J. J. “Noel” Furlong passed away this week. The Irish businessman and amateur poker player is best remembered by the poker community for his 1999 WSOP Main Event victory. He was also known more parochially for sharing his name with the fictional Irish priest portrayed by Graham Norton in Father Ted.
Outside of the poker world, Furlong made his first million in the carpeting business. Inside the poker world, he made his first million along with his WSOP bracelet.
Born in Dublin on Christmas Day, 1937, Furlong gained his nickname “Noel” from his date of birth. It took him longer to catch up with his surname, taking up gambling later in life. He trained racehorses for a while. Then in 1984 came his first game of poker.
Five years later, in 1989, he found himself at the final table of the WSOP playing an uppity kid from Madison, Wisconsin. Furlong took 6th place in the 1989 Main Event. The kid — an unknown player at the time called Phil Hellmuth — went on the win the bracelet.
Ten years later, in 1999, Furlong was at the final table again. This time the sharks were really circling. He found himself at a final tabe with Huck Seed, who took down the Main Event in 1996; Erik Seidel who won in 1992; and poker-pro/fellow-Irishman Padraig Parkinson.
This time Furlong held his nerve, swam as fast as the sharks, and won. His name now sits on the list of Main Event winners between Scotty Nguyen (1998) and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson (2000).
With Furlong’s passing, Phil Hellmuth wrote a tribute to the man. Chad Holloway tweeted the full text of Hellmuth’s memorial to Ferguson.
In classic Hellmuth style, it is as much about Hellmuth as it is about Furlong.
“Noel was at the WSOP Main Event final table with me and Johnny Chan,” Hellmuth wrote. “He was fearless and bluffed me in a huge pot. I remember this well, as it was on the front page of the Las Vegas Review Journal on May 17, 1989, with pictures.”
It ends on a sweeter note, however. Phil says that Furlong “always seemed to handle himself well, with class, and always with a smile. RIP: Noel Furlong.”
Other poker players tweeted their respects for the departed.
Parkinson, who took third in the WSOP which Furlong went on to win, tweeted: “Sorry to hear Noel Furlong 1999 WSOP winner died on Sunday. RIP.”
Michael Birraine tweeted to say, “Sad to hear the Noel Furlong the1999 World Series of Poker main event Champion passed away on Sunday. He also came in 6th at the 1989 main event which was won by @phil_hellmuth. May he rest in Peace.”
Furlong’s grandaughter Natalia Furlong, also wrote a tribute to Noel.
“Rest in peace Grandad, you absolute legend,” she wrote. “I’ve never met someone with quite as many achievements as you or someone with a sense of humour quite like yours, truly unforgettable.”
Furlong gave generously to charity. He ran businesses and trained racehorses. By all accounts, he was delightful in person and impressive from a distance. He lived to the age of 83, and leaves behind an enormous legacy on and off the felt.
Featured image source: Twitter