It has been some years since Johnny Chan pulled off one of the most impressive feats in poker history.
On May 19, 1988 Chan captured his second straight no-limit Texas Hold 'Em Championship at the World Series of Poker, which has been held annually since 1970 at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. With that second World Series championship -- the most coveted prize in poker -- Chan sealed his place in poker's pantheon, putting him among the likes of Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson and Stu "The Kid" Ungar, who also have won two world titles, and the legendary Johnny Moss, who captured the crown three times, albeit during the tournament's early years when it was an informal event and attracted as few as six players for the Texas Hold 'Em Championship. These days the tournament's main event is a free-for-all with more than 200 competitors willing to pony up the $10,000 entry fee.
Though he won the tournament twice, Chan ranks his first World Championship in 1987 as the highlight of his poker career. He annihilated a field of 152 competitors in the four-day hold 'em shootout that caps the two-week cardfest and determines the world champion. In this freeze-out event, played until one player has won all the chips, Chan went head to head against a tough Houston-based player named Frank Henderson in the final. With his trademark lucky orange on the table beside his growing stack of chips, Chan slowly built a solid lead over the Texan. The final showdown came when Henderson bet his remaining $300,000 in chips while holding a pair of fours. Chan matched the bet, holding an ace and a nine. The first four of the five community cards dealt face up did not improve either hand. But the final card, called "fifth street" in poker parlance, was a nine, giving Chan the higher pair and ending the contest. Chan collected $625,000 for the victory and the title of world poker champion. "It's a poker player's dream," he says.
In defending his crown in 1988, Chan not only outlasted 166 challengers but also surmounted the loss of a $1.2 million pot, the largest recorded pot in poker history. In fact he twice battled back from $800,000 deficits to claim a stirring victory over New York's Eric Seidel, a one-time stock options trader, in the final. Chan received more than $700,000 for his effort, and his back-to-back victories amazed the poker world.
In a game where the vagaries of luck can lift the humblest beginner past the shrewdest expert, at least over the short haul, Chan survived poker's most withering challenges over two successive years. If you could have bet one dollar on such an occurrence, you would probably be set for life. Such was the magnitude of Chan's accomplishment. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, an avid high-stakes poker player, was so impressed with the feat, which mirrored the Lakers' back-to-back titles in 1987 and 88, that he promised Chan an NBA championship ring if he and the Lakers won three in a row. Remarkably, Chan nearly completed the three-peat, surviving to the final table in the 1989 tournament before finishing second to a brash 24-year-old named Phil Hellmuth. "I played good, but I didn't play my best," Chan says, still gengerly cushioning the disappointment of what might have been.
But Chan's three-year run -- first, first and second in poker's most hallowed and grueling competition -- was a magnificent accomplishment that may never be duplicated, according to fellow players and poker congnoscenti.