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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Poker entered a new age
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
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