The 2019 World Series of Poker is at last over, with the milestone of it being the 50th running of the series having earned a lot of notice. So did other celebrated Main Event milestones.
The 10th anniversary of Joe Cada setting the record as the youngest ever Main Event champion got some attention when 21-year-old Nick Marchington made the final table with a chance of setting a new mark before getting knocked out in seventh.
The 20th anniversary of 61-year-old Noel Furlong’s Main Event win in 1999 was recalled as well when 55-year-old Hossein Ensan claimed this year’s title, making him the oldest winner in two decades.
And given Phil Hellmuth’s prominence at the WSOP and on the Main Event broadcasts, you knew the 30th anniversary of his Main Event win in 1989 wouldn’t go unnoticed.
This year also marked the 40th anniversary of what was arguably one of the most historic WSOP Main Events. In 1979, Hal Fowler stunned the poker world by topping a field made up primarily of professional players to become the first ever amateur to win poker’s most prestigious title.
Thereafter observers spoke of the “Fowler Effect” — kind of a proto-version of the “Moneymaker Effect” that arrived nearly a quarter century later to help ignite the “poker boom” and ultimately contribute toward the induction of 2003 Main Event winner Chris Moneymaker into the Poker Hall of Fame. (Coincidentally, the PHoF was first introduced at the 1979 WSOP with an inaugural class of seven that included Johnny Moss, Wild Bill Hickok, and Edmond Hoyle.)
“Every Friday-night poker player now feels he has a chance against the pros,” said Jack Binion in a press release delivered just before the following year’s WSOP, referring to response to Fowler’s surprise win.
“Truth is that anyone can win,” said Binion. “All anyone needs to enter the series is money, self-confidence, an ability to play good poker, guts and the ambition to best the pros.”
During this summer’s WSOP I spent some time exploring the Special Collections at the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, including studying materials from the 1979 World Series of Poker. Now that this year’s Main Event is over, I wanted to share a few of the more interesting stories from 40 years ago, including a few of the lesser known details tucked away in those archives.
1. Kenny Rogers was there to sing poker’s new “theme song”
That year CBS produced a one-hour broadcast of the Main Event, with the television crew and other media helping contribute to a very crowded environment at the Horseshoe. In a write-up of the event for Gambling Times, Len Miller described the scene as “too cramped,” with the TV crew, news photographers, lighting set-ups, and “hoards of spectators” together providing “the makings of a congested freeway with all the charm of rush-hour traffic.”
By then “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers had been out for about six months, having reached No. 1 on the country charts and crossed over to be a hit on the Billboard Hot 100 as well. The CBS broadcast actually began and ended with “The Gambler,” and in fact Rogers was there at Binion’s Horseshoe to perform the song as well.
It was clear by then that “The Gambler” had already become a cultural phenomenon. Less than a year later, the first of a series of television movies inspired by the song and starring Rogers would appear on CBS.
On the program, host Frank Glieber talked to Rogers about the song that Glieber says “may become a standard, I guess, for poker players.”
“It’s so funny, because every time I go places now, people will say to me, ‘you gotta know when to hold’em and know when to fold’em,'” says Rogers. “And I keep thinking about how many times I’ve sat down at these tables and didn’t know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”
At another point in the show, Glieber and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder handicap the field, with Glieber asking Snyder, “Does a non-professional have a chance?”
“I don’t think there are many non-professionals in here,” answers Snyder. “They’re professional in their own hometown, but when they get here, they’re not quite as professional because the great professionals are here.”
2. Among the amateurs… a marine biologist?
Play began at Binion’s Horseshoe on Tuesday, May 22 at 1:30 p.m. with 54 players putting up the $10,000 buy-in plus $50 entry fee. (That’s right — $50.)
A handwritten ledger provides details regarding all 54 paid entrants, along with each player’s hometown and occupation. The 52-year-old Fowler’s hometown is listed as Los Angeles with his occupation “public relations.” Miller notes how Fowler was from Norwalk, a suburb of L.A., where he had “bowed out of his weekly game with the boys at home to become a contestant in this event.”
Meanwhile the pros are especially well represented. Not only was Johnny Moss part of the field, but so were nine other players who would later join Moss in the Poker Hall of Fame: Crandall Addington, Doyle Brunson, Walter “Puggy” Pearson, “Amarillo” Slim Preston, David “Chip” Reese, Brian “Sailor” Roberts, Jack Straus, Dewey Tomko, and the previous year’s Main Event winner Bobby Baldwin.
Around half of the entrants have occupations indicating something other than poker or gambling as their primary vocation. Two women participated — Barbara Freer (who had been the first woman to play the Main the year before) and Betty Carey. In Miller’s account, he reports the field was comprised of 47 professionals and seven amateurs.
Among the latter group was actor and comedian Gabe Kaplan of Brooklyn, New York, returning to play the Main for a second time. Take a look at how he’s listed among the participants registering for the event:
Check out that hometown — Manila, Phillipines [sic]. And that occupation — marine biologist.
It gets even better. Look closely at Kaplan’s name. It has been written over top of another one, that of the defending champ, Bobby Baldwin. It’s hard not to imagine a scene at the registration table in which Kaplan had been asked three questions, and in response he delivered an inspired triple-barrel bluff.
On the CBS broadcast, host Frank Glieber spoke with Kaplan following his early Day 1 exit, asking him “When did you get serious about this game?”
“I’m still not serious about it. Couldn’t you tell by the way I was playing out there?” Kaplan cracked.
“Last year I was the fourth one out, and this year I was the sixth one out,” he continued. “So in another 50 years I’m going to win.”
With 54 taking part, the $540,000 prize pool would be divided among the top five finishers, with half of it — $270,000 — going to the winner.
On that first day Jack Straus (who would win the Main Event three years later) had been the first elimination, going out even before Kaplan. At the end of Day 1 Dewey Tomko led the 34 players who survived 40,375, while Fowler was in seventh position with 22,650.
Just 10 made it through Day 2, with Lakewood Louie’s royal flush versus George Huber a genuine “hand of the day” highlight. Despite that memorable hand, Louie was knocked out near the end of the night after he aces were cracked by Fowler’s pocket queens when a queen arrived on the river. It was a lucky runout that prefigured more good fortune for Fowler on the third and final day.
When players returned on Thursday, May 24, for Day 3, Sam Moon was on top with Fowler below the average in seventh. Here are the end-of-day counts:
3. The play down from 10 to 2 was bonkers
You might have known this already, but reading through various accounts of the final day of the 1979 WSOP Main Event reveals some of the wilder hands you’ll ever come across.
Leader Moon picked up pocket aces twice in the early going, first knocking out Aubrey Day (who had kings) in 10th, then Bobby Baldwin (who had eights) in ninth. In Baldwin’s elimination hand he actually flopped a set at which point he got his chips in the middle, but an ace came on the turn and Moon won the pot.
With eight players left they redrew around a single table, and before long Bobby Hoff took the chip lead after knocking out “Chicago” Sam Petrillo in eighth. Petrillo had pocket aces in his last hand, losing to Hoff’s jacks after a jack flopped. Moon next eliminated Crandall Addington in seventh, then Hoff KO’d both Chip Reese in sixth and Johnny Moss in fifth.
At one point Hoff had a big chip lead with four left with more than 60 percent of the chips in play, but Fowler pulled nearly even after scoring the next two knockouts. In the first Fowler used J♥10♣ to beat Moon’s A♣A♥, making a straight to beat Moon’s set of aces.
Hoff describes that hand in Des Wilson’s 2008 book Ghosts at the Table, presenting it as evidence that the amateur Fowler not only “didn’t seem to know what to do,” there were times when “he didn’t even know it was his turn to play.”
Before the flop Moon had raised with his aces, and with the action on Fowler the others had to tell him it was his turn. Moon got his attention by saying “Hal, throw your hand away, you know you’re not going to call.” That’s when Fowler looked at his jack-ten, said “Oh yeah, I’m going to call it,” and the flop promptly fell A-Q-K.
“He shouldn’t have been in the hand,” recalls Hoff, but Fowler was and Moon was out in fourth. Fowler then eliminated a short-stacked Huber in third to increase his stack to 260,000 to start heads-up play versus Hoff who had 280,000.
4. Heads-up was even more bonkers
It was about 9:45 p.m. when the Hoff and Fowler’s duel began. On the 12th hand between them, Fowler raised preflop then continued after the first three cards came A♠10♥K♣. Hoff kept calling, then after the J♦ fell on the turn Fowler made a massive overbet all in. Hoff folded, and Fowler showed his cards — 5♥2♦!
(It should be noted, there are a lot of conflicting accounts of the action in some of these hands. In this one, for example, some reports say Fowler had 6-2, and when Hoff recalled it for Wilson he said Fowler had 6-4. Hoff also reports he folded A-T.)
“It was a bluff, pure and simple,” states the WSOP’s typewritten account of the final table. In his Gambling Times report, Len Miller shares a quote from Hoff uttered just after, describing it as having been said “loud enough for his poker professional friends to hear”:
“This guy ain’t going to be nearly as easy as I’d thought he’d be,” said Hoff.
From there came several more remarkable hands to punctuate what would ultimately be more than five hours’ worth of heads-up play. To summarize them quickly:
1. With the board showing Q-5-2-J, Fowler was all in holding K-J (jacks) versus Hoff’s Q-6 (queens), then a jack fell on the river to give Fowler trips.
2. At around 1 a.m. Fowler was all in again with pocket jacks versus Hoff’s pocket queens, and once more “Fowler hits a J on the river” (says the report).
3. Four hands after that, Fowler won a 398,000-chip pot after pushing all in on a 9♣J♥7♦2♦Q♦ board with A♦8♦ and getting called by Hoff who had K♦6♦.
Hoff built back up, but Fowler had the edge when the final hand took place, another memorable one demonstrating Fowler’s extreme good fortune.
The typewritten account says the final hand was the 160th hand of heads-up, although it’s hard to confirm the accuracy of that total. In any case it was close to 3 a.m., or more than five hours since Huber’s elimination, when Hoff opened with a raise and Fowler called.
The flop came 5♥3♣J♠ and Hoff continued for 40,000 or about half his remaining stack, and Fowler called again. The turn was the 4♠, and after Hoff pushed all in Fowler called right away, making the pot 242,000.
Unlike today, players didn’t table their cards at that point, and so it wasn’t until after the 10♦ river was dealt that Hoff showed his A♣A♥. Fowler then turned over his hand — 7♠6♦ — to reveal he’d turned a straight. After winning Fowler sat expressionless for a few moments, hand on hip and not moving, before finally rising to shake Hoff’s hand.
Fowler had done the unthinkable. An amateur had finally won the WSOP Main Event!
Fowler’s finish was a great improvement over his first try playing the WSOP Main Event the year before when he was eliminated on Day 1. Who had knocked Fowler out of the tournament the first time he played? Bobby Hoff.
5. Fowler did not take the money and run
“Right now all of the professionals are in a state of shock,” said Fowler after his win as reported in a WSOP press release. “They have a right to be shocked, because they are so much better than I am; but, I played hard and proved I have good poker sense. That’s the one thing that won it for me.”
In other comments made by Fowler, he drew attention to one other factor that he believed helped him improve so greatly upon his performance from the previous year — namely, a particular purchase he had made.
“It was the smartest investment I ever made,” said Fowler. “I have purchased every book written on poker, but after reading Super/System when I returned home, I threw all the other books away. Doyle’s book Super/System taught me all the things I did not learn before, and every poker player in the world should buy their own personal copy. It will make a winner out of any poker player whether he plays only penny ante games right up to no-limit table stakes games.”
In a blog post from 2008, Brunson described how after Fowler won “he told me he was going to go on tour and sell 10,000 copies of Super/System. I bet him $5,000 that he wouldn’t do it and after one year I got a cashier’s check in the mail for $5,000 from Fowler.”
Other WSOP press materials emphasize Fowler’s post-victory intention to draw upon his public relations background and become a kind of ambassador for poker.
“He plans to travel for eleven (11) months throughout the United States, Canada and several other foreign countries, speaking before groups at private luncheons and dinners, on the subject of how to play World Championship Poker and explaining the game of Hold ‘Em,” explains one report.
“He is a fine World Champion and will be a great representative of poker,” adds Jack Binion.
Fowler did not, however, harbor much of a desire to become a poker pro.
Among the items in the UNLV Special Collections is an audio cassette with syndicated radio reports from the 1979 WSOP Main Event that were sent out to be played on stations all over the country. Fowler can be heard there as well being asked about his future.
“Maybe I could turn professional, but I don’t want to,” says Fowler. “I wouldn’t want the life of a professional poker player. Too much strife. Chicken today, feathers tomorrow. These people, they lose three… four hundred thousand dollars in a night!”
Despite such prudent talk, there’s another story of Fowler having apparently taken just such a risk with his winnings. Gabe Kaplan returned again in 1980 to play in the Main Event, and in the WSOP’s player profile of him for that year there is another interesting tidbit involving Fowler.
“Shortly after the completion of the Series, he took on 1979 Hold ‘Em champ Hal Fowler and 1978 champion Bobby Baldwin in separate $200,000 Heads-Up Freeze-Out games. Kaplan ended up with all the chips in both contests,” says the profile.
After busting early the first two times he played, Kaplan did much better in the 1980 Main Event. In fact, he made it all of the way to the final table where he finished sixth, although alas for him only the top five spots paid.
Fowler is sometimes said to have disappeared from poker altogether following his 1979 win, but that was not the case. Another release from the 1980 WSOP explains that “Since his win, Fowler has participated in large-stakes games with the regular poker greats, sharpening his abilities for the defense of his title in this year’s competition. Currently, he plays in the Los Angeles area in addition to Las Vegas, with occasional trips to Hong Kong.”
Indeed, Fowler is one of the 73 players listed as entering the Main Event in 1980, with a note showing he made it to Day 2 before busting. Fowler is again listed among the Main Event entrants in 1981 and 1982, but does not appear after that.
Fowler died in relative obscurity in 2000 at nursing home at age 73. Des Wilson reports that among the few possessions he left among friends at the facility was a gun and a videotape of the 1979 WSOP Main Event broadcast.
The memory of Fowler’s remarkable run lives on, however — the first time an amateur managed to win the WSOP Main Event and secure a place in history alongside other champions.
Thanks to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.