We can’t report on the 2020 WSOP Main Event, which was scheduled to begin this week, due to its postponement, so we’ll look back at a past legendary champion instead: Phil Hellmuth. The “Poker Brat” became the youngest to win the Main Event — at the time — in 1989. And he took down the two-time defending champion, Johnny “Freakin” Chan, in the process.
In 1989, Hellmuth was just 25-years-old. The young whippersnapper shipped poker’s most prestigious annual event, and he was just getting started.
Fast forward 21 years later, and the “Poker Brat” is still a prominent figure in the poker community. Earlier this week, he nearly extended his WSOP bracelet record to 16. But he ran into a cold deck late in the $500 WSOP Online Bracelet Series Kickoff event, and was eliminated in 11th place. Still, he earned his 152nd World Series of Poker cash, yet another record.
Phil Hellmuth, Before Becoming World Champion
Long before Hellmuth held all the WSOP records, he was just a kid with a dream from Wisconsin. Prior to the 1989 Main Event, he’d already proven he could compete at a high level in tournaments.
In 1988, he took down a $10,000 no-limit hold’em event at the 4th annual Diamond Jim Brady series, winning $125,000. He also had numerous five-figure scores in hold’em events, along with four World Series of Poker cashes.
But his life was about to change forever in May 1989. The now appropriately named “Poker Brat” put down $10,000 to enter the biggest event in poker — the WSOP Main Event at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Downtown Las Vegas.
Beating the GOAT
Johnny Chan, now tied for second all-time with 10 bracelets, entered that year’s world championship event as the two-time defending champion. Everyone in the field knew Chan was going to be tough to beat again, but Phil Hellmuth was up for the challenge.
The 1989 Main Event had 178 entries, a record at the time. With $700,000 going to first place, Hellmuth had a golden opportunity to win life-changing money when he reached a difficult table that included Lyle Berman, future world champion Noel Furlong (1999), and of course, the 1987 and 1988 champion, Johnny Chan.
Chan disbursed of Furlong in 6th place ($52,850) with pocket queens against pocket fours. He then took out Lyle Berman ($67,950) with a flopped set of sevens against A-K on a 7-K-6.
Hellmuth then sent a pair of players home thanks to a lucky flop. The eventual champion, with A-10, called the all-in of Stephen Lott (pocket deuces) and Don Zewin (pocket tens). The board ran out A-7-7-Q-8.
The double-knockout left the reigning champion, arguably the best player in the game at the time, up against the up-and-coming Phil Hellmuth.
“No strategy really,” a confident Hellmuth told ESPN prior to the start of the heads-up match. “I just want to play my best poker and win the match. I’m treating him as I’d treat anybody else heads-up. A little more respect for him than perhaps anybody else I’d play. But I’m basically treating it the same way.”
“He’s pretty aggressive,” Chan then said in his brief interview. “Let’s see how he plays first and I’ll pick it up from there.”
Early on in the match, Hellmuth moved all-in with pocket nines. His covered opponent made the call with A-7. The board ran out K-10-K-Q-6, and Phil Hellmuth was the 1989 WSOP Main Event champion, defeating the GOAT of poker at the time.
“I was surprised that he rolled over ace-seven of spades, because I thought that he’d have something a little bigger than that,” the champion said afterwards.
Hellmuth has since won 14 more WSOP bracelets. His 15 World Series of Poker titles is far and away a record. Chan, Phil Ivey, and Doyle Brunson are tied in second place with 10.