Will There Ever Be Another Two-Time WSOP Main Event Champ?

With fields in excess of 8,000 — and growing — a WSOP Main Event champion winning again is like the cliche about lightning striking twice.

Chris Moneymaker entered Day 3 of the World Series of Poker Main Event with a chip stack of 56k, or about 23 big blinds. He finished Day 3 with 681k, good for 113½ big blinds.

Moneymaker is in the money; that bubble burst as Day 3 play ended, with all survivors guaranteed at least a $15k payout.

And he’s in contention to do something considerably more historic: win the WSOP Main Event twice.

Four poker players have done it before, but they all accomplished the feat against relatively puny fields in the ’70s and ’80s. It hasn’t happened since the poker boom began with Moneymaker’s win in 2003 — or even since Rounders, Planet Poker, and the buildup to the boom that started in ’98 — and only a handful of ex-champs have even come close in these last two decades.

But Moneymaker is in there with 681k in chips. So are 2016 champ Qui Nguyen with 669k and one of the very few to own two Main Event bracelets, ’87 and ’88 champion Johnny Chan, with 498k.

Is this the year a former champ becomes a two-time champ?

With only three former winners among the 1,286 still in the field, the likelihood is minute — technically, barely two-tenths of a percent. So maybe a better question is this: Will another former champ ever win this thing?

This year vs. yesteryear

“The game has just evolved so much that for them to even make the final table actually would be very impressive,” poker pro and ESPN analyst Maria Ho said of the ex-champs in contention during Monday night’s broadcast. “[It’s not only] because there’s so many players to get through, but also people are really stepping up their game. And by the time you get to Day 6 or Day 7, the players are just going to be better and tougher and so for a lot of these especially old-school champs to be able to navigate that is going to be very impressive.”

The quantitative analysis is every bit as daunting as Ho’s mostly qualitative commentary. 

But first, a history lesson.

Four men have won the tournament at least twice:

  • Johnny Moss: 1970, 1971, 1974
  • Doyle Brunson: 1976, 1977
  • Stu Ungar: 1980, 1981, 1997
  • Johnny Chan: 1987, 1988

To be clear, Moss only won the tournament twice. At the inaugural WSOP in 1970, he was voted champion by his peers at the conclusion of a lengthy series of cash games. Then he won freezeouts against fields of six and 16 players, respectively, in ’71 and ’74.

Brunson topped fields of 22 and 34. For Ungar, it was 73, 75, and 312. Chan triumphed among fields of 152 and 167 (and nearly made it three in a row, finishing second in a field of 178 in ’89).

We shouldn’t diminish any of their accomplishments, but as Ho said, the game has evolved. It’s a completely different tournament now than it was even when Moneymaker beat a field of 839 players.

In the 2000s, only two former champions have even made the nine-handed final table.

1995 champ Dan Harrington, incredibly, did it twice — in a row. “Action Dan” finished third in ’03 and fourth in ’04, an accomplishment that, given the increasing field sizes, was every bit as remarkable as Chan’s twin triumphs in the ’80s.

Just last year, 2009 winner Joe Cada was the dominant story at the final table until his run ended in fifth place.

Others have just missed out on the final table: ’98 champ Scotty Nguyen shockingly busted in 11th place in 2007 despite holding one of the top stacks, and 2001 king Carlos Mortensen made the unofficial final table of 10 in 2013 but imploded one spot short of the November Nine.

2004 champion Greg Raymer’s run the very next year is worth noting, as he finished 25th in a field of 5,619 in defense of his title and was poised to go even deeper if not for a crushing bad beat with three tables remaining.

But that’s a sign of how hard it is to become champion twice: We remember those who came even vaguely close. Heck, Mark Newhouse’s name probably passes through a poker fan’s head when considering the topic of WSOP repeat performances, and he’s not even a one-time champ. In fact, he’s never finished in the top eight.

Playing the percentages

Let’s start crunching some numbers. For starters, there are three ex-champs left among 1,286 players now. But since all three have above-average stacks and are known to be above-average players, it’s fair to say there’s better than a 0.23% chance that one of them will win the title. Combined, the trio has 0.36% of the chips. Factor in skill, and there’s probably somewhere between a 0.4% and 0.5% chance that one of them wins.

And that’s right in the ballpark of where we began the tournament.

It’s tough to know exactly how many former champs entered the Main Event. A complete listing of all 8,569 players in this year’s field isn’t provided by the WSOP.

There are many ex-champs that we know for a fact didn’t enter: Quite a few of the champs of the ’70s and ’80s are no longer alive; Doyle Brunson is retired from tournament poker, as are a handful of other older players; Russ Hamilton exited the game in disgrace; Peter Eastgate has stopped playing poker, and we assume if he’d returned last week we would have heard about it.

There are also quite a few former champions we know for a fact did play, including the three who are still in the hunt, others like Joe Hachem, Scotty Nguyen, Jim Bechtel, and defending champ John Cynn who busted on Monday, and plenty more whose presence was reported somewhere on the poker interwebs.

But there are also several question marks. Our best guesstimate, having considered all the living former champs, is to say 27 entered. That could be off by one or two in either direction, but it will have to suffice for our purposes.

So 0.31% of the field was made up of former champions. But on average, an ex-champ has a better chance of winning than your typical player. Some are field average, either because they were never that great or because they no longer play poker regularly. Others are well above average, with maybe double the EV at the start of the tournament of a mere mortal. Our best estimate is that a 1.3x mark-up per ex-champ is fair.

That would mean we had the equivalent of 35.1 former champions in the field of 8,569, which meant there was a 0.41% chance when the tournament began of a previous winner being the last man standing. As noted above, that’s consistent with the current calculation, with three ex-champs entering Tuesday’s play with 0.36% of the chips.

Compound calculations

Should that 0.41% chance change going forward? Yes, there’s a new champ in the field each year — but that’s partially mitigated by the possibility of former champs dying or getting too old play. It’s close to a wash. There’s some growth there, but it’s far from growth of one full ex-champ per year.

And the field size has the potential to grow at a similar pace. This year marked the fourth in a row with an increase in players, with 2019 providing the second-largest field in Main Event history, just 204 behind the record-holding 2006 swarm.

With online poker potentially making a gradual comeback in the U.S., it’s fair to assume numbers will keep ticking upward. So all in all, that 0.41% chance seems, for now, a fine estimate for any given year.

What happens when we project that out over a range of years?

In the next 10 years, there’s a 4.025% chance of an ex-champ becoming a two-time (or, if it’s Chan, three-time) champion.

In the next 20 years, there’s a 7.888% chance.

In the next 30 years, it’s an 11.596% chance.

It’s probably foolish to project beyond that. At the risk of killing the mood, the reality is our planet is on pace to start drawing thin on comfortable inhabitability at a certain point. But just for you climate-change deniers out there, if the WSOP continues for the next 100 years there’s only about a 1-in-3 chance that a former Main Event champion will win again.

There are countless notable names still in the hunt entering Day 4, from Jean-Robert Bellande, to Joseph Cheong, to Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier, to Antonio Esfandiari, to Gus Hansen. But there are only three names left who’ve won this tournament before.

Moneymaker, Nguyen, or Chan would have to defy some seriously stacked odds to pull this off. But improbable does not equal impossible. Just because we’re all underdogs to see the feat achieved again in our lifetimes doesn’t mean our perfect-perfect, runner-runner shot won’t come through at the Rio over the next week.

Photo by Shutterstock.com


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