Going back-to-back is one of sport’s finest accomplishments. In the hideously competitive world of professional games, achieving consistent success in a specific area is something to be lauded.
In poker, it can be more difficult to win the same event two times in a row, where a single misplayed hand or bad beat can derail your entire tournament. Poker is a game of skill, but the prevalence of chance can make repeat performances seem all but impossible.
Last month, two players showed the world that it wasn’t. Jason Mercier and Vanessa Selbts, generally regarded as the two hottest NLHE Tournament players on the circuit, showed just why they are held in such high regard.
Both won events at the North American Poker Tour Mohegan Sun in 2010/2011. First Vanessa captured two Main Event titles and then Jason followed up with a second victory in the High Roller event. Considering that the NAPT is only two years old, these two American pros have totally dominated this particular festival.
In honour of their achievements, lets compare and contrast their achievements with two of the most famous back-to-back wins in poker history.
In 1980, Stu Ungar arrived at the Binion’s Horshoe casino in Las Vegas having never played in a Texas Hold’em Tournament before. Graduating from gin rummy and cash games, the concepts of levels and clock were new to this precocious talent. However, it didn’t take him long to adapt and in double-quick time he was heads up with the legendary Doyle Brunson.
Even more impressive than his initial success, was that he was able to put in a repeat performance the next year. Stu had to overcome fields of 73 and 75 players to win his WSOP bracelets, hardly massive when compared to the mammoth fields of today’s Main Event. Still, it was the most prestigious poker tournament in the world and commanded a buy-in of $10,000 – no mean feat.
Adjusting for inflation, that 1980 buy-in would be worth around $25,000 today, exactly the price Jason Mericer paid to enter the 2010 NAPT Mohegan Sun High Roller Event. He too had to battle against a small elite field. This year, the tournament became a Bounty Event and the buy-in shrunk to $10k. However that increased the field to 78 players, in line with the numbers Stuey had to battle in the 80s.
The other famous WSOP repeat was performed by none other than Johnny Chan. The Asian sensation barreled his way through the 1987 WSOP, defeating 152 players on his way to the title. If you haven’t seen Rounders, stop reading this now and go and watch it.
Welcome back! By now you will have seen the famous clip of Chan defeating Erik Seidel heads up in the 1988 Main Event. History has proven Seidel to be one of the finest tournament players in the world, showing just how impressive Chan’s second victory was. He almost became the only player in history to win three on the bounce. Johnny got all the way to the final two in 1989, only to be ousted by the then youngest ever Main Event winner, Phil Hellmuth.
In her first Mohegan Sun triumph, Selbst had to best 716 runners, far more than any of the other repeat winners. She was playing in only a $5k buy-in event, but that’s still a price tag only the good and the lucky can afford to pay. In 2011 the event was considerably smaller at 387 players, but that is still more than double any of our other candidates.
If you ask me, Vanessa’s success is the most impressive, considered in a vacuum. With the quality of players today and the sheer volume of her opponents, the difficulties she had to overcome make her challenge the toughest. Two NAPT victories will never be as prestigious as two WSOP titles, but history is really all that makes the World Series special. Mechanically it’s just another poker tournament.
Sure Stu is probably the greatest ever and nobody can argue with Chan’s brilliance, but in the class of finest back-to-back win, Vanessa Selbst takes the prize.