This week’s list of Top-10 Main Event champions isn’t an effort to determine the ten-best poker players since the World Series of Poker began in 1970. Instead, it’s an attempt to assess the importance and role of each player in the larger history of the Series. As a result, you won’t find players like Chris Ferguson, Dan Harrington or Tom McEvoy on the list. They were all great champions, and better players than some of the people on this list. But the players on this list hold special places in WSOP history that separate them from the field.
10. Brad Daugherty, 1991
Daugherty was the first player to win USD 1 million by taking first in the Main Event. Sure, the prize seems small when compared with Jamie Gold’s USD 12 million payday in 2006, but breaking the USD 1 million dollar prize mark was a significant achievement at the time.
9. Hal Fowler, 1979
Fowler became the first amateur to win the Main Event when he out-dueled a final table that included Johnny Moss, George Thomas Huber and Bobby Hoff. His win over a field 54 seasoned pros is still considered one of the greatest upsets in the game.
8. Mansour Matloubi, 1990
Matloubi became the first non-American to win the Main Event in 1990. Matloubi lives in London, but was born in Iran.
7. Chris Moneymaker, 2003
Moneymaker’s victory in the 2003 Main Event helped launch the poker boom that ran from 2003-2006. An amateur player at the time, Moneymaker earned his buy-in through by winning a USD 39 satellite on PokerStars. Then he bluffed well-known poker pro Sam Farha out of some big pots during heads-up play to earn a dramatic victory and USD 2.5 million. As a result of Moneymaker’s big win, play at both online poker sites and the WSOP soared for the next few years.
6. Phil Hellmuth, 1989
Phil Hellmuth victory in the 1989 Main Event stopped Johnny Chan from winning an unprecedented three-straight Main Events, made Hellmuth the youngest Main Event victor and launched a career that has seen him win a record 11 WSOP bracelets to date.
5. Amarillo Slim Preston, 1972
Before Mike Sexton, Amarillo Slim was poker’s official ambassador. According to WSOP media director Nolan Dalla, Preston appeared on the Tonight Show 11 times and did whatever he had to in order to draw media attention to the WSOP. And it was his unexpected win in 1972 that put him position to be poker’s chief promoter.
4. Doyle Brunson, 1976, 1977
Brunson is simply a legend. He won back-to-back Main Event championships in 1976 and 1977 and has won a total of 10 bracelets. He’s also the author of Super System and Super System 2 — the definitive books on how to play poker.
3. Johnny Chan
Chan is a poker tour de force. He came within an eyelash of winning the Main Event in three consecutive years (Hellmuth ended his run in 1989). And he’s won 10 bracelets and more than USD 4 million in the WSOP alone. His victory in the 1988 Main Event also plays a pivotal role in the movie Rounders, which is easily the best poker movie ever made.
2. Johnny Moss 1970, 1971, 1974
Moss is one two three-time Main Event champions and one of the greatest players of all time. But since one of his victories came via a vote of his peers (1970), he doesn’t quite reach the top spot. Moss ended up winning nine bracelets during his career against the some of the toughest poker fields the game has seen. He also finished second in the 1973 Main Event.
1. Stu Ungar 1980, 1981, 1997
Ungar was one of the most talented players and minds the game had ever seen. He could count cards in a six-deck shoe, beat anyone in the world in rummy and possessed a photographic memory and genius IQ. Ungar beat Doyle Brunson and Johnny Moss at the final table to win his first Main Event. And he took down Perry Green to win his second. He won a total of five bracelets and more than USD 2 million at the WSOP before dying in 1998.