngest, and still most notorious, champion. The next afternoon, he lost the entire $385,000 prize gambling with Brunson and others at golf, a game he had never played before in his life.

The '81 Series was covered by hundreds of journalists, including Curt Gowdy for NBC Sports, and for The New Yorker by, of all people, a London poet and critic by the name of Al Alvarez. The book he produced, The Biggest Game in Town, is a comprehensive account of the championship as it began to mature into its second decade. Few books on any game have been received with as much enthusiasm over so long a period. Casual poker players and world-class professionals continue to revel in its lapidary prose, sage hold'em insight, and droll use of cowboy patois.

Biggest Game naturally concludes with the main event, in which 75 players competed for shares of a record $750,000 purse, half of it reserved for first place. Infusing the hand-to-hand combat with as much drama as any sporting event, Alvarez demonstrates once and for all that an understated prose account of poker action is quite a bit more exciting than watching the game in person, or even on television with holecards revealed.

Perry Green, a big-hearted Orthodox Jewish furrier from Anchorage, outlasted every pro to finish heads up with Ungar — who was Jewish himself, though extravagantly not Orthodox. Green even managed to build a sizable chip lead, but one huge late hand put Ungar in the driver's seat. "Perry had more chips than Stuey when they got it all in," the ever-present Brunson recalled. "The flop came J-9-8 with two clubs. Perry had the 10-2 of clubs, but Stuey had the A-J of clubs. The fourth card was a 6 and the last one was a blank — but if that 6 had been a 7, Perry could have won the tournament with a straight and it would have been the third time that a 10-2 had won it. As it turned out, Stuey won a 560,000 pot that turned the tide."

On the final hand, Ungar was dealt the A Q, Green the 10 9. When Green raised to 16,000, the Kid reraised him to 41,000. Looking unhappy, Green called. On a flop of 8 7 4, Ungar, with the nut-flush draw and two overcards, bet the last 78,000 that his opponent had left. Green, with an open-end straight draw, reluctantly said, "I call." When the straight failed to materialize and another queen needlessly spiked on the river, Ungar leapt from his seat and said, "Hey!" He'd been playing hold'em for only about a year and a half, but he'd just notched his second world title.


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