By 1979 the World Series of Poker Main Event had already grown from its humble origins as a small reunion of the top ten or so poker players in the world, to a tournament with 54 entries – some of whom probably couldn’t even spell poker. And I’m certain Phil Hellmuth would characterize Hal Fowler as one of those spelling-challenged players.
Hal wasn’t a complete rube when it came to cards, as he told the TV cameras, “I’ve played poker for 42 years.”
But when we look back at the World Series of Poker champions of his era nobody had accomplished less before their victory, or gone on to accomplish less after than Hal.
His Hendon Mob profile shows a total of four cashes in his career: a 3rd place finish in an A-5 Lowball event at the 1981 Super Bowl of Poker, a runner-up finish in a $500 Limit Holdem tournament at the Grand Prix of Poker in 1984, and a win in the $1,000 7-Card-Stud tournament at the same series.
And therein lies the riddle that is Hal Fowler. How did a man of that era win the WSOP Main Event and then fade off into oblivion?
Des Wilson tracks down Fowler
In Ghosts at the Table, poker author Des Wilson went in search of Hal Fowler to see what became of this enigma of a man, who is without doubt the least known and least understood of all WSOP winners. To this day nobody knows what motivated Hal to play in the 1979 WSOP, or why he just slinked off into the sunset after winning – some of the speculation borders on Giorgio Tsoukalis territory.
“The final table was fearsome. They were all good players. There was Johnny Moss, Bobby Baldwin, Crandell Addington, Sam Moon, Sam Petrillo, George Huber — all professionals — and then there was this one other guy, a man called Hal Fowler.” 1979 runner-up Bobby Hoff would tell Wilson. “We couldn’t understand how he made the final table, because he didn’t seem to know what to do.”
“No one — and I mean NO ONE — could have beaten Hal Fowler that day,” Hall of Famer T.J. Cloutier said. “Not even God.”
How he made the final table was precisely why poker is appealing to so many players, Fowler was hitting cards like you read about. Hal Fowler was Jamie Gold before Jamie Gold, hitting nut flush over second nut flush in heads-up play, and at one point flopping a straight after a whacky all-in call with Jack Ten offsuit.
How hot was he running? Fowler finished off Hoff by cracking Hoff’s Aces with 6/7 offsuit.
It didn’t matter that he was playing wildly and with no rhyme or reason, and popping pills the entire time, as Crandall Addington told Wilson, “He had some Valium and also some amphetamines, the real strong ones, and he actually put these on the table by his chips. I really believe that much of the time he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.”
Hoff made similar remarks, telling Wilson, “He kept taking these Valiums and he was really getting pretty stoned and pretty tired…”
Fowler at one point was down to just a couple thousand chips before mounting a comeback. A comeback that still weighs on Hoff’s mind, as he told Des Wilson, “No, I haven’t gotten over it, it still bothers me.”
Despite all of these things working against him (his inexperience, his drug use, his seemingly erratic and poor play) Fowler still won the 1979 WSOP Main Event, and after his win he was the poker equivalent of Keyser Sose, “POOF, he’s gone.”
If you want to know what happened to Fowler go buy Ghosts at the Table. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed by the book.
Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table is worth a read for no other reason than it is a terrific book, but the full chapter he devotes to Hal Fowler is a tale that every poker player would find fascinating.
The 1979 WSOP coverage
You can watch the 1979 WSOP Final Table coverage thanks to the magic of the Internet:
Here are some other interesting tidbits from the 1979 WSOP:
- Notice the $10 ante right from the get-go and that at the beginning of the tournament there is only a big blind, the small blind isn’t added until later in the tournament.
- Also notice the players don’t immediately turn their hands over when they’re all in, which just seems absolutely brutal to me.
- The 1979 WSOP was also the first year of the Poker Hall of Fame.
- What are the chances the guy who gives odds on people winning that Gabe Kaplan was talking about was Terry Rogers? And how about Hal Fowler being 40/1.
- Lakewood Louie is credited with the first Royal Flush at the World Series of Poker.
- Chip Reese being dubbed a “Young Turk” is wonderful.
- There was a younger/older theme that developed during the 1979 WSOP, which originated with Bobby Baldwin’s 1978 win. Could Baldwin have repeated had he not had a set of 8’s cracked at the final table?
- Bobby Baldwin’s interview at the 23:000 mark could have been made in 2006, except for the clothes. The clothes give it away.
- Love the guys playing out of racks, love it!