WSOP history

HOW IT ALL STARTED

It's hard to believe that when the World Series of Poker began back in 1970, there were fewer than 50 poker tables in the entire city of Las Vegas. There were only 70 poker tables in the whole state of Nevada. Binion's Horseshoe, the host casino, did not even have a poker room. The contest that would come to decide poker's first world champion was held inside an alcove about the size of an ordinary hotel room. Thirty or so gamblers shoehorned themselves around a few poker tables. They didn't know it at the time, but they were making poker history.

Horseshoe Casino patriarch and poker icon Benny Binion is widely credited with dreaming up with the championship format. But laurels should probably go to two lesser-known men - Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey. Moore, a Texan, was part-owner of the Holiday Casino in Reno. Vickrey was a gambling insider, a visionary man with grand ideas and big dreams. In 1969, Moore and Vickrey jointly invited several poker aficionados to Reno to attend the first (and what turned out to be only) Texas Gamblers Reunion. Among those who played in several high-stakes cash games spread over several days were Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Rudy "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone, and Benny Binion. A few notable poker players made trek as well, including Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Johnny Moss, and Puggy Pearson. The seed that would eventually blossom into the World Series of Poker was planted.

Indeed, one must wonder if and how poker might be different today had Moore and Vickrey sustained their annual get-together. Instead, they passed on the opportunity to host a poker gathering the following year. What a fateful decision that turned out to be. Inspired by what he had seen in Reno a few months earlier, Binion pounced on what he envisioned as a golden opportunity.

THE EARLY YEARS

That first World Series of Poker, with little more than a handful of players, attracted no public attention and little press coverage. No one outside of Las Vegas knew about the World Series of Poker - or cared about the outcome. The inaugural world champion, Johnny Moss, did not even win a poker tournament. He was elected "best all-around player" in a vote by his peers after several days of high-stakes card playing.

Binion realized that improvements had to be made if the World Series of Poker was ever to gain the prestige the title suggested. The following year, the WSOP was played as a freeze-out. Seven poker players posted a $5,000 entry fee. Johnny Moss won the winner-take-all prize and, therefore, retained his title as world champion.

Poker has a long and storied history. But "Amarillo Slim" Preston's upset victory in 1972 has to go down as one of the most significant moments in the history of the game. Although he was one of only twelve entries that year, he parlayed his personal triumph into a tidal wave of publicity that flooded the nation. Afterward, the talkative Texan became poker's greatest living ambassador. He went on a publicity tour that brought attention and status to the WSOP for the first time. Over the next decade, Preston appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show eleven times. He was cast in movies. He wrote a best-selling book. With Preston as the willing matador waving a red cape to the media, the WSOP had caught the public's fancy.

In 1973, CBS Sports televised the World Series for the first time. The images of poker's fourth annual world championship are comical by modern standards. Wide polka-dotted lapels, lamb-chop sideburns, and burning cigars make the final table look more like a time capsule, in retrospect, than an exhibition of poker savvy. Nonetheless, Puggy Pearson won a well-deserved victory. The WSOP was also expanded to include four preliminary events - Seven-card Stud, Razz, Deuce-to-seven Draw, and a lower buy-in No Limit Hold'em event. Pearson won two of those events as well. Indeed, 1973 was a very good year for Mr. Pearson.

After Johnny Moss won his third championship the following year, Doyle Brunson solidified his position as one of poker's top players by winning back-toback titles. The next major change in format was instituted in 1978 when the Main Event's prize money was divided up for the first time. The top five finishers all received a cash payout. It was also the first year a woman entered the WSOP. Barbara Freer became the first player to break the sex barrier, taking her place in what had been an all-male poker fraternity.

Hal Fowler's stunning upset victory in the 1979 WSOP marked the first time an amateur player prevailed over the elite. Many longtime poker professionals were as shocked as they were embarrassed by the outcome. But Fowler's win was a herald of things to come in future years. Following Fowler's example, increasing numbers of aspiring amateurs - including many players from overseas - began making the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas every April and May. Sadly, Fowler was never able to enjoy the fruits of his contribution to the WSOP legacy. He never played in the WSOP again and was mostly forgotten afterward.

GROWING PAINS

Stu "The Kid" Ungar burst onto the poker scene with the full force of a firestorm. He was the perfect lightning rod to electrify what had largely been an eccentric enclave of leathery Texans who were used to winning championships and most of the money. Ungar won in 1980 and repeated as champion again in 1981. Being from New York and so different from his peers in so many ways, Ungar's achievement was sure to generate even more publicity for gambling's grandest event. NBC Sports dispatched a film crew to cover the '81 WSOP, which introduced poker into millions of homes for the first time.

By 1982, the WSOP had expanded to eleven preliminary events. A Ladies World Championship was added to the poker menu, in addition to the $10,000 buy-in Main Event. In all, the thirteen events played that year awarded over $2.6 million in prize money to the top finishers.

During the early 1980s, Jack Binion had assumed most of the daily duties of running the casino from his father Benny. His protégé, tournament director Eric Drache, gave poker its next infusion when the concept of the satellite was born in 1983. Attentive to the fact that to expand further, the World Series would need ordinary, everyday poker players to fill the seats, satellites allowed aspiring champions an opportunity to come and compete against the best players in the world. The idea was pure genius - and it worked.

Over the next few years, the WSOP continued to grow in both size and stature. By 1987, the minuscule Horseshoe Casino was barely big enough to play host to what had become a global gambling extravaganza. Fields for some tournaments were so big that a segment of the participants had to be tabled at adjacent casinos, including the Golden Nugget and Four Queens. When the Binion family purchased and eventually took over The Mint Casino next door, the Horseshoe finally opened a full-time poker room. Just when it seemed that Binion's Horseshoe was the capital of the poker universe and Benny Binion was its king, the man who was largely responsible for starting it all died, on Christmas Day in 1989.

THE 1990S

Benny Binion's passing solidified son Jack's role as the undisputed torch-bearer of the WSOP. He brought in two respected poker veterans to run things, Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland. Over the next decade, they presided over the World Series - each leaving his mark on the tournament in a distinct way, which included improvements to the structure, atmosphere, and public perception of the WSOP.

The Albrecht-McClelland duo were the ideal taskmasters to oversee a tournament that had become four weeks long and included twenty tournaments. The makeup of the WSOP continued to diversify as more women and international players joined the competition. Marking 1990 as the first year a non-American won the championship, Mansour Matloubi, an Iranian-born expatriot who resided in England, took the most prestigious prize in poker overseas for the first time.

The following year, the WSOP awarded its first million dollar cash prize. The Main Event also attracted over two hundred players for the first time. Within five years, three hundred players would enter the world championship.

Growing pains were a major concern once again in 1997. The Horseshoe's poker room was expanded and included a temporary tournament area that blocked off valet parking and the main casino entrance for nearly six weeks. There wasn't any other place to put the World Series. Poker players were, quite literally, taking up every bit of available bit space at the Horseshoe. That same year, the championship final table was played on a mammoth stage constructed on Fremont Street, beneath the new multi-million dollar electronic canopy overhead. Stu Ungar joined Johnny Moss as the only player to win three world championships. Sadly, he died without playing in another WSOP. With his passing, at least one record is likely to remain unbroken.

THE SONIC BOOM

Oddly enough, poker's next "sonic boom" coincided with the deteriorization and decline of the once-renowned Horseshoe. A split in the Binion family resulted in Jack's exclusion from WSOP operations. Many top names boycotted the casino and the tournament between 1999 and 2002. Despite its noted history, some controversy was long overdue at the World Series of Poker; and a number of high-profile disputes, with both dealers and players, made headlines.

By 2003, critics were beginning to suggest that the WSOP's best days were long gone. A new rival, the World Poker Tour, began to jostle for the affections of poker players, and the viewing public. During initial weeks of the 2003 World Series, fields were noticeably smaller; due in large measure to direct competition from the WPT.

Then, Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker and changed everything. That win shattered the old way of looking at the game and ushered in most of the changes that are in effect today. Moneymaker's staggering victory certainly ranks as one of the most important, if not the most critical event, in the 38-year history of the World Series of Poker. Everything was right for the perfect storm. A likeable young man with whom millions of potential poker players could easily identify, enjoyed a dream come true. And, it was all seen by millions of viewers worldwide on ESPN.

Poker entered a new age following Moneymaker's victory. Overnight, many professional poker players became celebrities - and celebrities suddenly wanted to become poker players. Poker had captured the public's imagination, and the World Series became the looking glass of a new wonderland.

The exploding amounts of prize money weren't too bad either. Moneymaker won $2.5 million for his victory. The following year, another amateur player, Greg Raymer, won $5 million. The year after that, $7.5 million was the top prize. Indeed, the World Series seemed to have it all - excitement, millions of dollars in prize money, prestige, and international fame. What it didn't have was the right venue to accompany the growth.

HARRAH'S MEANS BUSINESS

With unprecedented growth came many changes. Binion's Horseshoe was sold off in 2004, and Harrah's Entertainment acquired the rights to the World Series of Poker. Fittingly, the world's largest gaming company was now in charge of poker's biggest spectacle. The takeover could not have come at a better time. In 2005, the WSOP moved to the cavernous RIO All-Suites Casino and Hotel. More gaming space meant that more tournaments could be added to the schedule. "Build it and they will come" became the corporate mantra. And they did. Thousands of players flooded into Las Vegas in subsequent years, wildly exceeding even the most optimistic projections for turnout and prize money.

By 2006, the World Series of Poker was comprised of 45 tournaments, all awarding gold bracelets to the winners. Well over $100 million in prize money was won, making the WSOP the richest event in all of sports. Jamie Gold overcame the largest field in poker history when he defeated 8,772 fellow players and won $12 million as the top prize last year, surpassing the payout of events such as Wimbledon, The Masters, and the Kentucky Derby - combined.

The World Series has also expanded its reach beyond Las Vegas, to nearly a dozen casinos spread throughout the United States. The newly-formed World Series of Poker Circuit allowed poker players nationwide the opportunity to participate in poker's greatest tradition.

Big corporations also took notice. What was once an untouchable subculture largely rejected by potential advertisers and business partners has suddenly become a highly- desirable target demographic. Beer companies, auto makers, and other mainstream businesses are now eager to attach themselves to the success story that is the World Series of Poker. Incredibly, the next thing on the horizon for the World Series might be yet another boom.

But some critics believe poker's popularity may have peaked. Some people think the World Series of Poker can't possibly get any bigger. A few words of advice: Based on its long and rich history, don't bet against it.

Nolan Dala has been the Media Director for the World Series of Poker since 2002. He was the former PR Director for Binion's Horseshoe. He writes frequently on poker and gambling issues and lives in Las Vegas.


Photography courtesy of PokerImages and University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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