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 all events were played at the Rio, which was 2006.
If the so-called “poker boom” hit a high point, it most certainly was the turnout for the 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event. That year’s championship exceeded even the most optimistic of projections, drawing a whopping 8,773 entries, an unheard of number for a $10,000 buy-in event.
While the huge numbers made bold headlines, gold bracelet champions were the bulk of that year’s story, with amateur poker player Jamie Gold playing the starring role, ultimately an award-winning performance, which was fitting that he once worked as a Hollywood agent. Gold put on one of the most dominant displays ever for the Main Event in its history. He wasn't seriously threatened as the chip leader and wasn't ever in danger of busting during final three days of the tournament. Gold ended up steamrolling over every opponent at the final table, catching every card and hitting every flop imaginable. One would have a hard time coming up with a more domineering performance in a World Championship, and that's saying something given the pedigree of wins and winners.
Gold not only won his first and only gold bracelet, he also collected a record-setting cash prize for poker at the time. The $12 million payout was the largest ever for a poker tournament, and now ranks second only to the 2012 Big One for One Drop, which was pumped up largely by a staggering $1 million buy-in.
The 2006 WSOP began considerably later in the year than any series, either before or since. Action rolled out with opening day on June 25th. Given poker’s worldwide explosion at the time, everyone anticipated that this would be a record-breaking series and a showcase of the game. No one would be disappointed by the results.
Despite the huge fields which included many first-time visitors to the WSOP, the first two weeks of the series featured many familiar names that won, including a virtual “Who’s Who” of the game. Gold bracelet winners for Events 1-19 included – Brandon Cantu, Rafe Furst, Dutch Boyd, Mark Vos, Bill Chen, David Williams, Sammy Farha, Max Pescatori, and Allen Cunningham.
Event #20 turned out to be truly one for the ages, and became arguably the most memorable moment of the entire series. David “Chip” Reese won the inaugural $50,000 buy-in Poker Players Championship. This was a most fitting victory given that the prestigious tourney was established and designed to measure the best all-around player. That year’s Poker Players Championship included a mix of games, with No-Limit Hold’em played at the ESPN-televised final table. Reese, long regarded as the world’s best player, proved his reputation was well-deserved, coming out on top in a stacked tournament that would later bear his name (the trophy was eventually named in his honor). Reese passed away a few years later, which meant this victory ended up as his last at the WSOP.
Remarkably, as the 2006 series reached the midway point, no one could have predicted the eventual WSOP Player of the Year would just be warming up. Jeff Madsen, then an unknown college student, won two gold bracelets, and then came close to earning another by finishing third in two other events.
While Madsen instantly became the most-talked about player at the Rio for a few weeks, the later-half of the schedule included several other noteworthy winners. Adding to their WSOP glories, gold bracelet winners in Events 21-45 were Scott Clements, Bill Chen (winning a second bracelet that year), David Pham, Eric Froehlich, and Daniel Alaei. However, no player garnered the spotlight more than the winner of Event #34.
Phill Hellmuth stood at one win behind both Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson, the results from both winning their tenth gold bracelets the year before. Then, Hellmuth caught his rivals with a most-satisfying win in the $1,000 buy-in Limit Hold’em tourney, thereby putting the three poker icons into a three-way tie for the all-time wins lead. Hellmuth would later pull away from the field and lap everyone, distancing himself into a category all his own.
Given all the big names who won gold bracelets, the newcomers who entered the elite fraternity of WSOP winners, and the record overall numbers for attendance and prize money, the 2006 series is rightly remembered as one of the most successful in history. Given it was also Chip Reese’s final swan song in poker after a lifetime of success in the game, that marvelous year may very well have also been the most memorable.