On Thursday, the World Series of Poker will hold the first Grudge Matches. Aiming to recreate the most epic WSOP main event heads-up battles of all time, the three Grudge Matches will offer fans a second look at what were historic moments in poker. The action will be broadcast live on ESPN3.com, then edited to be broadcast on ESPN later this summer.
Here's a look at the three matches and the mystique this newly created event has to offer:
Johnny Chan versus Erik Seidel (Fan's Choice matchup)
Words such as "iconic" and "legendary" get thrown around liberally in this age. With the world getting faster, the news cycling more quickly and people constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, such words get attached whenever a PR push is needed. Few of the labeled actually deserve those designations, but everything about the heads-up match at the 1988 World Series of Poker main event qualifies for every superlative you can drum up.
Think about it. You have:
• The reigning world champion, Johnny Chan, in the process of emerging as an all-time great, riding one of the great runs in poker history.
• The young up-and-comer, Erik Seidel, at the beginning of a classic career.
• The main event title on the line.
• A literal Hollywood ending. And, was partly accredited to getting a certain guy with a fictional horse to first try poker. Forever changing the poker world.
The final hand, on which Chan flopped the straight and got Seidel to fire out bets on every street, was iconic before achieving immortality in "Rounders." It's inclusion in modern poker's iconic film only ensured the masses would be educated as to its greatness.
"I showed it to my partner, and we circled it as a great moment of defeat," "Rounders" co-writer Brian Koppelman said. "You're trying to show a crushing moment of defeat that mirrored the beginning and would foreshadow the end of the movie. When we saw it, we put it to the side knowing we would use it. It's the perfect example of the cold professional crushing the young kid."
Now, Chan and Seidel will be re-enacting their match on ESPN3 as part of the WSOP's Grudge Matches.
"I don't get too caught up in the whole 'Rounders' thing," Seidel told ESPN. "I think people recognized that it was played however many years ago, and I'm comfortable with the fact it's a match I lost. There's not a lot I can do to change that. I don't know that I would, since I like the history that's happened since then."
Seidel is bringing a lot more experience to the table this time around. His eight WSOP bracelets combine with Chan's 10 to make theirs one of the most decorated final pairings of all time. In the 23 years since they met, they've developed a friendly and mutual respect.
"Erik is the hottest player on earth, so it's good to be playing with one of the best," Chan said. "I beat Eric in '88, he beat me for a bracelet in the '90s, so what goes around comes around."
For Seidel, who's won more than $5 million in 2011, a little heads-up action on ESPN is almost a breather.
"I think some people might look at it like a rubber match, but for me it doesn't hold the significance of the first time we played," he said. "I think it's more along the lines of [Pete] Sampras and [Andre] Agassi playing an exhibition match at the Garden. I'm looking forward to playing him, though. It's always fun to play him."
For two poker icons replaying what might be poker's most iconic match, it's a celebration of their mutual history and a crucial moment in poker history. For the rest of us, it's a reminder of what words such as iconic and legendary really mean.
Johnny Chan versus Phil Hellmuth
It's a total any tournament director would be happy to have spread out among the field in his or her event, let alone sitting at the table heads-up. Regardless of their bracelet totals, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan are classic poker players. The baubles they've piled up between them over the course of their stellar careers make their heads-up pairing for the 1989 world championship a special one.
Chan went into the duel on the greatest heater in World Series of Poker history. The man called the "Orient Express" had won two consecutive world titles in 1987 and 1988, and he'd made it down to the final two for the third consecutive time. If you think a 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth was intimidated, though … well, you probably don't know Phil Hellmuth.
It's said that the eventual winner arrived at Binion's Horseshoe Casino on a skateboard that day.
"I wasn't afraid," Hellmuth recalled. "I'd already won the 1988 Bicycle Club main event, a major. There were only four majors per year, and I'd won one. I knew I was good and was doing some stuff that others weren't doing. … I did have respect for him. I felt like he was the toughest opponent I could possibly have. When we sat down to play the final, I leaned over and whispered, 'I'm going to play perfect poker today, so the only way you're going to beat me is if you play perfect and get lucky.'"
That's the Phil Hellmuth we all know and love. Hellmuth emerged the champion when he got Chan to commit his chips with A-7 against Phil's 9-9. When Hellmuth's hand held up, he became the youngest champion in the tournament's history, a record he'd keep for 19 years. In the time that's passed, Phil's and Johnny's respect for one another has only grown.
"Phil?" Chan asked rhetorically. "I see Phil all the time. Sometimes we even talk business together. We're friends. We're in the same business and we're combative … competitive. But we're also friends. I want to beat him more than Erik [Seidel]. I beat Erik but lost to Phil, so this is my chance to beat him back."
While these Grudge Matches are expected to be at least an hour, there should be plenty of play between the titans for the audience to drink in. The stakes aren't what the entrants are accustomed to, but there's pride on the line.
"It's a pride match, and pride means a lot to both of us," Hellmuth said.
"It's on TV, and I sure hate to lose," Chan said. "Same thing with Phil, so we're going to play our hearts out. Put on your seat belt; we're going to play a little faster this time. I'm going to come out swinging. Tell Phil I hope the best man wins."
Chris Moneymaker versus Sammy Farha
Chris Moneymaker had 5.49 million chips going into his 2003 heads-up match with Sammy Farha, and he'd endured a remarkable journey. He qualified online despite preferring an $8,000 consolation prize to the World Series of Poker seat he received. He eliminated Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, Humberto Brenes and a series of other iconic players. He survived a nasty final table to get to this point. He was tired and happy to have gotten this far, so he did the unthinkable.
"I offered to split the cash," Moneymaker recalled. "I offered to just play for the bracelet."
"I should have took the split," Farha admitted recently. "I turned it down because I was a favorite. Huge favorite, but to be a favorite, you have to make good decisions. I'd been up for five days. I turned the deal down because I was sure of myself. When he made me the offer, I said, 'No, Chris. If I'm going to make a deal, I need to have an edge.'"
The rest is history. Moneymaker and Farha played for the $1,200,000 difference between first and second, and in the pivotal hand, Moneymaker made the most famous bluff of all time. He got his chips in with a busted flush, and despite Farha saying he suspected as much, the cigarette-toting Texan folded top pair to look for a better situation that would never come. Now, the two will reconvene in their WSOP Grudge Match.
"Obviously, it's amazing," Moneymaker said. "The biggest moment of my life was taking it down the first time. I'll be using a different strategy. I'm hoping to prove it wasn't a fluke."
Moneymaker will have plenty of opportunity, as theirs will be the only best-two-of-three contest among the Grudge Matches. Match A will see them sit down with the chips they had entering their famous 2003 duel. Match B will see them trade starting chip totals. Match C, if needed, will see them start with equal stacks.
While the contestants in the other Grudge Matches have ongoing relationships, the same isn't true for Moneymaker and Farha.
They run in different circles, and their meeting Thursday will be the first contact they've had with one another in some time. "For a while, we'd stop and talk when we saw one another," Moneymaker said. "But I don't travel for tournaments that much, and neither does he. There's not really a bond. We haven't really spoken in five years. We did play a real moment in poker history, though. It's really cool we get to relive that.
"I think for a while, Sammy was a little bitter that he lost to me," Moneymaker said. "He probably felt like he should have won. I'm sure he's over it now, since it's been a long time and the game's changed. We've changed. It may have been adversarial after the fact, but since then, no. I do think he'll want to be beat me, but everyone wants that when you sit down and play."
When they meet, memories and questions of what could have been will dominate. Should Farha have taken the split? Probably. Now it's too late, though -- you can't split the glory of winning on national television.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.
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