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Phil Hellmuth on My First WSOP Championship



At this time of year, I'm frequently asked the same question: How did you beat Johnny Chan to win your first World Series of Poker championship?

Well, the following hand was the most important one of my life. On May 18, 1989, I found myself playing heads-up against two-time reigning world champion, Johnny Chan, for the most prestigious title in all of poker.

The blinds were $5,000/$10,000 plus a $2,000 ante.

I was on the button with pocket nines and opened for $35,000. Johnny raised $130,000 more. Instantly, I reraised all-in, for $1,000,000.

After deliberating for about two minutes, Johnny made the call, pushing in all of his remaining chips - about $450,000. The crowd leapt to its feet as the hands were flipped face up.

Johnny showed As-7s. My dream of winning the world championship of poker all came down to one hand. I was a 2 -to-1 favorite to achieve poker immortality!

The flop came Kh-Kc-10d. Johnny needed an ace or ten to take the lead.

The turn was the Qs which gave Johnny seven additional outs as any jack or queen would now make him the winner.

It all came down to one card. I was still about a 2 -to-1favorite to win.

The river card was the 6s and the world championship was mine!

Let's look at the hand, and specifically, why I decided to make the $1,000,000 reraise.

Four hands earlier, I opened for the exact same $35,000 and Johnny raised the exact same $130,000. This time, however, I was the one with A-7 suited. How ironic.

Unlike Johnny, though, I decided to fold.

I noticed that Johnny had started playing very aggressively by frequently reraising my bets with relatively weak hands. That's why I actually expected him to reraise with anything on the final deal.

I was determined to play my pocket nines, even before he reraised the pot. It was time for me to make a stand.

Now, did Johnny make the correct play by calling off his last $450,000 with As-7s?

In my opinion, it was a weak call, unless he thought I was bluffing. Later, Johnny mentioned that he'd only have $450,000 remaining if he had folded, and that he didn't think he could beat me with a small stack of that size.

That's a good point but let's take a look at the math.

We each had $167,000 in the pot, $334,000 total. Add in my raise worth all of Johnny's $450,000 chips and the pot grows to $784,000. Johnny was trying to win $784,000 by calling for $450,000 - his pot odds were less than 2-to-1.

If he assumed that I was not bluffing, he had to put me on a pair over sevens or an ace with a better kicker. That would make me an approximate 2 -to-1 favorite. So, in this case, the math doesn't support his call.

If only poker was that easy to figure out. Thankfully, though, it isn't, because in that case, mathematicians would win every tournament.

Johnny needed to account for the likelihood that I would reasonably attempt to bluff in this situation, which I estimate to be below fifteen percent of the time.

Look, you'd need to be the world's greatest game theorist to figure out the exact odds in this situation. That's just one of the reasons why I love playing poker.

It comes down to this: Johnny Chan knew what the correct play for him was.

I, however, wouldn't have made the call. I really think I could have come back to win with only $450,000 in front of me. A chip and a chair, baby!


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