The Roaring Eighties
Due to the ever increasing publicity that the World Series of Poker had been gaining, in addition to Jack Binion starting to take the reigns more and bring in more skilled professionals to run the tournaments, in 1982, Benny Binion's vision of the WSOP main event growing to over 100 entrants finally came to pass. It of course would grow almost a hundredfold in later years, but at the time this was seen as a major feat.
When Jack Strauss first sat down to play in this event ten years earlier, there were only a total of 8 entrants. So it was fitting that in the year this major milestone was reached, it was won by one of the original few who were involved in getting it off the ground. It was also the first time the champion's prize money exceeded half a million dollars, with Strauss pocketing $520,000 for his first place finish, along with the title he had fought for so long for. Perseverance does indeed pay off.
The 1983 main event came down to Doyle Brunson, looking for his third title, Tom McEvoy, who ended up becoming one of the game's most prolific authors, and unknown player Rod Peate. McEvoy was fresh off winning the Limit Hold'em World Championship, and Brunson was of course a legend, so it didn't seem like Peate stood much of a chance at all. However, he not only outlasted Doyle, he put up a great fight against McEvoy, and it took a record 7 hours of heads up play for Tom to finally put him away and take home the title of World Champion of Poker. Peate did end up finally winning a WSOP bracelet in 7 Card Stud Hi/Lo 12 years later.
In 1984, 140 players sat down at the main event, which was yet another record turnout at the time. The final 2 pitted 41 year old Jack "The Gentleman" Keller versus 53 year old Byron "Cowboy" Wolford, who was one of Doyle Brunson's old cronies from the Texas road gambling days. Keller was on a roll though, and had already won a bracelet for 7 Card Stud, and outlasted the Cowboy to pick up his second championship of the event, the big one, which was worth a record $660,000 to go along with the $137,000 he won in the Stud tournament.
The next year saw poker hall of famer T.J. Cloutier face off against Bill Smith. Cloutier was later to win a total of 6 WSOP bracelets, but has always lamented that he never won the big one, and this was certainly a case of close but no cigar. According to Cloutier, Smith was an alcoholic, and was a terrible player when he was sober, was outstanding when half drunk, and went back to terrible when he became more intoxicated. During the final heads up match, Cloutier was hoping that Smith would get so drunk that he'd start making big mistakes, which did in fact happen, but by that time Smith had amassed such a chip lead that it was too late. Smith timed his drinking just right that day to take home the championship, and enough prize money to keep him in booze for the rest of his life.
After Berry Johnson took the title in '86, Johnny Chan won back to back world championships in 1987-88. Chan would go on to win a total of 10 WSOP bracelets, tied for second with Doyle Brunson for bracelets won all time. Brunson has stated that he feels he would have won more, but spent most of his time playing high stakes cash side games during the annual event, and really wasn't that interested in tournaments to start with. Doyle also lamented that the affair even at this point had gotten too big for his liking, and he preferred the much more intimate get together of a few friends that had started it all off in earlier years. He did end up appreciating this relatively intimate gathering of the late 80's much more than what was to come in later years, when the tournament exploded 50 fold, and he now says that he doesn't even recognize any faces in the crowd at all these days.
One of the things that really stood out in this period was that, with less than 150 entrants, most of the people in the top few tables were either former multiple bracelet winners or would go on to win them, so that with so many champions competing, the competition was fierce. For example, the top 26 in 1997 included Johnny Chan (10 bracelets), Frank Henderson (1), Howard Lederer (2), Dan Harrington (2), Mickey Appleman (4), Jack Keller (3), Jay Heimowitz (6), Hamid Dastmalchi (3), Humberto Brenes (2), Don Williams (3), Rod Peate (1), "Puggy" Pearson (4), Howard Andrew (2), Bobby Baldwin (4), Mike Hart (4), John Bonetti (3), and Johnny Moss (9). That's some serious gold that was flashed at the table in those days, and made for some intense play.
Phil Hellmuth Jr
The all time bracelet winner to date though is Phil Hellmuth Jr, with a total of 11 so far. Phil is of course famous for his tantrums and childish behavior at the table, but the suckouts were kinder to him in 1989, winning his first and only World Championship of Poker. Johnny Chan, fresh off his back to back titles, was looking to make it three in a row, and all that stood in his way was this 24 year old kid, however he fell short and the "Poker Brat" walked away with a cool three quarters of a million dollars. Hellmuth became the youngest main event winner ever, a record that would stand almost 20 years.
By this time, the relatively small Horseshoe Casino was becoming too small to handle the larger and larger World Series of Poker field, and tables had to be set up at other casinos to handle all the action. The Binions also had to purchase the Mint Casino next door so they could make more room at the Horseshoe for the big tournament, and this also finally allowed them to open up a full time poker room at the main casino. 1989 also marked the passing of Benny Binion, the man who started it all, and this left his son Jack in the position to take over his father's legacy as the man behind the WSOP in years to come, and he certainly did his father proud over the next 25 years, and by the time he was finished, he would take the event to proportions that his father would never of even dreamed of.