Preface: This year marks the tenth anniversary of the World Series of Poker being played at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. During this series, we’ll occasionally take a look back at the highlights from each of the past ten years. Today’s feature looks back at the year first year that the bulk of events were played at the Rio, which was 2005.
As the 2004 World Series of Poker came to a thrilling close, widespread consensus was that the game’s premier attraction desperately needed to find a new home. Fortunately, the mammoth-sized Rio, which was a Harrah’s Entertainment-owned property, was both available and eager to step into the role as new host, making the relocation from Binion’s Horseshoe much easier.
Action shifted from downtown to a much newer and glitzier location slightly off the Las Vegas Strip when the Rio All- Suite Hotel and Casino assumed the role as caretaker of the cradle of dreams for tens of thousands of poker players. From the opening event, which began on June 2nd, the overwhelming reaction was that the WSOP had not only done the practical thing, but had also made a wise decision for the common good that would serve the long term interest of the event and allow for considerably more growth. And grow it did.
There were 45 gold bracelet events held at the Rio during that inaugural year, with one unique caveat that the Main Event would conclude back at Binion’s Horseshoe as a final swansong to the past.
Poker journeyman Allen Cunningham made history as the first player ever to win a gold bracelet (in an open event) inside the new venue, topping the $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em opener, good for $725,405 and a well-deserved footnote as the Rio’s first poker champion. Cunningham was soon joined by several other notables over the next few weeks, each winning gold bracelets -- including Eric Froehlich, Erik Seidel, Josh Arieh, T.J. Cloutier, Barry Greenstein, Todd Brunson, Farzad Bonyadi, and others. However, Mark Seif outdid them all, winning two bracelets within just a week’s time.
Then, on the 25th of 45 events, Johnny Chan made WSOP history becoming the first player ever to reach the career ten-win mark. That lofty plateau seemed to be a real Mount Everest moment for the poker legend, with Chan alone atop the poker world. There was even widespread speculation Chan might run away from the field and begin distancing himself from his rivals. Then, the unexpected happened. Doyle Brunson stunned everyone and managed to accomplish what many thought might not still be possible.
He won his tenth, as well.
Just four days later the 71-year-old the “Godfather of Poker” won his tenth gold bracelet, inching back right up next Chan on the “all-time wins” leaderboard. Meanwhile, Phil Hellmuth languished behind them both, holding steady with nine wins. Ironically, that amazing week at the 2005 WSOP would be memorable far beyond reasons anyone could possibly have forecasted. To date, that’s the last time either Chan or Brunson have achieved a WSOP victory, while Hellmuth not only caught them both, but managed to win four gold bracelets in the nine years since that time.
For anyone thinking the gold bracelet race couldn’t be matched, next a seismic event -- which occurred in the Ladies Championship -- blew everyone in poker off the front pages of coverage an even went mainstream. Hollywood actress Jennifer Tilly won the title, an accomplishment she later described as, “better than an Oscar.” The comparison was fitting since Tilly once had been nominated for an Oscar for Best-Supporting Actress.
If victories by Chan, Brunson, and Tilly were among the highlights of the summer series, by contrast one of the most anticlimactic moments in WSOP lore took place the night and prolonged early morning when O’Neil Longston won his third gold bracelet in what (at the time) was the longest final table in poker history. Longston outlasted Frenchman Bruno Fitoussi in a Razz marathon match clocking in at a mind-numbing 15 hours.
The culmination of nearly four weeks of poker could have been anticlimactic given all the preliminary drama. However, when the Main Event drew a whopping 5,619 entries, nearly doubling the turnout from the previous year, it became apparent poker had reached a whole new dimension beyond the imagination. What was then the largest poker tournament in history made the Rio into a grand spectacle no one had ever seen or experienced before, with every seat and table filled to capacity, and ringed with thousands of autograph-hungry spectators.
Capping off all the action taking place at the Rio was the great anticipation of the last WSOP finale ever taking place in famed Binion’s Horseshoe. For many poker players, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend. Encouraged by Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, the championship finale was to return one final time to the historic place where this tradition had started some 35 years earlier. As part of Las Vegas’ centennial celebration held that year, Mayor Goodman was a major influence in shifting the final two days of action back downtown.
The final 27 players bagged up ad departed the Rio. They were relocated to Binion’s Horseshoe for the chance to be included in one final indelible memory. That first day, survivors played down to a final table, which was taped for broadcast on ESPN.
When the Main Event commenced with the final nine players, those who were lucky enough to get a front row seat to poker history in the making, realized the WSOP had simply come too far and was way too big for the global spectacle to continue being rooted simply in nostalgia. The tournament finale was played inside an old-converted bingo hall called “Benny’s Bullpen,” which became the hardest ticket ever to get in poker. Thousands of fans and spectators, many locals who had been following the action, all showed up for what may have been 250 total seats maximum jammed around the final table. The ensuring final day was a blend of excitement and utter chaos, adding yet another chapter to the long mystique of poker’s grandest tradition.
Then and there, another custom began for the first time. Joe Hachem, a semi-pro player from Australia, brought along a rowdy contingent of fellow countrymen, who sat in the crowd and shouted “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” each time their favorite won a pot. Until that time, poker had largely been a quiet affair for spectators. However, Hachem’s wild band of Aussies transformed the atmosphere around final tables forever and ushered in a new era in poker when fans could be part of the game and also join the fun. Since Hachem’s appearance, flag-waving fans have repeated the ambiance of a major sporting event numerous times.
In the early morning hours of July 8th, Joe Hachem raked in what turned out to be the final hand of the 2005 WSOP against runner-up Steve Dannenmann. Australian flags seemed to come from nowhere as spectators rushed onto the stage, instantly transforming Hachem into a national hero back in his home country. Add to that, he was $7.5 million richer and the game’s new World Champion.
It seemed so utterly fitting that things would all end this way, with a player from such a great distance away winning the final gold bracelet championship bracelet that would ever be awarded at the place where the tradition began with just a dream and intimate group of gamblers.
Indeed, if Binion’s Horseshoe had a soul, it was most certainly beaming with a broad smile on that final day. Make that a smile, along with a tear, watching that extraordinary crowning moment at the end of a long road. That journey had been such an astonishing climb from smoky backrooms with a few old-timers to an international attraction with thousands of players, winning millions of dollars, all shown on national television.
With the 2005 WSOP now complete, one era was officially over and a new age of unprecedented expansion had begun.