Las Vegas, NV (June 3, 2011) -- It was without question, one of the most famous heads-up matches in poker history.
Down to the final two players in the 1989 World Series of Poker Main Event, two-time defending world champion Johnny Chan was gunning for an unprecedented third-straight victory. The only target in his path was a brash young newcomer from Wisconsin, named Phil Hellmuth, Jr.
If any single superlative describes what often happens at the WSOP, it’s the word “unpredictable.“ The unpredictable happened. The unthinkable happened. David defeated Goliath.
Twenty-four-year-old Hellmuth upset Chan holding a pair of nines, thus becoming the youngest world champ in history at the time. Chan’s once in a lifetime opportunity to establish a near mythic record that likely would never be broken – winning a trifecta of three consecutive world poker championships – was shattered. Hellmuth's unlikely upset victory ignited the career of a new poker superstar who would eventually go on to surpass Chan in gold bracelet victories.
Chan waited 22 years for a rematch. Finally, the long wait was over. At the 2011 WSOP, he got his revenge.
As part of a new nationally-televised special feature called “Grudge Matches,” Chan took the new ESPN final table stage alongside his arch-rival in an effort to set the record straight and finally get the opportunity to re-write poker history.
Indeed, it was unusual to see Chan introduced in the role of challenger, since he’s been “the man” in poker for nearly a quarter century. Although Hellmuth most certainly is Chan’s equal in terms of stature and accomplishment, perhaps no poker player in the world holds quite the same mystique of the man once called “The Orient Express.”
The single-elimination heads-up poker match played on a Thursday afternoon at the Rio in Las Vegas was winner-take all. Although no prize money was involved, in many ways the stakes were considerably higher than what could be measured in dollars and zeroes. All that was on the line were pride and bragging rights -- which to two champions like Chan and Hellmuth are the currency of the poker realm.
Chan ended up winning the showdown, which lasted almost two hours. Hellmuth was behind early, but doubled up on a key hand by making a pair of nines, reminiscent of his victory two decades earlier. That gave him nearly a 2 to 1 chip lead. But Chan ultimately was victorious only a few minutes later with a pair of eights, which ended up scooping the final hand of the duel, after Hellmuth missed a straight.
Hellmuth is the all-time career leader in WSOP cashes – with 79. He’s won 11 WSOP gold bracelets – more than any player in history. Closest to him are Chan and Doyle Brunson, with ten each. Incredibly, every single one of Hellmuth’s WSOP victories occurred in Hold’em. But his best game deserted him on this day.
Johnny Chan is one of only four players in history to win multiple world titles. He's earned ten WSOP gold bracelets during his illustrious poker career, which ties him with poker icon Doyle Brunson. Chan was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002. His last gold bracelet victory took place in 2005, ironically on the very spot today where he vanquished his rival in the revenge match with Hellmuth.
Chan's victory will most certainly rank up right up there among the highlights of an incredible, yet unfinished career, which has become tantamount to preeminence in the game of poker.