Nobody remembers second place.
You've probably heard the expression before and, to some degree, it's true -- but not today. Because today we are going to make note of the players who fell just short of claiming the big prize at the World Series of Poker Main Event. Some of these players had already found the winner's circle at the Main Event before placing second. And everybody on this list more went on to have lucrative careers. But their runner-up finishes have a special place in poker lore, and will always be among the game's most interesting moments.
Here are the Top-10 most notable WSOP runner-ups:
10. Ivan Demidov
What makes Demidov's runner-up finish last year noteworthy is that it came in what will go down as the first final table played in November after a significant break in the action. And Demidov made a little bit of history of his own when he became the first player to make the final table in both the WSOP and the WSOP Europe in the same year. But one thing about last year's final table that most people forget is Demidov came very close to winning. He came into the heads-up portion of the event against Peter Eastgate trailing by more than 27 million chips. Undaunted, the Russian pro came out firing in heads-up play and actually took the chip lead 11 hands into the night with a stack of 73,450,000 to Eastgate's 63,450,000. Eastgate, of course, went on to prevail and become the youngest Main Event champ in history, but because ESPN only showed two of the 104 hands of heads up play, most fans don't realize just how close Demidov came to becoming the Main Event champ that night.
Ivan Demidov made a run at chip leader Peter Eastgate and actually took the lead at last year's final table before falling short and finishing second. (photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)
9. T.J. Cloutier
If you just started to follow poker and were out in Las Vegas this past summer for the WSOP, you probably know T.J. as the guy flying around on a scooter, jetting back and forth between the Rio's Amazon Room and the craps table. But the truth is, this six-time bracelet winner is a Poker Hall of Famer who has won nearly $10 million in his career. And his legacy would obviously be much greater if he could have broken through and won the Main Event in 1985 or 2000, the two years he placed second to Bill Smith and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, respectively. The loss to Ferguson in 2000 was especially painful since Cloutier got beat on the final hand when Ferguson called his A-Q all-in with A-9. A 9 turned up on the river, creating the legend that Jesus is today while at the same time denying one of poker's all-time greats a Main Event title.
8. Dewey Tomko
Like Cloutier, Tomko is one of just four players to finish second in the Main Event on two occasions (Puggy Pearson and Crandall Addington are the others). And also like Cloutier, Tomko pulled off this feat in two different decades (1982, 2001), proving his longevity. But while Tomko has had a tremendous career, the biggest "what if?" moment of his playing days has to be his heads up match against Carlos Mortensen in 2001 when he had his pocket aces cracked on the final hand when Mortensen caught a straight on the river. Ouch.
7. Doyle Brunson
Considering his iconic status and back-to-back Main Event titles in 1976 and 1977, it's difficult to have any pity for Texas Dolly for his runner-up finish in 1980. But Doyle's second-place that year was significant and noteworthy because it changed how we look back at Main Event history. A young and brash Stu Ungar knocked off Brunson that year to win the first of what would be a record three Main Event crowns. That's right, if Brunson had prevailed in that classic 1980 heads-up match, he would be the player tied with Johnny Moss for the most-career Main Event titles -- not Ungar, who went on to win the tournament a year later in 1981 and for a third time in 1997.
6. John Strzemp
Speaking of Ungar's 1997 triumph, it just so happened to be one of the more memorable heads-up matches in Main Event history, which helps Strzemp, the runner-up that year, make our list. Not only does the match resonate with poker fans because it was played outside on Fremont Street under the 100-degree Las Vegas heat, but it was also one of the quickest in history, which led some to speculate that Ungar and Strzemp had cut a deal beforehand. Ungar had a 3-to-1 advantage in chips when heads-up play began and just 15 minutes later, he was the new three-time champion. Ungar won the match when he hit a gut-shot wheel on the river.
5. Johnny Moss
As mentioned above, Moss and Ungar are the only players to snare three Main Event titles and if Johnny could have won the event in 1973 instead of finishing second, he would be a four-time champ. What's more, the man Moss lost to that year was Puggy Pearson, who just so happened to be the runner-up in 1971 and 1972. A loss in 1973 would have made Puggy the Buffalo Bills of the Main Event with three straight second-place finishes.
4. Johnny Chan
Here's another multiple Main Event champ who we aren't going to pull the violin out for, but we will make note of his second-place finish because it changed the course of poker history in more ways than one. The year was 1989 and Chan was one step away from doing the unthinkable – winning three straight Main Events. A victory in 1989 would have put Chan in an elite class with Moss and Ungar. And his three-peat would have been the greatest feat in poker history. Instead he finished second best. And the man who took it away from him was none other than a 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth, who has gone on to become the all-time leader in WSOP bracelets with 11, which, not-so-ironically, is one better than Chan, who has 10.
Johnny Chan was denied a third-straight WSOP Main Event title when he was stopped by Phil Hellmuth in heads-up play back in 1989. (photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)
3. Erik Seidel
Now here's a guy who it's OK to have some sympathy for when it comes to Main Event runner-ups. The video of Johnny Chan bluffing his way past Seidel for the 1988 crown must be absolutely painful for him to watch. But making matters worse is the fact that the clip of the classic bluff is a poker legend because it played a prominent role in the poker movie "Rounders." Seidel managed to more than survive the loss and has gone on to have a brilliant career with eight bracelets, but he has never been as close to another Main Event title as he was in 1988.
2. Paul Wasicka
Just think. Every time you've seen Jamie Gold's face on TV over the past three years, it very easily could have been the mug of Wasicka. Gold forever etched his name into poker history with his monumental Main Event victory in 2006. Gold's victory came over a record-field of 8,773 entrants and he took home a mind-boggling $12 million for his win. Sure, Wasicka didn't make out too badly himself by cashing in for $6 million – which still ranks as the greatest runner-up prize in Main Event history – and he has gone on to have more success on the felt than Gold has had, but a win here would have changed Wasicka's life forever.
1. Sammy Farha
Here's a question for you... If poker pro Sammy Farha had won the 2003 Main Event instead of a little-known accountant with a cool last name, would there have been a poker boom? If Chris Moneymaker's bluff against Farha during heads-up play blew up in his face and Farha went on to prevail, would we even be writing this list? The answer could quite possibly be no. Most everyone agrees that Chris Moneymaker's victory in 2003 is the jet fuel that propelled the popularity of poker. The story of a part-time player turning a $40 online buy-in into a $2.5-million Main Event victory was delicious enough to draw millions and millions of new fans and players to the game. The entrants for the Main Event swelled from 839 in 2003 to 2,576 in 2004. Two years later, it went to nearly 9,000 and the reason is because Farha placed second instead of first back in 2003. That makes Sammy an easy choice for the top spot on our list.