History of the World Series of Poker Main Event: 1990-1999

  • Martin HarrisMartin Harris
Scotty Nguyen during the last hand of the 1998 WSOP Main Event

The World Series of Poker's third decade would begin without the man most responsible for its origin, as Benny Binion passed away on Christmas Day, 1989. Benny's son, Jack, would oversee things going forward as the relatively small Binion's Horseshoe Casino faced the challenge of managing the continuing growth of what had become the most important tournament series on the poker calendar.

Eric Drache had served as the WSOP's tourney director for the better part of those first two decades, with that service, his introduction of tourney satellites, and other contributions eventually leading to his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame. After Drache ended his run with WSOP, Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland came on board to help carry the Series through the 1990s.

We continue our look at the history of the WSOP Main Event during the decade when $1 million became the standard takeaway for the champions.

1990-1999

By 1990 there were 15 events on the WSOP schedule, with the Main Event attracting 194 entrants that year to create a prize pool of almost $2 million. Fields for all the events were continuing to grow.

The fields were also becoming more diverse, with players coming to Las Vegas from a wide assortment of locales and bringing with them different levels of poker-playing experience. Long gone were the days of the WSOP being populated by a small group of full-time poker pros — many from Texas — getting together for a few days' worth of card-playing.

As an illustration of the change, that year saw the first non-American winner of the WSOP Main Event. The Iranian-born Mansour Matloubi — then a restaurant owner living in London whose primary game was pot-limit Omaha — defeated Reno-based pro Hans "Tuna" Lund in a heads-up match that featured one of the more fascinating hands of any WSOP Main Event.

With Lund barely in front of Matloubi in chips, a hand developed that saw Lund check-raise a {9-Spades}{2-Clubs}{4-Diamonds} flop then watch Matloubi shove all in over the top. After considering a few minutes, Lund called to show {A-Clubs}{9-Diamonds} (a pair of nines) only to discover Matloubi had a better pair with {10-Clubs}{10-Diamonds}.

After a pause, the turn card was then delivered — the {A-Spades}! Suddenly Lund was way in front in the hand with two pair (aces and nines) while Matloubi down to needing one of two outs — the two remaining tens in the deck — to survive.

You might guess what happened next. Here's a clip of the hand as shown on ESPN:

That's Poker Hall of Famer David "Chip" Reese helping Chris Marlowe with the commentary, and Reese's proclamation after that {10-Spades} falls on fifth street that "this is without question the most incredible hand in the history of the World Series of Poker" isn't hyperbole. There had never been a hand with more riding on it — and with more dramatic twists — in the previous 20 years of the WSOP.

It didn't take much longer for Matloubi to claim the last of Lund's suddenly-short stack to win the $895,000 first prize.

The following year saw the Main Event's field increase to 215 and the first prize set at $1 million for the first time in its history, exactly 100 times the $10,000 buy-in.

The first prize remained at $1 million through 1999 as the Main Event fields continued to grow. A total of 393 played in 1999, just over twice what the tournament had drawn at the start of the decade, with Noel Furlong of Ireland winning and two other Irishmen finishing in the top seven — Padraig Parkinson (third) and George McKeever (seventh).

The WSOP's 25th anniversary — its "silver" anniversary — was marked in 1994 by a bonus prize of the winner's weight in silver, which meant the 330-pound Russ Hamilton earned an extra $28,512 for his win. That was considerably more than would have been the case for second-place Hugh Vincent or third-place finisher John Spadavecchia, each of whom weighed less than 180 lbs.

Poker Hall of Famer and noted strategy author Dan Harrington won the title in 1995, and perennial Poker Hall of Fame nominee Huck Seed was the champion in 1996.

Another inductee, Scotty Ngyuen, also earned his Main Event bracelet during the 1990s (in 1998). Just before the conclusion of that year's final hand, Nguyen uttered one of the most-quoted lines in WSOP Main Event history to his heads-up opponent Kevin McBride — "You call, gonna be all over, baby" — just before McBride did call... and it was all over. (The shot above shows Nguyen announcing his final all-in during the climactic hand.)

History of the World Series of Poker Main Event: 1990-1999 101
Three-time WSOP Main Event champion Stu Ungar's legacy hangs over the game's history.

It was 1997, however, that provided the decade's most memorable Main Event at the WSOP, the year Stu Ungar managed to achieve a remarkable feat by winning his third WSOP Main Event title after topping a field of 312.

Ungar's win came in a unique setting — out on Fremont Street on a huge stage, the only time a WSOP Main Event final table took place outdoors. Some have suggested the move was made to accommodate the increase in spectators wanting to see Ungar, although others have pointed out it had more to do with ongoing renovations at the Horseshoe.

Whatever the reason for the change in venue, the conditions were less than ideal with temperatures nearing 100 degrees and windy conditions requiring the community cards to be held down with a clear plastic protector.

In his ESPN commentary of the 1997 final table, Gabe Kaplan compared Ungar's comeback many years later to seek another title to Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters in 1986 when the golfer's last major title coming several years after his previous one at the ripe age of 46.

Ungar was 44 when he won in 1997, no longer "The Kid" as had been his nickname when he won in 1980 and 1981. Alas for Ungar, it would be his last WSOP Main Event as he died the following year, making the 1997 ME title both his comeback and farewell.

Here's a look at the WSOP Main Event results from the 1990s:

YearChampionMain Event EntrantsFirst Prize
1990Mansour Matloubi194$895,000
1991Brad Daugherty215$1,000,000
1992Hamid Dastmalchi201$1,000,000
1993Jim Bechtel220$1,000,000
1994Russ Hamilton268$1,000,000
1995Dan Harrington273$1,000,000
1996Huck Seed295$1,000,000
1997Stu Ungar312$1,000,000
1998Scotty Nguyen350$1,000,000
1999Noel Furlong393$1,000,000

And here are a few other items of note from the WSOP's third decade:

  • By winning a third title, Ungar equaled Johnny Moss's record of three WSOP championships (1970, 1971, 1974), the first of which did not come by winning a tournament but rather as a result of being voted that year's "Best All-Around Player."
  • Like Matloubi, 1992 champion Hamid Dastmalchi was born in Iran. Lund again made a deep run that year's Main Event to finish third, and in fact lost another two-outer — to Dastmalchi — in a decisive hand during three-handed play.
  • The decrease in participation at 1992 WSOP Main Event marked the first decline in field size since the "freeze-out" tournament format was introduced in 1971. There wouldn't be a decrease in Main Event participation again until 2007.
  • In 1995, Barbara Enright became the first — and so far only — woman ever to make the WSOP Main Event final table, finishing fifth.
  • ESPN continued to cover the WSOP Main Event through 1998, with the exception of 1996 when there was no coverage. In 1999, the Discovery Channel began a three-year run of covering the ME. As the clip above shows, there was no "hole card camera" to aid commentators or show viewers what players held (that wouldn't come until the 2000s).
  • In 1998, Matt Damon and Edward Norton played in the Main Event as part of the publicity effort for their new poker-themed film, Rounders, which premiered a few months later. Damon was eliminated from the tournament by two-time ME champion Doyle Brunson.

Tomorrow we'll move ahead to the 2000s to discuss the WSOP's explosion in popularity, the move from Binion's to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, and the introduction of the "November Nine."

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