These days, poker is big business.
With televised coverage, mentions in films and TV shows galore, and those little poker gift sets being unwrapped by people around the country each Christmas, it would be pretty hard to avoid.
Of course, not everybody is au fait with the inner workings of the game or know how to play, and many have never even played, but everybody at least knows what it is.
However, you don’t have to go back very far at all and this was not even nearly the case.
Back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, other games took the limelight, and even through the 70s and 80s poker wasn’t the casino game goliath that it is now.
Indeed, in 1970, there were only 50 poker tables in the whole of Las Vegas and just 70 in the entire state of Nevada,
One of the things that helped popularise the game, and many of its more recent variations, was the World Series of Poker, often abbreviate simply to WSOP. In fact, the World Series can probably take sole responsibility.
This annual competition has grown in size since its first year to the point where the money at stake wis eye watering even if you finish in the top 50, the number of entries is regularly into the six thousands, and the best players have been turned into global superstars, while global superstars want to become top players.
This is the story of the World Series of Poker.
Benny Binion – WSOP Founder
You have to remember that casinos back in the middle of the 20th century were not the same sorts of places as they are today.
Whatever you think of the gambling industry, it is a heck of a lot cleaner and safer than it ever used to be back then.
Las Vegas was, for a while, quite literally run by the mob, and casino owners all over the world would cheat their customers and use force where necessary, especially if cheating by players was discovered.
This is the environment Benny Binion operated in, and by all accounts, he wasn’t a very nice man. In fact, we would go as far as to say he was a bit of a sh*t, and certainly a gangster.
He was born in 1904, passed away in 1989, and during his 85 years on this planet he managed to squeeze in moonshining, running illegal gambling dens, multiple murders, running the Dallas mob, bribery, and a 5 year prison sentence for tax evasion.
Oh, and he founded the WSOP too.
He learned about gambling as a child, when instead of going to school he travelled around with his father, a horse trader, and would gamble with farmers, merchants, and other horse traders at the various events he was taken to.
He also got into small time criminality at a young age, mostly to do with gambling, and had a very colourful life right up until he was in his 50s.
Although still not exactly ‘straight’, after this point he was at least doing his best impression of a legitimate businessman, and he had stopped murdering people which was a step in the right direction.
He was definitely a visionary, being the first casino owner to carpet his floors instead of covering them with sawdust, the first to chauffeur his customers from the airports to the casino in limousines, and the first to offer complimentary drinks to all customers not just the high rollers.
Indeed, despite the fact that he was clearly a bit of a psycho, his customers loved him, especially the high rollers.
After his death, WSOP winner and Poker Hall of Famer, ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston, said of him:
“He was either the gentlest bad guy or the baddest good guy you’d ever seen.”
However you choose to think of him, he was certainly a character, and he did an awful lot for the poker industry as you will soon find out.
His famous casino was Binion’s Horseshoe, where much of the early part of the WSOP story takes place, and he even used a booth in the restaurant downstairs as his ‘office’, never bothering with anything more formal. He used to sit there with a pistol on his hip and a shotgun under the table.
If that doesn’t say ‘gangster’ we don’t know what does.
The Texas Gamblers Reunion
If you have read our article on Nick ‘the Greek’ Dandolos, you will have seen that we credited him in part with inspiring the WSOP.
It’s true, his mammoth 5-month poker session against Johnny Moss did plant a seed inside Benny Binion’s mind, but it would take another 20 years to germinate and turn into the first World Series of Poker.
While Binion had arranged and hosted other small-time competitions between players for the entertainment of his customers, it wasn’t until he attended the first and only Texas Gamblers Reunion in 1969 that he put two and two together.
The event was set up by two men; Tom Moore, the part owner of the Holiday Casino in Reno, and Vic Vickrey, a gambler and some might say visionary.
They invited some of the best poker players they knew of to compete in a high stakes game at the Holiday Casino, that would be played over several days.
It didn’t cause a stir or attract much interest outside of those in the know, but some of the people in attendance went on to become poker legends:
- Jimmy ’the Greek’ Snyder (Poker commentator, no connection to Nick the Greek)
- Benny Binion (WSOP Founder)
- Doyle Brunson (WSOP Main Event Winner x 2)
- Thomas ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston (WSOP Main Event Winner)
- Johnny Moss (WSOP Main Event Winner x 3)
- Walter ‘Puggy’ Pearson (WSOP Main Event Winner)
- Brian ‘Sailor’ Roberts (WSOP Main Event Winner)
- Jack Straus (WSOP Main Event Winner)
This was an important game because, without it, the first WSOP would not have gone ahead the year after.
You may have noticed Benny Binion in that list, and despite other men giving him the idea, it was Binion who put in the hard yards to make the WSOP a regular event, and developed it into what it has become today.
Moore and Vickrey didn’t fancy running the Texas Gamblers Reunion for a second time, so Benny Binion stepped in, and the rest as they say, is history.
1970 – The First Ever World Series of Poker
The very first WSOP took place in 1970, was played by just 6 people, and wasn’t even a competition. Even the idea to crown an overall winner came very late in the day, and was decided democratically, whereby all the players could vote for the person they thought played the best.
That person was Johnny Moss, who won a small silver trophy. Cute, huh? When you consider the 2022 main event winner got $10,000,000.
The other players were:
- Doyle Brunson
- Walter ‘Puggy’ Pearson
- Thomas ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston
- Brian ‘Sailor’ Roberts
- Crandell Addington
- Carl Cannon
Binion recognised that he would have to up his game if he wanted the WSOP to go anywhere. Hardly anyone had paid any attention to the first event, but one reporter who did attend (and was thoroughly bored by it) suggested turning it into a competition to make it more interesting.
Binion took this advice, and more from ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston who added that the competition should be a winner takes all freezeout to really up the stakes.
So in 1971 the six players all put up $5,000 to create a winner’s pot of $30,000.
Johnny Moss won again.
It was in 1972 though, that the WSOP finally gained the sort of attention Binion was hoping for, and this caused an unexpected reaction from some of the players.
‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston took the crown that year, after 2 days of playing and with much more press coverage too. The way in which he won though was, apparently, due to some messing around by the other players who claimed not to want the attention of being crowned ‘Poker Champion’ would bring them.
The media coverage had actually put them off, and so of the final three players, Doyle Brunson was allowed to withdraw with the value of his chips (they told the media he had a stomach ache), while ‘Puggy’ Pearson was convinced to play soft so as to let Slim win, as ‘Puggy’ had a questionable history and it was thought his reputation might not be good for the WSOP.
It’s a good job Slim did win too, because he courted the publicity and then some.
He spent a year doing interviews and talk shows like Johnny Carson, and even appeared in a movie called California Split with George Segal and Elliott Gould (Ross and Monica Geller’s Dad in FRIENDS), bringing tons of attention to the World Series of Poker and even attracting televised coverage for the 1973 event.
If someone who was camera shy or less charismatic had won in 1972, the fame of the WSOP may not have grown at the rate it did.
‘Puggy’ Pearson Would get his turn at the top the following year though, beating 12 other entrants for a top prize of $130k.
WSOP into the 1980s
The competition grew in stature over the years that followed, with the number of competitors, and therefore also the amount of prize money, going up each time.
There were constant adjustments to the format, the games played in preliminary events and the like, but the month of May and the location, Binion’s Horseshoe, were constants.
A significant change came in 1978 when, for the first time, the main event prize money was split instead of being a winner takes all affair:
- Winner – 50% of prize money
- Second – 20% of prize money
- Third – 15% of prize money
- Fourth – 10% of prize money
- Fifth – 5% of prize money
This meant that even coming in 5th (out of 42 in this particular year), you could more than double your buy in.
Each of the preliminary events now paid out over $10,000 too, so in just 8 years the competition had become serious business for professional poker players, who could win more than a years average salary (back in the 70s) in just a few days.
1978 was also a stand out year because it saw the youngest ever winner of the competition in 28 year old Bobby Baldwin. He didn’t hold the record for long, but he was the first ‘youngster’ to take 1st place.
The next year saw another shock winner in Hal Fowler, the competition’s first ever amateur entrant to win the main event. Hal’s victory is sometimes called ‘the greatest upset in the history of the WSOP’, since he defeated a final table of professional players to take the $270k prize. It is rumoured he had even borrowed his $10k entry fee from Benny Binion, which was… risky, given Binion’s past.
Nevertheless, his win spurred on many a non-professional player to sharpen their skills and enter the competition, which saw an almost 50% increase in entries the following year, doubling to over 100% just two years later.
This brought in much more money and in 1981 the format was changed again so that every player at the final table would win a share of the prize fund, it was also the year that the tragic Stu Ungar joined the very exclusive club of people who won the main event 2 years in a row.
NBC televised the 1981 event partly due to the way Ungar shook things up (his being so much younger than the other players and from New York rather than Texas) broadcasting it into millions of homes who now all had TVs, and the competition’s renown exploded.
Satellite competitions were added next, a genius move that allowed large numbers of amateur players to attempt to win a seat at the real thing, allowing the competition to grow, and grow it did.
Lots more firsts came in 1983:
- First time the 1st placed player won over $500k ($540k)
- First time over 100 people entered (there were 108)
- First time the final table was increased to 9 players.
- First time a satellite entrant won the competition (Tom McEvoy)
- First time a foreign player placed in the money (Donnacha O’Dea in 6th)
- Longest heads up match in World Series History until 2006 (7 hours between Tom McEvoy and Rod Peate)
By the mid-1980s there was so much money pouring into the competition and so many entrants, that even those finishing 30th were getting a small share of the prize. Not only that, but Binion’s Horse Shoe wasn’t big enough to host the event alone, with tables in the early rounds spilling over into neighbouring casinos.
The old guard like Johnny Moss, Puggy Pearson and Doyle Brunson were still entering periodically, and although they did often finish in the money, a new breed of players was making things difficult for them.
For instance, in 1987 and 1988, 30 year old Johnny Chan won back to back Championships and the average age of winners and entrants was coming down. As evidence of this, 1989 saw a 24 year old Phil Hellmuth become the youngest player to win the main event, defeating the defending champion Johnny Chang in a head to head.
At the end of this glorious decade of growth for the World Series of Poker, its owner and founder, Benny Binion, suffered a heart attack on Christmas Day 1989, and died. His son had already taken over much of the responsibility for running the show, but now the WSOP was undoubtedly entering a new era.
WSOP in the 1990s
The decade that would see the dawn of the internet also started with a bang for the World Series of Poker.
The 1991 series was the first in which over $1 million would be paid to the main event winner, the lucky guy on this occasion being Brad Daugherty. It was also the first year that over 200 players would enter the main event.
The number of entrants actually dropped slightly in 1992 for the first and only time, but it was back to normal service in 1993 with over 230 players entering the main event, and both Phil Hellmuth and Ted Forrest winning 3 bracelets apiece in the preliminary events.
The 1994 series was the WSOP’s 25th (or silver) anniversary, so to celebrate, the winner not only won the now regular £1 million top prize, but also their own weight in silver. The winner was the now disgraced Russ Hamilton, not a light man, but the weight of the shame he carried later after cheating millions from defrauded players in the UltimateBet scandal, was significant.
On a more positive note, the 1996 series saw the first woman win an event outright when Barbara Enright won the $2,500 Pot Limit Hold’em preliminary, and the following year the number of entrants broke through the 300 barrier for the first time.
Stu Ungar achieved a record tying 3rd main event win in 1997, less than a year before his untimely death in 1998, which was the same year that the final table only had 5 players for the first time ever.
Although the competition was still growing and changing in terms of the number of players, preliminary events, and overall structure, it had begun to feel a little stilted towards the end of the decade.
The final prize money hadn’t budged for almost ten years, and going into the 2000s the WSOP was no longer the only poker competition on the block.
On top of this, family fall outs forced Jack Binion to sell his stake in Binion’s Horseshoe, which itself owned the WSOP, causing many top players to boycott the event in the early 2000s leading to noticeably smaller fields, so there was a period of a good few years where the whole thing felt like it may fall apart.
Then Chris Moneymaker came along.
The Horseshoe (and therefore the WSOP) was now run and owned by Jack Binion’s sister, Becky, but her tenure was to be short lived.
Her brother Jack had actually been president of the casino since he was 26, way back in the 60s, so Becky’s hostile takeover did not make her popular.
With a lot of top players steering clear of the World Series of Poker, it meant there was space for other, perhaps less experienced players, to come in and get a little further than they otherwise might have done.
After a 2001 and 2002 series that saw the top prize money bumped to $1.5 million and $2 million respectively, Chris Moneymaker tried his luck via an online satellite tournament in 2003.
Something about his crazy name – which was assumed real for 20 years until he admitted it was fake in 2022 (he signed up with a fake ID he used to use go to drinking) – as well as the way he gained entry and then dramatically sent some big professional players home, captured the imagination of the fans.
They could relate to him, so his wins felt like theirs.
It helped that he dispatched two-time World Champion Johnny Chan in a ballsy move earlier in the competition, before then coming out on top in a thrilling dual with Phil Ivey to reach the final table – both had decent hands and went all in with Ivey favourite to win, and while the flop gave them both a full house, Moneymaker’s was the stronger.
Chris did battle with Umberto Brenes at another table and looked to be going home, before a lucky 8 on the turn saved the day, and also made a hell of a call against Dutch Boyd. In short, he made many decisions that no poker strategist would ever recommend, and got lucky. More than a few times.
Nevertheless, at the final table (after also knocking out 1995 Champion, Dan Harrington) it was down to just Chris Money Maker and Sam Farha, heads up and with $2.5 million on the table. Literally. They plonk it there right between the final two players just to make it even more stressful for them.
At one point, Farha had the strongest hand with a measly pair of 9s, Chris had made two big raises, and then went all in with nothing. He was chip leader by a good amount and had nothing in his hand, so it was a massive bluff that, had Farha called, would have ended the competition.
Farha played it safe, and folded.
What was to be the final hand saw Farha go into the flop as 2:1 favourite, but once again the flop was kind to Moneymaker, giving him two pair over Farha’s pair of Jacks. Chris raised Farha’s $175k by $300k at which point Sam Farha tried to play Moneymaker at his own game by going all in. Moneymaker immediately called it, leaving fate to decide.
The turn, an 8 of diamonds, did nothing for either of them, leaving Chris Moneymaker with an 83% chance of winning the hand and the tournament. Farha needed a Jack or a 10 to stay alive, but the river showed a 5, giving Chris Moneymaker a full house (5, 5, 5, 4, 4).
It was an incredible scene, and Farha would never top his second place finish, but Chris Moneymaker had inspired swathes of recreational players to try their luck as well, creating what became known as the ‘Moneymaker effect’.
Interest in poker soared worldwide, creating a tidal wave of applications to poker websites and competitions, and giving the WSOP a much needed shot in the arm.
Bye Bye Binions, Hello Harrahs
The success of 2003 saw 2,576 player enter the main event competition in 2004, yet despite the World Series doing well on the face of things, there were problems under the surface.
In January 2004, with mounting debts and money owed to pension and health insurance benefits, federal marshals shut Binion’s Horseshoe down. Becky Binion was forced to sell, with Harrah’s being the buyer, to the tune of $50 million of which an estimated $30 million was debt.
This meant that, for the first time in its history, the Horseshoe and therefore the World Series of Poker, was no longer owned or operated by a member of the Binion family.
Harrah’s continued the competition riding on the success of the previous year, doubling the top prize to £5 million and once again, it was a player who had entered via an online satellite competition who won the money. Greg Rayner.
The 2005 series would be the first in which another casino other than Binions Horseshoe was used for the majority of the competition, and also the last time that the Horseshoe would host the final table of the main event.
The Rio All Suite handled most of the action, and took over completely in 2006, hosting what is still the biggest poker tournament in history by prize pool; there was $82,512,162 in the pot, and each of the final 12 finishers in the main event would become millionaires. 8,773 entered the main event, and even those finishing in the 500s were in the money.
The World Series of Poker had reached its zenith.
The numbers would dip over the next few years, but the competition was still incredibly popular with millions upon millions being won by players professional and amateur, not to mention all the celebrities taking part.
Some of the OGs like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim were still rocking up too, well into the late noughties, no doubt astounded by how far the competition had come, with cameras installed into tables, professional lighting, sponsorship and the crowds.
Joe Cada became the youngest player to win the main event in WSOP history in 2009, at just 21 years; in 2011 every single event was covered live for the first time, and events were held outside of Las Vegas too; in 2014 the top prize reached the $10 million mark; in 2015 the top 1,000 players finished in the money; in 2018 the final table lasted a whopping 422 hands, and the heads up between Tony Miles and John Cynn accounted for 199 of them, lasting 10 hours; the number of bracelet events topped 100 in 2020.
All sorts of milestones have been achieved since Harrahs took over the competition and blew it to stratospheric levels, expanding the brand to Europe, online, and Asia Pacific (briefly). They couldn’t have taken over at a better time, and were perfectly equipped to handle the competition’s growth which, in all honesty, the Binion’s team were probably not going to do.
Even though Harrahs have since rebranded as Caesars and sold off the Rio All Suite which had become the WSOP’s home, the competition remains very stable. Perhaps in a similar place to where it was in the early 2000s; steady but could do with another shot in the arm.
World Series of Poker Previous Winners
Here is every winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event since the competition began:
|Thomas ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston
|Walter ‘Puggy’ Pearson
|Brian ‘Sailor’ Roberts
You can see from scanning the table just how quickly things developed at key points, such as after the Moneymaker effect came into play, and when the competition plateaued.
Anyone who won more than once is in bold, which also makes it easy to see that this hasn’t happened recently and is unlikely to happen again either, what with the number of entrants these days compared to back in the day.
Perhaps a good demonstration of how much the game itself is a balance of luck and skill.