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The Ten: Poker’s Unluckiest Players at the World Series of Poker Final Table

A Look At Those Who Came Close To WSOP Glory, But Fell Short

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Dec 14, 2011


To wrap up our coverage of the 2011 World Series of Poker, we are bringing you a special edition of The Ten that includes a look at the most unlucky final table participants in the history of the main event.

John StrzempNo. 10 – A Fremont Street Nightmare

John Strzemp had no business playing on the same table as Stu Ungar for the main event championship in 1997, but if it wasn’t for an unfortunate river card, perhaps he would have took home the bracelet, preventing Ungar from nabbing his third career title.

Strzemp, who was a former executive for the Mirage Casino and is now the Executive Vice President of Wynn Resorts, got the last of his chips in the middle holding A-8 against Ungar’s A-4. A low flop gave Ungar a straight draw and it came in on the river. The real bad beat, of course, is that Ungar never managed to hang on to that $1 million first-place prize. Just over a year later, Ungar was found dead in a hotel room from a drug overdose.

Mike McClainNo. 9 — The Agony Of Defeat Guy Gets Defeated

Greg Raymer won the 2004 main event thanks to an incredible amount of skill and a lot of luck. Up until the final table however, his luck mostly came in the form of winning coinflips. Then Mike McClain raised in in front of him with pocket aces. Raymer put in a three-bet with pocket tens and then called McClain’s shove.

Unfortunately, McClain’s tournament life abruptly came to an end when a ten hit the flop and the turn and river failed to produce any small miracles. The previous year, McClain was immortalized in ESPN’s opening montage as the face of the agony of defeat. This time around, however, he managed to keep his emotions in check. McClain does have over $1 million in tournament earnings including a WPT final table to his credit.

Jeff ShulmanNo. 8 — Two Final Table Appearances, Two Unlucky Exits

Card Player’s very own Jeff Shulman deserves to be on this list, thanks to two unfortunate finishes at the main event final table. In 2000, the up-and-coming poker pro found himself in great position to take the title, but a bad beat at the hands of eventual winner Chris Ferguson ended his run in seventh place when his pocket sevens were outdrawn by pocket sixes.

In 2009, Shulman once again had a shot at glory, coincidentally in the same year that his father, Barry Shulman, won the WSOP Europe main event title. However, during five-handed play, Shulman’s jacks were cracked by surging Joe Cada’s pocket threes and he was eliminated a short while later after losing a coinflip.

Tom JacobsNo. 7 — Second Place Gets Paid What?

Tom Jacobs doesn’t make this list because of any particular bad beat at the table. Instead, he gets mentioned thanks to the bad beat Binion’s put on him at the cage. Jacobs finished runner-up in the 1992 main event for $353,500. The only problem was that the winner, Hamid Dastmalchi, picked up a cool $1 million, (nearly half the prize pool) despite beating a field of only 201 players. Talk about a top-heavy payout structure.

The winner’s prize of $1 million remained consistent for the next seven years, despite the fact that the field doubled in size. When Noel Furlong won his seven-figure score in 1999, second-place finisher Alan Goehring picked up $768,625, more than double Jacob’s payout.

Phil IveyNo. 6 — Nightmares About A-Q

Anybody who has seen Phil Ivey on the World Poker Tour knows just how much A-Q has cost him in big buy-in main events. It’s no different at the WSOP either, where twice he has been eliminated by A-Q at the main event final table.

In 2003, at the unofficial final table of ten, Ivey went head to head against former Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker, who eventually went on to win the tournament. Moneymaker’s A-Q made trips on the flop, Ivey turned a full house with his pocket nines and then Moneymaker spiked a 7 outer to make a higher boat and knock out his biggest threat at the table. When Ivey made it back to the final table in 2009, he was all in holding A-K against Darvin Moon and his A-Q. Of course, a queen hit the table, sending him to the rail in seventh place.

Crandall AddingtonNo. 5 — 7 Final Table Appearances, Only 1 Cash

Crandall Addington was already a self-made millionaire when he started playing at the WSOP as one of its original competitors. Despite battling it out with some of poker’s most notorious gamblers, Addington more than held his own, making the WSOP main event final table an incredible seven times, including two runner-up finishes. It’s a record that still stands to this day.

Of course, his winnings for those seven finishes only amounted to $84,000, which he earned for losing to Bobby Baldwin in 1978. Until that year, the main event was played with a winner-take-all format, meaning more often than not, he walked away with nothing to show for his efforts. Addington quit playing poker full time in the ’80s to become the CEO of a cancer treatment research company, but he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2005.

Dewey TomkoNo. 4 — Always The Bridesmaid, Never The Bride

Dewey Tomko has three WSOP bracelets, but the big one has always eluded him. Tomko, a former kindergarten teacher, began playing poker when he realized just how profitable the game could be.

In 1982, Tomko finished runner-up in the main event to Jack Straus. Of course, there’s no shame in losing to a poker legend. Then 19 years later in 2001, Tomko once again found himself heads-up, this time against Carlos Mortensen. On his final hand, Tomko’s pocket aces were cracked by Mortensen’s rivered straight. Though Tomko must be proud of his poker accomplishments and over $5 million in career earnings, he is undoubtedly haunted by the two main event bracelets that were almost his.

Bobby HoffNo. 3 — The Pro Loses To The Amateur

You know about Jamie Gold, Jerry Yang and even Robert Varkonyi, but the first true amateur to win the WSOP main event was Hal Fowler, who had previously worked as an advertising executive. The man he beat heads-up was Bobby Hoff, a former poker dealer turned high-stakes pro.

Hoff and Fowler battled heads-up for over 10 hours before the final hand was dealt. Hoff picked up pocket aces, but the amateur’s 7-6 offsuit managed to turn a gutshot straight, leaving Hoff embarrassed and without a bracelet. It is reported that Hoff had nightmares about the heads-up match for several weeks afterwards and even accused Fowler of taking drugs to help him during the final table. Nobody wants to lose to an amateur.

Mike MatusowNo. 2 — Goes From Final Table Favorite To Out In Ninth Place

Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny the talent that Mike Matusow displays at a poker table. The man known as “The Mouth” has 3 WSOP bracelets and over $7.4 million in career earnings, but is perhaps known more for his famous blowups than for his tournament finishes.

Matusow has made the main event final table twice, but has never finished higher than sixth place. In 2005, just a short while after being released from a six-month stint in jail, Matusow cruised through the 5,619-player field to the final table, where he was considered the favorite to take home the title. Unfortunately for him, he ran pocket kings into Scott Lazar’s pocket aces early on and then got sucked out on by Steve Dannenmann later on to bust in ninth place. At the time of his eliminations, Matusow quipped, “There’s no justice when I play great.” Perhaps not.

T.J. CloutierNo. 1 — Four Final Table Finishes, No Main Event Titles

These days, T.J. Cloutier is more known for the time he spends playing craps and his resemblance to a cookie than for his poker accomplishments. That’s a shame, because the former Canadian Football League pro has six WSOP bracelets to his credit and four top-five finishes in the main event.

His first of two runner-up finishes occurred in 1985, when he lost a long match to Bill Smith. In 2000 Cloutier had a second crack at the big one, but ultimately fell just short to eventual champion Chris Ferguson. Cloutier had clawed back from a big deficit to pull nearly even, but his A-Q was rivered by Ferguson’s A-9 to end his shot at the title.