'Poker Brat' is born: 30 years later, inside Phil Hellmuth's stunning arrival

Larry Grossman/photopokerarchive

In May 1989, the World Series of Poker was celebrating its 20th year at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. During its rich history, the WSOP had four back-to-back champions in Johnny Moss (1970, 1971), Doyle Brunson (1976, 1977), Stu Ungar (1980, 1981) and Johnny Chan (1987, 1988).

Entering the 1989 WSOP main event, Johnny Chan -- nicknamed The Orient Express -- was the reigning two-time champion. After following in the footsteps of Moss, Brunson and Ungar, Chan looked to set the new high-water mark -- and he was well on his way to a three-peat -- after making the final table in a record 178-player field.

Five players stood in his way. Steve Lott, who was at the WSOP main event final table for the second of three career trips, was the chip leader. Then there was future WSOP main event champion Noel Furlong (who eventually claimed poker's biggest title in 1999), Lyle Berman (fresh off winning his first of three career WSOP gold bracelets) and Don Zewin, (who now has nine WSOP bracelet event final tables to his name).

Rounding out the final six was a young, brash 24-year-old professional poker player from Wisconsin by the name of Phil Hellmuth. Well before he set the pace with numerous records at the WSOP, including the mark for most bracelets won in WSOP history (15), Hellmuth was an up-and-comer ready to break through and challenge one of the legends of the game.

In preparation for Chan's attempt at an unparalleled poker feat, the main event was filmed for television and captured one of the most famous hands in the game's history.

Thirty years after Hellmuth began to build his legend in poker, ESPN spoke with several key figures who were there on the night that changed the game of poker forever.

The state of poker in 1989

Heading into the 1989 WSOP main event, Johnny Chan was on top of the poker world. Television commentator Chris Marlowe was part of the broadcast for each of Chan's two previous WSOP main event wins, and he was back to see if Chan could make it a three-peat.

Chris Marlowe, veteran broadcaster and former Olympic gold medalist in volleyball

In those days, we weren't privy to the hole cards. We filmed Johnny's first and second win, and the next two years as well. We would film the action and would do interviews. Of all the sports I have covered over the past 40 years, I have never seen a more compelling group of athletes in my life. There was a push to make poker a sport. They wanted me to refer to the participants as athletes so they could try to continue developing poker as a sport. In all honesty, who knew it would eventually become this big?

Johnny Chan, 1987 and 1988 WSOP main event champion

We never thought poker was going to become this big. Back then, we didn't think winning a bracelet was so important. If I knew that winning a bracelet was so important, I would have played more tournaments and I might have something like 20 bracelets. All my life, I played mostly cash games.

Phil Hellmuth, 1989 WSOP main event champion

You have to understand that you couldn't pick poker players out of a lineup [at the time]. So, when [an] article comes out in Esquire magazine ... everyone is talking about it. And just for a second in there, Johnny Chan is talking about me. He said something like, "When Hellmuth reins it in, he's going to win the main event." When I read that, it gave me more fuel and I told people I was going to win the 1989 WSOP main event. I wrote down goals, and at the top of the list was to win the World Series (of Poker) main event. I even put it on my answering machine message before I played the main event.

The final table

Presided over by Horseshoe president Jack Binion, the 1989 WSOP main event had a record-breaking field for the 18th straight year, reaching 178 players. After three days of poker, Chan made his third straight final table and a third straight title seemed inevitable to anyone on the outside looking in. While everyone was talking about Chan, few paid much attention to Hellmuth.


To me, Johnny was such a fascinating character, with the orange out on the table. Just the way he would play, he was so calm. He seemed to be a large presence at the table. Then, when he repeated in 1988, he became almost a mythical character, at least for me. He won the first two, so when he made the final table [in 1989], it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would win the next one.

Jack Binion

At that time, Johnny was a really good poker player, but everyone had a chance to win. Johnny was definitely the favorite, and Phil wasn't a known quantity. Phil was just a young kid and no one was expecting [him] to win the tournament.

Mike Sexton, Poker Hall of Famer, WPT commentator

At that particular time, I can't even explain how big Johnny Chan was in the poker world. Not only had he won the two previous [WSOP] main events, but he'd also won the Hall of Fame event [back-to-back]. The biggest tournaments in the world, he had won several in a row and here he was going again for three in a row at the main event at the World Series. He was like a god ... it was just incredible."

Lyle Berman, fifth-place finisher, 1989 WSOP main event

Johnny and I are good friends, but I didn't even know Phil at all. He was just another chair at the table. I don't think I had ever played with him.

"At that particular time, I can't even explain how big Johnny Chan was in the poker world ... he was like a god." Mike Sexton, Poker Hall of Famer

Don Zewin, third-place finisher, 1989 WSOP main event

It was all about Johnny going for three in a row, which was amazing in itself. It was hyped up pretty good. Phil wasn't well-known at the time, he was very young. I played a little bit with Phil prior in some limit hold 'em games. In the WSOP main event, I believe I didn't play with Phil until final table.


There wasn't any pressure at the time. I felt I could play much better than the other players at the final table and I could outplay anybody. I didn't care who I played against, I was fearless! I felt I was as good as anybody in the world.


I believe he was a little cocky, but there's nothing wrong with being confident. He wasn't rude and was a gentleman at the table... [But] if someone knocked him [out], we might have seen an explosion.


I had never heard of Phil. He was totally an unknown, whereas everybody else at the final table was known in the poker world pretty well. But Phil didn't lack confidence, even at that young age.


I felt [Phil] had that mindset that he was going to be the greatest poker player one day. For Phil, this was definitely his coming-out party.

The battle begins

Furlong was the first to go. Then Chan outplayed Berman and knocked him out in fifth place.


I do remember the hand I went out with, because I played it bad. I didn't remember that the blinds had just been raised, so when it got around to me I didn't raise as much as I should have. If I raised bigger, Johnny may have not called with his two 7's (Berman had As-Kc on a Ks-7d-6c flop). But then off came a king, and I got real excited because I got seven outs. But I didn't get there, and I was really down on myself."

A short time later, Hellmuth pulled off a dramatic double knockout to eliminate Lott and Zewin on the same hand.


We never played three-handed. Phil knocked out me and Steve (Lott) with four players left. I got third place because I had more chips than Steve. The reason why that hand was so devastating where I was a pretty good favorite pre-flop (Zewin had 10h-10d vs Hellmuth's Ac-10c vs Lott's 2s-2c; the board ran out Ah-7s-7d-Qh-8s, giving Hellmuth a winning pair of aces).

Had I won the hand, Johnny, Phil and I would have been all even on chips. And anything could happen from there. To get that deep, you have to be incredibly lucky...and my luck just ran out. I still look back today and it hurts.

Suddenly, the scene set for this epic heads-up battle between Hellmuth and Chan -- the young gun and the seemingly infallible force of nature. The circumstances surrounding the final day of the tournament turned out to fall in Hellmuth's favor.


Back then, the main event lasted four days. On the third day, we played until 3 in the morning, but the broadcast company wanted us to finish by 6 p.m. to get the results on the evening news. So they made us start at 10 a.m. and I was really tired. I didn't get enough sleep.


I didn't have time to think heading into the final table. You played 10 hours a day for three days in a row. But I had one little gimmick planned. I was going to pull out some sunglasses, which I had never worn before, because Chan wore them. I was showing Chan a little gamesmanship, but no disrespect to him. I was going to make sure I had everyone's attention when I pulled out my sunglasses. And I did it. And Chan noticed. But it backfired, because I didn't win any pots.

I was [also] wearing the Sony Sports headphones. At that time, I was the only one wearing headphones. I was listening to music the first three days. But on the final day, I didn't listen to any music. It was a bluff that I was listening to music.


When it got heads-up, I was standing pretty close to where Hellmuth was getting interviewed. He seemed very cocky and very confident. He was treating Johnny Chan like he was just anyone else ... That is what took me aback.


Phil was a young kid that I played with who was cocky and talked a lot. I underestimated Phil at the time. But, of course, he turned out to be a pretty good player. After that, I learned my lesson to never underestimate my opponents.


I don't think Phil was nervous. He seemed to have this inner confidence that he could do it. The fact that he was playing Johnny Chan, it seemed that Phil took it on as a challenge. The greater the opposition, the greater the glory.


Chan and I had played a lot by then. I wasn't afraid. I knew I had something, and hold 'em just made a lot of sense to me. I leaned forward to him and I said, "You are going to have to play great poker and get lucky 'cause I'm just going to play great poker." And 32 minutes later I had the title.

The final hand

After the other four players were eliminated, Chan and Hellmuth battled heads-up for about 30 minutes. With Hellmuth holding the chip lead and the button, he raised to 40,000. Chan decided to re-raise 130,000 more. Without hesitation, Hellmuth gesticulated wildly toward the pot, in a move all-too-familiar to modern day poker fans, and pushed all-in.

He had put the reigning champion to the ultimate test for his tournament life. After some deliberation, Chan finally announced, "All right," and pushed his own chips into the middle, making the call. After Chan revealed his As-7s, he saw that he was behind Hellmuth's 9s-9c.

The Kc-10h-Kd flop offered a little bit of help to Chan, as he picked up three additional outs, and the Qs turn created additional drama, as Chan had 13 outs; any 10, jack, queen or ace would make him a winner. Hellmuth shot up out of his chair, waiting nervously with his arms folded for the final card. When the 6s fell, an ecstatic Hellmuth raised his arms in celebration. He'd done it.


The final hand, I played terrible. I was so tired. I just wanted to get it over with. If I had enough sleep and played my A-game, I might not have lost my patience and I would have never played A-7. Too bad -- I might have won back-to-back-to-back.


I was pretty shocked that Chan put his money in with that hand. Hellmuth raised and Chan three-bet and, in one second, Hellmuth moved all-in. He just looked so confident. And since Johnny had more experience, I thought he would want to stretch the match out as long as he could to figure out Phil's tendencies ... but anyway, now the two black nines have become famous.


During the last hand, I thought I was going to get there on the river. I was running good. I had positive energy and really thought I was going to get there.


I just thought he was going to suck out on me. I was scared to death that he would hit his card. I had watched him do it before. He just kept hitting his card, time and time again. I was kind of expecting Chan to get there. I was a little shocked when the 6s came off. I was preparing to play for another two or three hours. It was just a really sweet moment.

It was the sheer joy of winning ... After the win, I'm looking up at the camera. Then, literally within five seconds, I was looking for my dad. He comes running up and security stops him because there was so much money on the table. But I waved him through and within 20-30 seconds of that last card falling, I was hugging my dad.

The legacy

On that May evening in 1989, Hellmuth won $755,000 and became the youngest WSOP main event champion in history. It was a record that held for 19 years, until 22-year-old Peter Eastgate broke it in 2008 (only for then-21-year-old Joe Cada to break Eastgate's record the following year).

Hellmuth and Chan remained competitive for years to come, and by 2007, Hellmuth, Chan and Brunson were tied atop the career WSOP bracelet leaderboard with 10 apiece. That summer, Hellmuth eclipsed Chan once more by winning his 11th WSOP bracelet. He's since gone on to reach 15 career bracelet wins -- five clear of Chan, Brunson and Phil Ivey.


We were all on [10 bracelets], and when I finally took over the sole lead of the bracelet race, Chan and Brunson were there to give me number 11. That was pretty classy, pretty cool.

Chan is still one of the most recognizable names in all of poker, thanks in no small part to his appearance in the iconic poker movie, "Rounders." But his days of winning WSOP gold bracelets are largely no more, as he typically plays just one tournament a year -- the WSOP main event.


I don't play tournaments anymore. They take up a lot of time. In a tournament, if you don't finish final table, you don't make any money after paying all the expenses.

Hellmuth's tournament results have stood the test of time, and he has continued to win despite tournament field sizes that are several orders of magnitude larger than they were when he won the main event in 1989.


If you look at what he has gone on to do, it's truly incredible. And what is really impressive is that he has won several recently in hold 'em which have way, way bigger fields.


I'm sure a lot of people thought [Phil] was a lucky young kid at the time. If anything, people would have expected Johnny to keep winning. Nobody could see this coming, what he ended up doing. It's just phenomenal what he has done in the poker world.

Hellmuth set a high bar for himself early in his poker career, and by his estimation, he still has a long way to go before he hangs up his signature baseball hat.


In 1993, I won three [bracelets] in one year and that put me at five overall. And it just stuck in my mind that you are going to win 24 bracelets. I thought this was a great thing to hang onto. I don't know why that number came, or what it means, but it was something to cling to. A nice lifetime goal, and I began talking about it in 1993.

I also wrote down that I was now going to become the greatest poker player of all time.