Grand Prix of Poker


[SS] “When I say Grand Prix, what do you guys think of?” Stan the Stat polled.

[FF] “Auto racing, of course”, Figaro the Fish insisted.

[LL] “Agreed, although I think there are multiple races called a Grand Prix”, Leroy the Lion concurred.

[RR] “Wasn’t there a Grand Prix game for the Atari 2600?” Roderick the Rock suggested.

[SS] “Yes, and it was a car racing game. But did you guys know that the original Grand Prix didn’t involve automobiles (because they hadn’t been invented yet)?”

[LL] “Perhaps a track event? No, that’s not something the French are big on. So, I guess it had to involve wine, cheese, or horses.”

[SS] “Correct! The original Grand Prix was a French horse race way back in 1807. Now known as the Prix Gladiateur, the contest originally pitted thoroughbreds age four and up over a 4,000-meter course, which was lengthened to 6,200 meters in 1861 but reduced several times to reach its current distance of 3,100 meters1 in 1991.

Grand Prix auto racing began almost a century later, in 1901.”

[RR] “But I’ll bet you really want to talk about a different kind of horses, am I right?”

[SS] “And a different type of race. For chips. Steve Wynn created the Grand Prix of Poker for the Golden Nugget in direct response to the Stairway to the Stars at the competing Stardust poker room:

Grand Prix of Poker (1984 to 1987)

Dates Events Main Event Winner Notes
November 28 to December 13, 1984 15 David Baxter ($320,000) Robert Baldwin finished second for $128,000. Hal Fowler won the $1,000 Seven Card Stud for $76,000 and the last tournament cash of his career. Ray Zee won the overall points championship to take home a new Mercedes 380SL valued at $45,000.
December 2 to 19, 1985 15 Dewey Tomko ($355,000) Tomko, who also won the $2,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em for $123,750, defeated Baxter ($142,000) heads up for the title. Ken Flaton edged out A.J. “Action” Jackson to win a 26-foot Chris Craft boat valued at $55,000 for the best overall player in the festival.
December 1 to 20, 1986 17 Hugo Mieth ($247,000) The amateur and the pro Mike Hart agreed to split the first and second place prize money and play for just the title. Barbara Gold, the first woman to win a major poker tournament, won three open events to earn a Chevrolet Corvette valued at $31,000 as the best overall player at the festival, while Said Barjesteh got a Suzuki JX Samurai for second, and Robert Turner settled for a Hyundai All-Terrain Vehicle for third.
November 29 to December 19, 1987 16 Jim Doman ($400,000) Howard Andrew had to settle for $250,000 for second place. Berry Johnston ($77,600) won the $1,000 Razz, Jack Keller ($97,000) the $2,500 Limit Hold ‘Em, and David Reese ($108,400) the $1,000 No Limit Hold ‘Em.

Notes:

  • Pro-Celebrity Charity Tournament:
    • In 1984, actor Mike Warren and pro Jack Keller won the event, which featured his co-stars Ed Marinaro and Rene Enriquez, as well as Kenny Rogers, Paul Anka, Dionne Warwick, Alan King, and Sarah Vaughan. $10,000 in prizes were donated to the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation.
    • The 1985 tournament included defending champ Michael Warren, Ed Marinaro, Rene Enriquez, Telly Savalas, Diahann Carroll, Kathy Rigby, and Jerry Lewis. Country singer Doug Kershaw won with pro Bill Smith, marking the second straight year the reigning WSOP Main Event champion had won the event.
    • The 1986 event had one of the unlikeliest winners: Charo! The Spanish-American actress, comedienne, and musician teamed up with Bobby Baldwin to top 35 other teams for the first place donation.
  • At both the 1985 and 1986 festivals, singer Willie Nelson took on Amarillo Slim Preston… in dominoes. Preston won 5-2 the first year to win a CJ7 Jeep from Steve Wynn and possibly some cash from Nelson. He won 5-3 the second year for an unknown prize.
  • In 1986, Cyndy Violette won the $1,000 Seven-Card Stud event for $74,400, which at the time was the largest prize ever won by a woman in a poker tournament. By contrast, Barbara Enright, the winner of the Women’s Seven-Card Stud at the 1986 WSOP earned only $16,400. The WSOP Ladies champion wouldn’t take home more than Violette did until 2005.

Footnotes:

  1. In imperial units, that’s 2.49, 3.85, and 1.93 miles. For comparison, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are 1.25, 1.19, and 1.50 miles.

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Stairway to the Stars


[SS] “What do you guys remember about the Stardust casino?” Stan the Stat inquired.

[LL] “I’ve never been there, but I heard that’s where David Bowie1 liked to hang out”, Leroy the Lion cracked.

[RR] “With Tinker Bell”, Roderick the Rock added.

[LL] “I think that was fairy dust.”

[SS] “Or pixie dust or stardust. But let’s fly back in time to the early 1980s… The Stardust Resort and Casino already had one of the two major poker rooms in Las Vegas in the late 1970s, but when they hired Bob Thompson, he created the Stairway to the Stars festival to draw more people to the casino.

Stairway to the Stars (1983 to 1986)

Dates Events Main Event Winner Notes
January 3 to 27, 1983 11 Ken Smith ($140,000) Johnny Chan won the $1,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em event for $60,750 and finished seventh in the Main Event for $5,600.
January 9 to 31, 1984 22 Ralph Morton ($55,000) Main Event runner-up Gary Berland won four tournaments and clinched the points-based Best All Around Player award and a customized Chevy van over David Reese with four events still to be played.
January 2 to 21, 1985 24 Carl McKelvey ($55,000) Barbara Gold won the $500 Razz and finished second in the $1,000 Razz, while Cissy Russo won the $200 Limit Hold ‘Em and placed third in the $500 Limit Omaha. Other winners included Betty Hiller ($500 Limit Omaha), Jack Straus ($1,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em), David Sklansky ($1,000 Limit Draw Low Ball).
January 2 to 23, 1986 28 T.J. Cloutier ($42,500) Cloutier beat Hamid Dastmalchi heads up for the title. Other winners included Bob Stupak ($2,500 No Limit Deuce to 7), Berry Johnston ($1,000 Pot Limit Omaha plus third in $500 No Limit Hold ‘Em Match Play, $500 Razz, $1,000 Razz, and Main Event), Jack Straus ($1,000 Match Play Omaha & $2,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em plus 2nd in $500 No Limit Hold ‘Em Match Play and $1,000 Tag Team with Cheryl Davis and 4th in $500 No Limit Deuce to 7 and Main Event), Robert Turner ($1,000 No Limit Hold ‘Em & $200 Limit Hold ‘Em plus third in $200 Limit Omaha), and Barbara Putterman ($200 7 Card Stud).

Notes:

  • In 1985, “Oklahoma” Johnny Hale won three match play (heads-up) events. He outlasted a field of 16 in the $1,000 Pot Limit Hold ‘Em Match Play and a field of 32 in the $500 No Limit Hold ‘Em Match Play, but he was the only player to sign up for the $2,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em Match Play. Bob Thompson gave him the trophy, refunded his buyin, and cancelled the tournament. During the $500 event, Hale had a bye in the first round but offered to play the late-arriving Bob Stupak for 20% of his action if he won and one week use of his Rolls Royce, a uniformed chauffeur, and $500 expense money if he lost. Hale collected on his winning bet and earned points with his in-laws by giving them use of the car on their next visit to Las Vegas.2
  • Also in 1985, the $500 Limit Omaha tournament had a guarantee of $100,000 in prizes, but only 107 players entered, of whom 44 rebought once, leaving the Stardust $24,500 in the hole. That didn’t stop the Stardust from offering tournaments with $100,000 and $200,000 guaranteed the following year, and both events ran in the black, so that was not a factor in the death of the festival.”

[RR] “So the festival just disappeared with no explanation?”

[SS] “As far as I can tell. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Footnotes:

  1. Bowie’s 1972 concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars introduced his alter ego, who is also a rock star.
  2. Hale recounts this story in a February 2011 article nearly a quarter-century later, so his memory may have slipped a little as he got two of the buyin amounts and two of the game types wrong. The Hendon Mob database also has one game type wrong, as it claims that he won a $1,000 Pot Limit Omaha instead of Pot Limit Hold ‘Em. According to the Stardust’s ad on page 8 of the December 24, 1984 Poker Player newspaper, this Pot Limit Hold ‘Em event took place on the same day as a $500 Limit Omaha tournament and having overlapping Omaha events wouldn’t make sense.

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America’s Cup of Poker


[SS] “After the success of Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker,” Stan the Stat continued, “entrepreneur and marketing wizard Bob Stupak1 decided to host his own event to promote his Vegas World casino, which had opened in 1979 but was newly renovated. In addition to the usual variety of events and big prizes, Stupak offered the winner of the $1,000 No Limit Hold ‘Em event a free chance to win his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow in a heads up match. Poker legend Berry Johnston, who would go on to win five WSOP bracelets including the 1986 Main Event, was able to survive a field of 109 players but couldn’t pry Stupak’s car keys from him.”

[LL] “You make it sound like Johnston was trying to steal the car”, Leroy the Lion complained.

[RR] “Johnston wasn’t rich and famous yet”, Roderick the Rock noted.

[SS] “Stupak certainly was. He actually built up fortune selling coupon books, believe it or not. But he was always looking for that next great idea, and America’s Cup was it. The successful festival would run through the rest of the 1980s before he killed it, and Vegas World itself would close its doors in 1995 to be replaced by the Stratosphere, which still has the tallest freestanding observation tower in the U.S.

America’s Cup of Poker (1983 to 1989)

Dates Events Main Event Winner First Prize Notes
September 19 to 28, 1983 7 Johnny Chan $130,000 When Chan took out the entire final table in an hour for his first career tournament win, Stupak dubbed him the Orient Express, because he was “very fast and very aggressive”.2
September 10 to 24, 1984 9 Mike Markos $100,000 Markos defeated Dewey Tomko heads up when he was lucky enough to catch runner-runner Sevens after bluffing all-in on the flop with nothing.3
September 5 to 14, 1985 11 unknown unknown Was it the bad luck of Friday the 13th that’s caused these results to be lost?4
September 8 to 20, 1986 15 Roger Moore $120,000 J.J. Busey finished second, Seymour Leibowitz third, and Bob Stupak himself fourth.
September 8 to 20, 1987 12 Stu Ungar $55,000 Ungar also won the $5,000+50 Deuce to Seven tournament for another $55,000.5
July 7 to 22, 1988 ? unknown unknown It’s possible this event didn’t happen despite being advertised in the June 26, 1988 San Bernardino County Sun, but the Hendon Mob database, CardPlayer, and World Poker Rank all call the 1989 festival the “7th annual”.
July 6 to 13, 1989 9 Roger Moore $80,000 Moore beat Phil Hellmuth heads up for the title.

Notes:

  • Ads for the inaugural 1983 event touted Bob Stupak as “The Polish Maverick”, WORLD’S GREATEST POKER PLAYER, and his wife Sandy as “The Australian Bloose”,6 WORLD’S GREATEST WOMAN POKER PLAYER. With training from Puggy Pearson, Stupak eventually won a World Series of Poker bracelet at the World Series of Poker in the 1989 $5,000 Deuce-to-Seven Draw event for $139,500, five years after Sandy won the WSOP Casino Employees event.
  • The same ads boasted, “Loni Anderson and George Kennedy will be roaming around Vegas World during the America’s Cup Classic… to film ‘Fast Eddie’, the true story of famed bank robber Eddie Watson.” The movie was never made.
  • In 1984, Ken Lambert won the right to play Stupak for his Rolls-Royce, and the showman let comedian Jerry Lewis defend his car for him. Hopefully, Stupak donated a nice chunk of change to combat muscular dystrophy when Lewis won the match.
  • The festival also included Ladies-only freerolls to win various prizes. Cissy Bottoms took home a diamond bracelet and Cheryl Davis a mink coat. “Oklahoma” Johnny Hale claims to have taught his mother-in-law Jane to play Hold ‘Em in five minutes to win another mink coat. She probably made more than he did at the America’s Cup, as he had just a single fifth place finish for $1,827.”

[LL] “Ungar pretty much rolled a Yahtzee with all those Fives in 1987.”

[RR] “The Hendon database really wanted to build up his legacy.”

[SS] “I don’t know where all the misinformation came from. He certainly won enough tournaments in his short career, so he didn’t really need to get credited with another two victories worth $300,000.”

[RR] “Between the Ungar and Chan errors, I can only guess that a lot of the data came from vague memories, long after the fact.”

[SS] “Exactly right. The Hendon Mob database only started in 2001. Still, I have to give a lot of credit to those four guys — Joe Beevers, Barney and Ross Boatman, and Ram Vaswani — for their amazing poker resource.”

Footnotes:

  1. In No Limit: The Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak and Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Tower, John Smith refers to Stupak as P.T. Barnum’s hedonistic twin.
  2. Source: Could Three Consecutive World Titles Bring Even More Luck to Poker Ace Johnny Chan? : Big Deal article in the May 15, 1989 Los Angeles Times. The Hendon Mob database also thinks Chan won this event in 1982, but the festival didn’t debut until 1983.
  3. The Hendon Mob database says Stu Ungar won the 1984 Main Event, but the September 16, 1985 Poker Player newspaper disagrees and is a much more reliable source for tournament of this era.
  4. The Hendon Mob database knows about the 1985 America’s Cup of Poker, but is missing most of the events, including the Main Event.
  5. The Hendon Mob database says Ungar won another $10,000 No Limit Hold ‘Em event at the 1987 America’s Cup for $150,000, but it appears to be a bogus claim with no tournament details. All of the America’s Cup events in most years are also incorrectly placed in January (only 1984 and 1989 are correctly put in September and July respectively).
  6. Sorry to disappoint, but I have no idea what a “bloose” is. The Urban Dictionary definition refers to a man, not a woman.

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Stan’s Lists – 1980s Poker Festivals


[SS] “Short-Stacked Shamus’s historical recreation of a report on the 1973 World Series of Poker made me nostalgic”, Stan the Stat waxed. “For a long time, the World Series of Poker was the only major poker festival in the world. The Granddaddy of Poker stood alone from 1970 to 1978 until Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker entered the scene in 1979.

But poker grew rapidly in the 1980s. There were actually nine other poker festivals in the decade1 that had at least one tournament, usually the Main Event, with a $5,000 or higher buyin.2

Major Poker Festivals of the 1980s

Festival Years Location (Creator/Host)
America’s Cup of Poker 1983-89 Vegas World (Bob Stupak)
Celebrity Poker Classic 1984 Continental Inn, Aspen, CO
Diamond Jim Brady festival 1985-94 Bicycle Casino, Los Angeles (George Hardie)
Grand Prix of Poker 1984-87 Golden Nugget (Steve Wynn)
Hall of Fame Poker Classic 1988-92, 1994-95, 1997, 2002 Binion’s Horseshoe (Jack Binion)
Jack Straus World Match Play Championship 1983-84 Frontier (Jack Straus)
Knights of the Round Table 1986 Tropicana, Atlantic City (Sam Gamburg)
Stairway to the Stars 1983-86 Stardust (Bob Thompson)
Super Bowl of Poker 1979-91, 1996 various3 (Amarillo Slim Preston)
Triple Crown of Poker Classic 19854 Frontier
World Series of Poker 1970-present Binion’s Horseshoe5 (Jack Binion)

[RR] “Wow, I’ve never heard of most of those”, Roderick the Rock admitted.

[SS] “Unfortunately, they’ve mostly been lost in the cobwebs of time.

Not surprisingly, all of these were in the U.S., with seven in Las Vegas (including the Super Bowl, which also spent time in Reno and Tahoe), one in Los Angeles, one in Atlantic City, and one in Aspen(!).”

[RR] “What about the Irish Open? Doesn’t that go pretty far back?”

[SS] “Although the Irish Poker Open debuted in 1980, its buyin was too small to qualify until 2008 when the €4,200+300 buyin was worth about $6,620.”

[LL] “So there’s a World Series from baseball, a Super Bowl from football, America’s Cup from yachting, a Grand Prix from car racing, and a Triple Crown from horse racing. What about a Grand Slam from tennis and golf or a World Cup from soccer?” Leroy the Lion inquired.

[SS] “There’s actually been a Larry Flynt Grand Slam of Poker since 2002. There have also been various Masters events (1989-90 in Reno and 1993-98 in Gardena, California) and even a Kentucky Derby Poker Championship (2008-09). All of those festivals had smaller buyins though.

The World Cup of Poker wasn’t a festival but an international team competition that PokerStars ran from 2004 to 2013. Its preliminary rounds were played online, but the finals were held in casinos.”

{ to be continued… }

Footnotes:

  1. The main source for this information is the Hendon Mob database (see other years as well), but back issues of Poker Player newspaper have details of several tournaments missing from Hendon.
  2. If we lower the cutoff to $2,500 buyins, a few other festivals make the grade: the Plaza Poker Tournament (1983: main event won by T.J. Cloutier), the 1st Annual Poker Week (1984: Johnny Chan), and the Super Stars of Poker (1987-90: John Esposito, Jack Keller, Sam Grizzle, and John Bonetti).
  3. One of the downfalls of the Super Bowl of Poker was that it kept moving around. After starting at the Hilton Las Vegas in 1979 it moved to the Sahara Reno from 1980-81, the Sahara Lake Tahoe from 1982-84, the High Sierra Lake Tahoe in 1985, Caesars Lake Tahoe in 1986, Caesars Las Vegas from 1987 to 1990, and the Flamingo Laughlin in 1991 before a last gasp at the Bicycle Los Angeles in 1996.
  4. The Triple Crown of Poker Classic was also held in 1986, but the main event buyin was dropped to $2,500.
  5. The World Series of Poker was held at the Horseshoe until 2005, except for one final table on Fremont Street in 1997. It moved to the Rio in 2006.

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