Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.
Up into this point of our “Where Are They Now” series, we have had at least some familiarity with our players. We’ve had Doyle Brunson, Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Brian "Sailor" Roberts, Bobby Baldwin, and Johnny Moss – a collection of the biggest names in poker that have helped shape the game into what it is today. Now we move on to one time tournament winner, and largely unknown, Hal Fowler.
In a sense, Fowler was ahead of his time. He is considered by many to be the first non-professional poker player to win a major tournament. In this day and age of poker, people are coming out of seemingly nowhere to win major tournaments. What makes Fowler different is that when he won the 1979 World Series of Poker Main Event he was doing it against a much larger field made up of the better players in the world, as opposed to the crapshoot that a lot of the major tournaments are becoming today.
I’m not suggesting that players today aren’t skilled, but there is a school of thought that the smaller tournaments of yesteryear were tougher because it was filled with the best players. Today players have a much better chance of compiling chips because of poor play, hence giving them a chip stack that leaves room for error if they find themselves heads up against a pro. Fowler became a champion when it was a particularly tough time to make a living playing cards, and will always be remembered for his one magical run in 1979.
So little is known about Hal Fowler because of the day and age he came about. What is known of him is interesting, however. Fowler was believed to be a low to mid level stakes player in Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. It is rumored that Fowler, short on stack, asked Binion for money just to enter into the tournament. It was an investment that would turn into a $220,000 payday for Fowler.
What is also unique is the final hand of the 1979 World Series of Poker. Bobby “The Wizard” Hoff, regarded as one of the best No Limit players at the time, found himself heads up against the amateur Fowler, and he could almost feel the WSOP bracelet around his wrist.
When Hoff looked at his cards, he saw every player’s dream hand, Aces. He was down just slightly in chips to Fowler, and thought he could seriously debilitate the amateur with this hand. He raised enough that if Fowler called he would be putting 1/3rd of his chip stack on the line.
Looking down, Fowler saw . Willing to take a gamble, he called. The flop came – – giving Fowler nothing more than an inside straight draw.
Hoff raised Fowler another 1/3rd of his stack, and Fowler called. The turn brought a WSOP bracelet to Fowler with a , giving him the nuts. Hoff moved all in, and of course Fowler called, awarding him the 1979 Main Event.
The loss was supposedly so disappointing to Hoff that he just sat at the table in disbelief while the rest of the crowd cheered on Fowler. Hoff had once again been beaten after coming so close, and this time the final hand brought a suckout from an amateur - while Hoff started with the best hand in the game. The loss sent Hoff into a serious battle of depression, and he was never again the same force at a poker table.
Fowler wouldn’t be able to enjoy his success for long. Almost immediately after winning the Main Event, he found his vision deteriorating, and he began to lose the use of his legs. Just as he was set to become a star in the poker world, his health yanked him away from the felt. He was able to place in a few more tournaments, but nothing compared to the prize money, or the fame, he found in 1979.
For every Chris Moneymaker and Jamie Gold out there, Hal Fowler came first. Fowler made it a reality for a low-stakes, part-time, amateur poker player to go out and win the most coveted prize in the game.