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Starting as a modest endeavor to recognize and promote some of the game’s best players, the World Series of Poker has grown into an international phenomenon. Since the first World Series of Poker was held in 1970, the multi-tournament series has created unprecedented interest in the game of poker, both in the United States and internationally.
The History of the WSOP – Humble Beginnings
While the World Series of Poker (or WSOP for short) is permanently linked with Las Vegas, the idea for the series didn’t originate in Sin City. Benny Binion, the creator of the WSOP, got his inspiration from an event held in Reno, Nevada in 1969.
Called the “Texas Gamblers Reunion,” this event was conceived by Tom Moore and Texan Vic Vickrey, who was part owner of the Holiday Casino in Reno. These two men got together a group of prolific poker players of the day, including Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Binion, (owner of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas) “Minnesota Fats” (Rudy Wanderone) and poker icons Crandell Addington, Doyle Brunson, Walter “Puggy” Pearson, Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston Jr. and Johnny Moss.
Held over the course of several days, this group of poker legends would play a series of high-stakes cash games, with Addington being the eventual winner of the Reunion. In the process, the groundbreaking event birthed the concept that would become the World Series of Poker. Brimming with ideas from his part in history, Binion would bring WSOP to life when he took the idea to Las Vegas and the Horseshoe.
The first World Series of Poker was held in 1970 as a series of cash games, including Texas Hold’em, five-card stud, razz, seven-card stud and deuce to seven low-ball draw. In all, six players participated in the first WSOP: Crandell Addington, Puggy Pearson, Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Moss.
Since the games were not held in a freezeout fashion, the winner was selected by a vote of the players. According to legend, the first vote was deadlocked, with each player voting for himself. On the second ballot, as legend has it, players were instructed to vote for the second-best player, Moss was picked as the winner and awarded a silver cup.
The WSOP in the 1970s – A Legend Grows
While word of the WSOP spread during the 70s, the event continued to be a small affair. Due to the obscurity of the inaugural event, Binion looked for ways to raise the profile of his fledgling WSOP. The following year, he held the first Main Event; a winner-take-all Texas Hold’em event with a $5,000 buy-in. Moss would once again triumph, grabbing the $30,000 prize in the process.
The 1972 and 1973 WSOP tournaments were significant for very different reasons. Amarillo Slim, the winner of the ’72 event, became the game’s first celebrity. Parlaying his victory into publicity, Amarillo Slim became in international celebrity, appearing on TV, in movies and authoring books. The ’73 series became its first televised event, although it would be many years before the medium could accurately capture the excitement and drama of the WSOP.
Throughout the 70s, the legend of the event grew more rapidly than the numbers. Some of the notable achievements during the decade included:
1974 – Johnny Moss became the only three-time winner (1970, 1971 and 1974)
1976 and 1977 – Doyle Brunson solidifies his place as one of poker’s great players when he becomes the first back-to-back winner of the Main Event
1978 – This year, two landmark changes occurred. The WSOP Main Event went away from its winner-take-all format to a split pay-out format. Also, Barbara Freer became the first woman to play in the World Series of Poker, breaking the sex barrier and helping to increase the popularity of the series even more.
1979 – When Hal Fowler’s 7-6o beat Bobby Hoff’s pocket aces, Fowler became the first amateur to win the Main Event. This was also the first time that the Main Event reached 50 players, with a total of 54 signing up to play.
The WSOP in the 1980s – Passing of the Torch
The 80s marked a noticeable change in not only the amount of interest the WSOP generated; it also saw a change in the leadership of the event. The changes not only improved the stature of the World Series of Poker, they also signified the end of an era in the poker world.
Attendance would continue climb through the decade. The 1980 WSOP feature 12 events and a total of fifty-four players turned out for the Main Event. By 1989, Phil Hellmuth Jr. had to overcome 178, an increase of over 300%, in order to win his Main Event title.
The 80s would also bring the WSOP to the masses. After Hal Fowler became the first amateur to win the Main Event in 1979, Stu “The Kid” Ungar would follow up by winning back-to-back in 1980 and 1981. Ungar, a brash New Yorker, transformed the game from its cowboy beginnings into a more mainstream look. His young look and three Main Event titles broke the stereotype of the typical gambler.
The WSOP would also make a critical change that brought high-stakes poker to the average person. In 1983, tournament director Eric Drache implemented a satellite system for players to qualify for the WSOP. Players could play in smaller, more affordable events, and earn entry into the expensive WSOP tournaments by winning. This approach would revolutionize interest in the series among common people.
While the torch passed among the players in poker, the WSOP saw the end of an era as well. Although Benny Binion’s son, Jack, had already been running the casino for some time, Benny’s death on December 25, 1989 would take away the tournament’s founder and the icon who had transformed both the game of poker and the city of Las Vegas in the process.
The WSOP in the 1990s and Beyond – Big Changes Ahead
In spite of Benny Binion’s passing, the World Series of Poker would continue to grow and its popularity soar. As in the two previous decades, the 90s would see attendance at the WSOP grow every year. A total of 194 players were on hand for the first international winner, Iranian-born English resident Mansour Matloubi’s Main Event victory in 1990; while an incredible 393 filled the field in 1999 as Noel Furlong captured the coveted golden bracelet. Prize money also soared as Brad Daugherty would become the first million dollar Main Event winner in 1991.
By the late 90s, the WSOP had nearly outgrown Binion’s Horseshoe. In 1997, a swollen Horseshoe had so many players that the temporary tournament room and parking area made the main casino entrance inaccessible. That year, the Main Event final table would be played outside, on an enormous stage beneath an elaborate electronic roof. Stu Ungar would make this stage his own, winning his third Main Event title, a million dollars and a permanent place in poker history.
With the crowded conditions that were plaguing the Horseshoe, a change was necessary to promote further growth. Jack Binion had already been using the Golden Nugget and Four Queens casinos for some of the larger tournaments, and many people felt that the series had reached a plateau and would be surpassed by rivals such as the World Poker Tour. The doubters and critics couldn’t have been more wrong.
The WSOP in the 2000s – The Moneymaker Effect and Harrah’s
Field sizes continued to grow from 2000-2003, when an unexpected event took place. Chris Moneymaker, an amateur player from Georgia, parlayed a $39 satellite tournament win at the online poker room PokerStars into a seat at the Main Event. After seeing Moneymaker play during Day One of the event, handicapper Lou Diamond declared Moneymaker as his “dark horse to win the whole tournament.” Playing in his first live event, Moneymaker would shock the gambling world and do just that, taking the bracelet and then-record prize of $2.5 million.
Moneymaker’s win would also have another unexpected twist. As PokerStars made him one of the faces of their website, thousands of online players began joining PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, PartyPoker and a number of other online sites with hopes of becoming the next millionaire champion. Even after the 2003 event drew a record-setting 839 players for the Main Event, field sizes continued to soar. Through 2010, the totals at the Main Event were:
- 2004: 2,576
- 2005: 5,619
- 2006: 8,773
- 2007: 6,358
- 2008: 6,844
- 2009: 6,494
- 2010: 7,319
Not only did the number of player soar, so did the prize money. Greg Raymer followed Moneymaker’s record win by also qualifying at PokerStars and winning $5 million for his effort. Joe Hachem would take $7.5 million in 2005 and Jamie Gold would set the record with a $12 million win in 2006. Although the numbers dropped off in 2007, Jerry Yang still won $8.25 million, Peter Eastgate picked up $9.152 million in 2008, Joe Cada earned $8.546 million in 2009 and Jonathan Duhamel garnered $8.944 million in 2010.
This unbelievable surge in players and prize money at the World Series of Poker has been commonly referred to as “The Moneymaker Effect.” The resulting interest in the WSOP and Internet poker has revolutionized both live poker and its online cousin as well.
Fortunately for the WSOP, another significant event occurred at the same time as Moneymaker’s historic victory. Binion’s Horseshoe was sold to Harrah’s Entertainment in 2004, along with rights to the World Series of Poker and its brand. Harrah’s, the world’s largest gaming company, would move the WSOP to it new home at the Rio All-Suites Casino and Hotel the following year. While the era of sawdust floors and cowboys at Binion’s was over, the WSOP now had a modern home to expand its reach even further.
The WSOP and the UIGEA
A significant change from an unexpected source would also affect poker’s biggest event. In 2006, the United States government would pass the Safe Port Act of 2006. While this law was directed at national security concerns, an anti-online gambling provision was added at the last moment. Known as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, or UIGEA, the law would seek to impose restrictions on the ability of payment processors to move funds to and from online poker rooms.
Meant as a supplement to the Interstate Wire Act of 1961, (also known as the Federal Wire Act) the UIGEA was passed to prevent banking institutions from handling transactions related to online poker, which the US government claims was made illegal by the Federal Wire Act. This assertion by the government has been met with significant opposition, since many legal experts suggest that the Federal Wire Act does not make poker illegal, a point of view that was upheld by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has ruled that the Wire Act deals with sports books only, not poker or other forms of online gambling.
In spite of this ruling, the UIGEA had a chilling effect on both online poker and the World Series of Poker. After the record-setting 2006 WSOP, which included the $12 million Main Event win by Jamie Gold over 8,773 players, participation at the WSOP fell for the first time in 2007, punctuated by the Main Event, where only 6,358 players entered. A large percentage of this decline was attributed to the diminished numbers of players who won seats in satellite tournaments held by online poker rooms.
As the government failed in its attempts to implement the UIGEA, the drop proved to be temporary. Numbers surged again from 2008 through 2010, when Canadian Jonathan Duhamel’s Main Event victory came over the second largest field (7,193 players) in the history of the event. While the UIGEA has been largely ignored and is still being battled in court, the WSOP has remained strong.
The WSOP in the Future
Although uncertainty remains, the future of the World Series of Poker appears very bright. The series had its best year ever in 2010, with the total of 72,967 players in the 57 events representing an increase of more than 10 percent over the previous year.
The series still has a number of captivating story lines that keep poker fans fixated. In 2010, the consensus top player, Phil Ivey, won his eighth WSOP bracelet, tying him with Poker Hall of Fame member Erick Seidel for fifth place all-time. Ivey is reported to have a multi-million dollar side bet with Team Full Tilt member Howard Lederer on the prospect of him winning another bracelet in 2011. Another member of Team Full Tilt, Tom “durrrr” Dwan is one of the hottest young players in the game. Dwan, looking for his first bracelet, created a huge stir at the 2010 WSOP with million of dollars in side bets. He did not accomplish his goal, so it is likely that his quest will continue in the future events as well.
The future location of the WSOP may be changing as well. Reports have stated that Harrah’s sold the Rio All-Suites Casino and Hotel in August, 2010, meaning that the series would likely move to a new home. Harrah’s has denied the sale, and WSOP Communications Director Seth Palansky has stated that the 2011 WSOP will be held at the Rio.
Beyond the tournament series, Harrah’s has expanded the WSOP brand into new ventures as well. The WSOP Europe has become a successful endeavor in its own rite, with players being awarded a number of WSOP bracelets, including Annette Obrestad, a Norwegian poker pro who became the youngest bracelet winner ever when she took the title at the 2007 World Series of Poker Europe Main Event.
Harrah’s is also moving the WSOP to the Internet. In 2010, the company entered a partnership with Zynga to create a mammoth online poker game for members of the Internet social networking site, Facebook. Harrah’s announced that once regulation is achieved for online poker in the United States, it would consider entering this large and profitable market.
The WSOP Circuit is another project of Harrah’s that looks to continue its success into the future. Started in 2005, this poker series includes a number of tournament stops at various Harrah’s casinos throughout the United States, and serves as a build-up for the WSOP’s premier event. The various tournaments have been won by well-known pros such as Antonio Esfandiari, Kathy Liebert, Ralph Perry, John Racener and Men “The Master” Nguyen.
The WSOP – The Official Brand of Poker
Not only is the World Series of Poker the world’s largest sporting event, it has also become synonymous with the game of poker itself. With a well-respected WSOP brand, growing events and a strong business plan for the future, the WSOP continues to be poised to continue the legendary growth that was birthed by Benny Binion and a group of Texas cowboys in a smoky, sawdust-floored Horseshoe Casino back in 1970. Over forty years later and the WSOP is still one of the greatest success stories in the game of poker.