The Top Five Breakout Performances in WSOP History

It’s close now – can you feel it? In just two weeks time the 2015 World Series of Poker gets underway in Las Vegas, and BLUFF will be there for the entirety covering all of the action from the floor. BLUFF’s also in the middle of a three week countdown to the 2015 WSOP, highlighting the players to look out for, the rich history of the event and some essential things to know if you’re heading out to Las Vegas.

Success at the WSOP is one of the most straightforward ways for a poker player to get themselves noticed, and numerous pros throughout the years have built entire careers upon the backs of a particularly strong Series. In the search for the biggest breakout performances in WSOP history, BLUFF looked through every era of the WSOP to find players who exploded onto the scene with an unbelievable performance and then went on to find even more success as their careers progressed. Five in particular stand out from the rest and each of these players, who span from the WSOP’s earliest years to a modern WSOP POY winner, has a claim to a particularly impressive performance.

baldwinBobby Baldwin (1977)
WSOP Bracelets: 2
Cashes: 2
Total Earnings: $124,000

The WSOP was still in its infancy in 1977, and a player coming out of nowhere to tangle with poker’s best was virtually unheard of. Bobby Baldwin wasn’t an unfamiliar face to the likes of reigning World Champion Doyle Brunson and other Texas regulars, as he’d played in a number of the cash games outside of Las Vegas in the previous few years, but until this point Baldwin hadn’t made a splash on the tournament side. In the second event of the 1977 WSOP, Baldwin earned his first career WSOP bracelet in his first career WSOP cash in a $10,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven event. It took only one day for Baldwin to make it two-for-two, as his second career WSOP cash also ended up as a bracelet win, this time in Event 3 – a $5,000 Seven Card Stud event.

Baldwin impressed Brunson, who’d go on to win his second straight World Championship in 1977, with Brunson asking Baldwin to write a chapter on Limit Hold’em. The following year helped further build Baldwin’s profile as one of the game’s best, as he followed a second place finish in a $5,000 Seven Card Stud event by winning the 1978 WSOP Main Event. He’d add a fourth bracelet the following year, once again winning the $10,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven Championship, but his focus would soon evolve beyond the game of poker. While he continued to play WSOP events through the 80s and early 90s, along with the biggest cash games in Las Vegas, Baldwin worked his way through the executive ranks to became one of the most powerful men in the industry.

ungarStu Ungar (1980)
WSOP Bracelets: 1
Cashes: 2
Total Earnings: $410,000

Stu Ungar made his bones as a gin player in his teens in New York City, and bounced around several times before landing in Las Vegas in search of action as his dominance in that game often led to him quickly losing action. Ungar eventually did the same in the biggest games and gin tournaments in Las Vegas too, which caused him to look towards poker. In 1980 Ungar narrowly missed out on winning the bracelet in Event 5, a $5,000 Seven Card Stud tournament, when he finished second. Undeterred, Ungar went on to win the 1980 WSOP Main Event, defeating Doyle Brunson heads-up to deny him a record-tying third World Championship.

Ungar’s second year at the WSOP was even more impressive, as he won the $10,000 Deuce to Seven Championship – the last prelim event of the 1981 WSOP – and then defended his title in the Main Event to go back-to-back and earn his third career WSOP bracelet. A fourth bracelet would follow in 1983, but issues with cocaine abuse derailed one of the most promising poker players of a generation. He took a massive chiplead into the final day of the 1990 WSOP Main Event but was eventually found passed out in his room, unable to continue; Ungar finished ninth. There would be one more bright spot in Ungar’s career, as he went on to win the 1997 Main Event to become just the second three-time champion, but by the end of 1998 his battle with cocaine abuse cost him his life.

forrestTed Forrest (1993)
WSOP Bracelets: 3
Cashes: 3
Total Earnings: $311,400

Then 28-year-old Ted Forrest took the 1993 WSOP by storm in its second week, accomplishing a feat that’s literally impossible considering the tournament formats used today. It started with the $5,000 Seven Card Stud event on April 30, where he beat out a final table that included Howard Lederer and Chip Reese on the way to his first bracelet in his first career WSOP cash. The very next day, in a $1,500 Razz event, Forrest beat out the likes of Tom McEvoy and Eskimo Clark to win his second bracelet in as many days. That kind of performance would cause a lot of players to take a day off to celebrate, or at least rest up and recover for a day, but on May 2 Forrest came back to play the $1,500 Omaha Hi-Lo event.

Forrest fought his way through that field as well, making it three bracelets in as many days after defeating John Cernuto heads-up. After that whirlwind performance, the call of big cash games pulled Forrest away from playing a high volume of WSOP events, though he would manage a pair of seconds and a pair of third place finishes in the 10 years that followed. Starting in 2001, Forrest was part of the group that took on billionaire Andy Beal in the biggest cash game ever, with several different pros taking on Beal in a series of heads-up confrontations. Beal lost 16 million to the professionals, collectively known as ‘The Corporation’ over two days in March 2014 and quit them. Forrest seemingly carried some of that momentum with him into the 2004 WSOP, where he won his fourth and fifth career bracelets. He’d win a sixth in 2014 by beating Phil Hellmuth heads-up.

madsenJeff Madsen (2006)
WSOP Bracelets: 2
Cashes: 4
Total Earnings: $1,467,852

The 2006 WSOP was historic for a number of reasons, with a record-setting Main Event field of 8,773 – which still stands as the largest live tournament field of all time – capturing the most headlines. Looking back, it overshadows one of the most impressive single WSOP’s ever put together – and it was accomplished by someone just a few weeks past his 21st birthday. Jeff Madsen’s first trip to the WSOP in 2006 was one for the ages, and it all kicked off with a third place finish in a $2,000 Omaha Hi-Lo event. Things really picked up 10 days later, as Madsen beat out a field of 1,579 to win a $2,000 No Limit Hold’em event and its $660,948 first place prize. Madsen returned to the winner’s circle a week later, taking down his second bracelet in a $5,000 Six Handed No Limit Hold’em event and defeating Erick Lindgren heads-up in the process.

He already had over $1.4 million in earnings, two bracelets and a stranglehold on WSOP POY honors, but Madsen wasn’t done yet. He finished in the top three for the fourth time at the 2006 WSOP, falling two spots shy of a third bracelet in a $1,000 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo event. A third bracelet would eventually come for Madsen at the 2013 WSOP, where he won a $3,000 Pot Limit Omaha event. Madsen also won the 2010 Borgata Winter Poker Open Main Event for over $625,000, made two WPT final tables in the same season, and took down an HPT title at the Commerce in 2014.

mersonGreg Merson (2012)
WSOP Bracelets: 2
Cashes: 4
Total Earnings: $9,755,180

Greg Merson had a min-cash in the 2009 WSOP Main Event and another small result in 2011, but he’d done little to separate himself on the live tournament circuit going into the 2012 WSOP. His first splash came midway through the summer, when he made it deep into Day 2 of the $2,500 Six Handed No Limit Hold’em event before bowing out in 21st place. Merson narrowly missed out on his first career WSOP final table a few days later, when he came in fifth in the the Four Handed No Limit Hold’em, but he’d go quiet for a few more weeks before truly making his impact on the series. The $10,000 Six Handed No Limit Hold’em Championship features one of the toughest fields in any given year, and it was here that Merson decided to have his coming out party. He won his first bracelet and $1.1 million dollars after outlasting the likes of Andrew Lichtenberger, Christopher Brammer, Eddy Sabat, Shannon Shorr and finally Keith Lehr at the final table.

It only got better from there, and it got oh so much better for Merson. He outlasted 6,589 players to make the November Nine and put on a masterful performance once he got there, capturing poker’s greatest prize. Along with a second bracelet and over $8.5 million, Merson locked up WSOP POY honors – snatching them from Phil Hellmuth when only a win in the Main Event would get it done. Merson fought deep into the Main Event the following year before falling out late on Day 5, and he’s had success elsewhere in the last few years as well. His biggest result since winning the WSOP Main Event came at the 2014 PCA, where chopped the $25,000 High Roller for just shy of $1 million.

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Tim Fiorvanti

Tim Fiorvanti graduated from St. John's University with a B.S. in Journalism in 2008. After several years in the industry, he started working for BLUFF in the summer of 2010. He worked his way up at BLUFF and joined full time as a Senior Writer in April of 2012. Fiorvanti now serves as the Managing Editor of BLUFF. He's a tortured Mets and Jets fan, along with several other frustrating allegiances, but he's also a two-time defending BLUFF Fantasy Football Champion.
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