Just about every poker player’s dream is winning the World Series of Poker. Victory means glory. There’s fame. There’s also millions of dollars in prize money. Today, winning the WSOP Main Event is probably worth somewhere between $10 million to $20 million, depending on the champion. There’s $9 million or so for first place. Then, there are countless added opportunities for sponsorships and endorsements. Indeed, winning poker’s world championship has become a lifetime annuity of financial opportunity [1].

But winning has a downside. Being a public figure involves work. Sometimes, the responsibilities can be overwhelming. Most difficult perhaps is that time might no longer be your own. There is no such thing as a typical day. Anyone who has ever experienced fame knows that being a public figure comes at a price. For some poker champions, that price is too high. The spotlight simply burns too hot and the limelight beams too bright. Some chose to walk away.

Over the past four decades, most poker champions have enjoyed their fame. Among the biggest celebrities have been "Amarillo Slim" Preston, who parlayed a single 1972 victory into a dozen or so appearances on NBC’s "Tonight Show," thus becoming the first nationally-recognized poker superstar. Stu Ungar became a poker icon, rightfully so, given his unprecedented three victories and unparalleled eccentricities [2]. Then, there are champions who became the contemporary faces of our game – including Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson.

However, some champions opted to fold when it came their time to play the fame game. Here are five vanishing acts and their stories:

Hal Fowler (1979) – Fowler was the first amateur player ever to win the WSOP. He may have the saddest story of any former world champion. In the months following his stunning victory in 1979, Fowler reportedly gambled away most of his winnings, playing high-limit games which were well above his bankroll and skill level. Broke and dejected, he never played in the WSOP again. He returned to his home in the Los Angeles area and – burdened with diabetes and an addiction to prescription medication -- was widely believed to have passed away only a few years later. Fowler became a forgotten man. It took 25 years before anyone discovered the actual truth and uncovered the long unsolved mystery about what had really happened to Fowler after his WSOP triumph. The investigative sleuth was English poker author Des Wilson, who devoted considerable time to researching Fowler’s sad tale as part of his masterful poker narrative called "Ghosts at the Table." I won’t reveal what writer Wilson uncovered as to what happened to Fowler during his later years, other than to affirm it’s one of poker’s most heartrending stories.

Mansour Matloubi (1990) – Matloubi won the Main Event in 1990. A native of Iran who lived in London at the time of victory, he became the first non-American world champion. Three years later he made it to the final table again – finishing fourth. Matloubi spent most of the 1990s traveling around the American tournament circuit. He was also a regular fixture in high-stakes cash games. But it was baccarat which consumed most of his poker winnings at the time. Matloubi’s last WSOP in-the-money finish occurred back in 2001. He has not appeared at the WSOP since. Matloubi eventually moved away from London and settled down in Bangkok, Thailand where he now lives with his wife and 7-year-old child. Matloubi has also reportedly kicked his baccarat habit. He occasionally plays in private games throughout Asia and occasionally visits a poker room in Macau. A few years ago, Matloubi also appeared at a major tournament held in The Philippines. According to one source who still talks with the former champion, Matloubi says he is reluctant to return to U.S. soil because he is an investor in a major online gambling site and does not want to take any risks [3].

Hamid Dastmalchi (1992) – The 1992 world champion won three gold bracelets. He was at the top of his game during the 1990s, and also played in several legendary high-stakes cash games, most notably the famed Andy Beale series of matches between the Texas banker and a poker syndicate called "The Corporation." Dastmalchi’s personal background was widely misreported during the time when he won several major events. He was alleged to be a wealthy real estate investor living in San Diego, who only played poker part-time. The reality was Dastmalchi was a full-time poker pro for several years, who enjoyed success in both cash games and tournaments. But things started to go wrong for the Iranian-born pro around 1999 when he tried to cash in about $750,000 in casino chip chips and was denied payment by Binion’s Horseshoe management. Furious at their decision, Dastmalchi’s dispute lasted several months and finally went to the Nevada Gaming Board, which ruled in his favor. Dastmalchi was paid but his anger against the Horseshoe simmered to a boiling point. He boycotted the WSOP for several years and went so far as to sell off his world championship gold bracelet [4]. During the same period, Dastmalchi endured a non-stop marathon poker session at The Mirage lasting four consecutive days. He became so exhausted that he collapsed at the table. An ambulance was called and Dastmalchi was wheeled out of the poker room on a stretcher. Angered by losses during a devastating downswing as well as what happened earlier at the Horseshoe, he reportedly lost his enthusiasm for poker. Dastmalchi’s last time to cash in a major tournament was in 2004. Friends who once played with Dastmalchi speculate that he’s found other interests and may have even left the United States. All that’s certain is -- Dastmalchi has vanished from both the WSOP and the tournament circuit, leaving no forwarding address behind.

Russ Hamilton (1994) – One of the darkest chapters in recent poker history involves 1994 world champion Russ Hamilton. Oddly enough, Hamilton’s post-WSOP triumph included a number of successful business and charitable activities, perhaps more than any other player in the last twenty years. He hosted high-stakes golf tournaments. He founded the Ultimate Blackjack Tour and played in the World Series of Blackjack. He earned astronomical profits working as a consultant for a major online poker site. But Hamilton’s world all came crashing down three years ago when he became embroiled in an online gambling scandal. His alleged involvement was prominently featured in a "60 Minutes" segment and more recently, a CNBC one-hour expose. Since 2008, Hamilton has avoided all poker tournaments, including the WSOP. He was one of only four former world champions who did not participate in the special Champions Cup freeroll, held at last year’s WSOP [5]. Hamilton has remained silent about the scandal and his alleged involvement [6]. Today, Hamilton continues to live in Las Vegas and seems to be enjoying his involuntary retirement from the game. But his name and reputation will remain tarnished until lingering questions are answered. Until then, no one expects to see Hamilton appear again at the WSOP, or any other poker event.

J.J. "Noel" Furlong (1999) – Furlong remains the only Irish world poker champion in history. Like some of his predecessors, the Dublin-born poker champ’s biography remains a partial mystery. Furlong’s nickname, "Noel" stems from being born on Christmas Day. He made two Main Event final table appearances, the first in 1989 and the second in 1999, which he won. Furlong’s victory was quite memorable. Several of his opponents later remarked that Furlong played fearlessly, as though the million dollar top prize had no value [7]. Perhaps his happy-go-lucky strategy was influenced by already being a multi-millionaire several times over, the upshot of owning a hugely successful carpeting manufacturing business based in Ireland, called Furlong Flooring. Furlong also owned a number of successful racehorses and greyhounds. One of his top horses reportedly earned more than $5 million at the Cheltenham Racing Festival, held several years ago. Furlong has always considered poker little more than a recreational pastime. He plays merely for competition and fun. He has been coaxed back into playing a few tournaments in both Ireland and the U.K. in recent years, but has not re-appeared at the WSOP since his victory ten years ago. Furlong lost his wife about a year ago. Now aged 72, Furlong lives in Corragh, Ireland -- well-known as the hub of horseracing, which is his true passion. There is some speculation that Furlong may return to the WSOP sometime. If so, it will be only because he enjoys the game and longs to compete again.

Footnotes:

[1] Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million for his Main Event victory in 2003. However, he has probably earned several times that figure in endorsement income from a major online poker site, affiliation with a liquor company, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in past and future tournament entry fees. He also earned profits from a major book deal, speaking engagements, and appearance fees. Other champions too have earned far more than their initial WSOP cash prizes, most notably Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Scotty Nguyen, and perhaps others.

[2] Stu Ungar won the WSOP Main Event three times – in 1980, 1981, and 1997 – an unprecedented feat unlikely ever to be equaled. Johnny Moss also won three times. However, Moss’ first win was by acclamation.

[3] The source who knows Matloubi who insists he fears the current U.S. legal climate vis-à-vis online gambling did not wish to be identified.

[4] Hamid Dastmalchi sold off his 1992 WSOP Main Event gold bracelet to poker pro Ted Forrest for a reported $1,500. The transaction was not motivated by the need for money, but rather Dastmalchi’s disgust at the previous WSOP ownership. Today, Forrest jokingly tells he owns not five gold bracelets (including those he won) but rather six – as the beneficiary of Dastmalchi’s fury.

[5] Of the 25 living former Main Event champions, only four did not participate in the 2009 "Champions Cup," televised by ESPN. The non-participants were: Mansour Matloubi, Hamid Dastmalchi, Russ Hamilton, and Noel Furlong.

[6] Russ Hamilton insists he cannot speak publicly about his role in the controversy and is following the advice of his attorney.

[7] Fellow Irishman Padraig Parkinson also made it to the 1999 Main Event final table. Parkinson recalled that Furlong repeatedly moved all-in frequently, often showing horrid cards after everyone had folded. He became close friends with Furlong, and noted he’s probably the only world champion who did not really need the money. Parkinson also joked Furlong has always been nothing more than an amateur who does not really take poker seriously. Yet he won the world championship once and the Irish Poker Open twice. "I’ve been trying to win those two majors my entire life," Parkinson said. "My buddy Noel won them a total of three times within only a couple of years, and he doesn’t even take it serious like I do. So much for being a professional."