Every ten years or so the World Series of Poker gets redefined.
Old times fade away, replaced by distinctive new eras. Each successive decade produces more players, bigger prize money, and new innovations which improve the experience of both playing and watching the most storied attraction in poker.
Consider what happened in ten-year-intervals between 1973 and today. Each and every WSOP during the years 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003 ushered in significant milestones. Moreover, all of these years were televised.
This naturally leads to a larger question which applies to 2013. What will happen at this year's WSOP which will leave an lasting impact and legacy?
We shall see.
Forty Years Ago – The 1973 WSOP
The fourth WSOP was the first modern series of events as we know it today. A succession of preliminary tournaments was added to the schedule – including Seven-Card Stud, Razz, Ace-to-Five Lowball, Deuce-to-Seven Lowball, Five-Card Stud, and a lower buy-in No-Limit Hold'em event which all led up to the Main Event, better known as the World Championship. Coming off the huge public relations bonanza of “Amarillo Slim” Preston's victory the year before, followed by his well-received national publicity tour, mainstream media focused considerable attention on poker's world championship for the first time.
That same year, CBS Television filmed a one-hour documentary narrated by the world's most famous gambler at the time, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. When the show appeared on television, millions of viewers got their first glimpse of high-stakes poker and the glamour that would come to be associated with the WSOP.
The 1973 WSOP was also noteworthy for being the first organized poker competition with a tournament director. Eric Drache, who would later be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, oversaw his first WSOP that year. He would remain in that post every year until 1988. Drache's many contributions and the institution of standard rules and procedures became the foundation of modern poker tournaments as we know them today.
The star of the 1973 WSOP was undoubtedly “Puggy” Pearson. Not only did he win the World Championship that year, he won two other titles as well – making three wins in all. Although several players have tied that mark over the years, Pearson was the first to post a trio of wins. The fields were considerably small back then, but in Pearson's defense, there were only seven events – and Pearson won three of them.
Thirty Years Ago – The 1983 WSOP
The 14th annual WSOP marked a transition from a competition mostly made up of hard-core professional gamblers to a gathering more representative of typical poker players. For the first time ever, unknown amatuers had a reasonable opportunity to play in the world championship. For them, the avenue to fame and riches was something called a “satellite.”
A few years earlier, Eric Drache came up with the novel idea to run several mini-tournaments to be held just prior to the start of the Main Event. The objective of these small tournaments – sometimes with multple tables and other times with just a single table – was to enable players with smaller bankrolls a chance to win their way into the Main Event.
Keep in mind that a $10,000 buy-in was a lot of money, especially back in 1983 – the equivalent of about $24,000 today. By entering and winning a satellite tournament, recreational players could post one-tenth of that amount (or less in super satellites) and stairstep their way to a championship.
That's exactly what happened as Tom McEvoy, then an unknown accountant from Michigan, ended up winning the 1983 title. Although another non-pro named Hal Fowler had won the Championship four years earlier, McEvoy's victory was significantly different. First, unlike Fowler, he satellited his way into the tournament. Second, McEvoy proved to have actual staying power in the game, eventually going on to win four gold bracelets. Fowler, the 1979 Champion, never played in the Main Event again and disappeared into oblivion.
Nonetheless, the 1983 Main Event did produce a devastating setback to the popularity of the annual competition. That year, a television film crew was brought in to tape the action, which was to be broadcast later nationally. No one could have foresee that McEvoy would end up playing heads-up against Rod Peate in a match that went nearly seven hours, a mind-boggling exercise that severely tested the patience of the broadcast crew, which vowed afterward to never televise poker again.
And that's exactly what happened. After the fiasco (in television terms), the WSOP would not be filmed again for another five years.
That year also included the first major scandal associated with the WSOP. Publisher Larry Flynt made several side bets with fellow gamblers, including Doyle Brunson. According to reports, the long shot Flynt stood the chance to collect $1 million is he made the final table and $8 million if he somehow managed to win the Main Event. Flynt actually came close, finishing in 12th place. Later, it was revealed that Flynt payed off several players to dump their chips to him during the tournament, news which infuriated casino patriarch Jack Binion.
That said, the legacy of the 1983 series was the satellite, and it's dramatic impact on attendance. As noted in the book called “All In,” by Storms Reback and Jonathan Grotenstein, “From 1981 to 1986 the number of entrants in the Championship event nearly doubled, jumping from 75 to 141.
If the first WSOP expansion was ignited by McEvoy, twenty years later another accountant would usher in an entirely new era, utterly unimaginable to those who were there back in 1983.
Twenty Years Ago – The 1993 WSOP
The 1993 WSOP almost didn't happen. Few now remember the devastating ruling just a few months prior to the WSOP starting when the Internal Revenue Service declared its intent to withold 20 percent of all poker winnings from the overall tournament prize pool. Furthermore, all tournament players were to be issued a standard reporting form which taxed all poker winnings, but also didn't allow loses to be written off against gains. As one can imagine, the potential impact this would have had on the WSOP would have been catastrophic.
Tournament Directors Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland rushed into action. They essentially saved the WSOP from disaster by negotiating a reporting process with the IRS whereby only excessive wins would be recorded. Furthermore, losses would be written off against gains.
Two players dominated the preliminary events held that year as Ted Forrest and Phil Hellmuth, Jr. each won three gold bracelets. However, the Main Event seized the headline due to the way it unfolded and the memorable course of events that transpired over four days.
Nothing against Jim Bechtel, the eventual World Champion that year, who has proven himself over the test of time, but John Bonetti was the real star of the 1993 series. The gruff, expletive-spewing Brooklynite won his second gold bracelet that year, and then dominated the Main Event like no one before or since. Yet, he ended up finishing in third place.
Bonetti absolutely steamrolled over the first three days of the Championship. His end of Day 1 stack was the largest in WSOP history, some 40 times the initial stack size, representing nearly 20 percent of the total chips in play – a staggering advantage over everyone.
Bonetti arrived at the final table holding nearly 40 percent of the total chips in play. Sadly for him, he ended up finishing in third-place following one of the most unlikely scenarios ever for an event if this caliber. The famous (some may say infamous) hand where Bonetti flopped top pair and top kicker with ace-king, only to get rolled by Jim Bechtel who flopped a set of sixes is still discussed today.
Two previous World Champions made the final table that year – Brad Daugherty and Mansour Matloubi. Henry Orenstein, inventor of the hole card camera technology that would come to redefine the way poker is shown on television, finished 12th. Even Mori Eskandani, who runs ESPN's television production today, finished in 15th place.
Ten Years Ago – The 2003 WSOP
Much has been written and said about the 2003 WSOP, and rightly so. It was the most pivotal series in history for several reasons.
First, this was the last WSOP controlled by the legendary Binion Family. By 2003, Binion's Horseshoe had become a shell of its former greatness. The WSOP that year represented one last chance for old glory to shine – and did it ever.
Most of us remember 2003 as the year of Chris Moneymaker. However, the biggest names in poker dominated the preliminary events. The greats won gold bracelets — and lots of them. Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Huck Seed, Layne Flack, Mickey Appleman, John Juanda, Daniel Negreanu, Men “the Master” Nguyen, Chris Ferguson, Erik Seidel, and Carlos Mortensen were among the illustrious winners. Imagine a single series with Brunson, Chan, and Hellmuth all winning titles. In fact, Chan and Hellmuth both won two each that year.
The perfect storm of 2003 was captured by television cameras and was broadcast in living rooms from coast-to-coast. ESPN could not have picked a better year to come and film, and for the first time actually serialize the Main Event in multiple parts. The WSOP wasn't just an oddball sporting event anymore, used as filler during the slowest time of the year. It was must-see TV. It was a reality show with a dream-come-true conclusion.
That WSOP undoubtedly triggered what became known as the poker boom. A year later, the world largest gaming company would take over control and eventually move the WSOP to the Rio. Three years later, the WSOP Main Event would draw more than ten times the number of entrants than in 2003, as 8,773 players signed up to play for the 2006 world championship. Indeed, we're still feeling the impacts of ten years ago today.
Every WSOP produces memorable moments. That said, given the past, the bar is set extra high for 2013. With all the changes now happening in the game, including what some predict will be another poker boom, it remains to be seen what lasting legacy 2013 will leave behind. One thing is for sure. It's been a fascinating four decades.