This marks the eighth consecutive year that the WSOP Main Event Championship final table has been played at the Rio in Las Vegas. The Penn and Teller Theater has hosted the finale since 2008, when Peter Eastgate became the first champion to be crowned on a grand stage usually reserved for acts of magic. Prior to that, the Rio hosted the final table in the Amazon Room at the Rio Convention Center in 2006 and 2007, prior to the beginning of the November Nine delay.
While the final table appears to have found a comfortable home, the current venue is but the most recent finishing line for poker's most prestigious event, which dates back 44 years.
The earliest WSOP final tables when there were virtually no fans or press were held in a small alcove inside Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. The wood-paneled room, usually reversed for high stakes baccarat and blackjack, cradled many of the most memorable moments in poker, now but a distant memory in the few minds of those who were there and remember.
In the mid-1970s, the finale grew larger and media and public interest intensified, requiring a bigger area. So, Jack Binion moved the final table into the rear of the Horseshoe, next to where a large bar existed. That would be home to poker's World Championship for the next decade.
In 1987, Binion's Horseshoe tripled in size when the old Mint Casino was purchased and annexed into the Horseshoe. That gave the WSOP far more space than it had ever seen before. The tournament and the final table shifted to the newer and larger area where every champion was crowned up until 1997.
That memorable year, which became Stu Ungar's final poker swansong victory, the final table was moved outdoors. Playing poker outside seemed like an odd shift, but the Fremont Street Experience, a large canopy towering over the downtown area, had just opened and all the casinos and merchants were eager to see the excitement of the WSOP and television cameras filming outdoors on one of the most famous streets in the world.
The outdoor experiment failed, largely due to the weather, which was quite hot that day. Players were sweating in the 90-degree heat. That wouldn't happen again. The following year, when Scotty Nguyen won the title, it was held back indoors at Binion's Horseshoe.
The year 1999 marked another move for the final table. The action shifted upstairs to a large ballroom called “Benny's Bullpen,” named after the Horseshoe's late founder Benny Binion. It was actually used as a bingo hall most of the time. But during April and May, the room hosted the WSOP. That would be the finale's last home at Binion's Horseshoe. It also was the location of what many consider the most important moment in poker history, when Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event in 2003.
The case of the 2005 WSOP bears special mention. Even though the action had shifted to the Rio that year, the final table was still scheduled to be played down at the old Horseshoe. This was due to an agreement with then-Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who was eager to commemorate the city's 100th anniversary with holding as many special events downtown as possible. To satisfy Mayor Goodman and honor the city that has hosted the WSOP since its inception, action shifted to the Horseshoe one final time. Joe Hachem's historic win that year ended up being the final WSOP-related event played at the Horseshoe (now simply called “Binion's”).
In 2006, the final table was played inside the Rio's Amazon Room. While huge, it wasn't nearly large enough to host such a gathering, right in the midst of the poker boom. Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang won their titles in the Amazon Room, which was part of the Rio's expansive convention center.
What's ahead in the future? No one knows. But at least for now, the Penn and Teller Theater seems to be the perfect arena for poker's grandest celebration.