The World Series of Poker, or WSOP, is the mother of all poker tournaments. Even people who have no interest in poker or who have never been to a casino in their lives are familiar with the WSOP. It’s been going since 1970. It’s televised on ESPN. It’s mentioned in major motion pictures. It’s packed with a cast of characters so interesting they seem to be more fiction than truth. Truly, the WSOP is as high-profile as poker gets, and once you get interested in this monster tournament, you’ll find yourself always trying to find out more.
A great place to get started if you want to learn more about the WSOP is, of course, the official website. Visit www.worldseriesofpoker.com for information on the current tournament, including hotel reservations, winner’s profiles and how to get involved in the action yourself. Remember, one of the best things about this event is that, unlike the Super Bowl or the baseball World Series, the WSOP is very much accessible to the normal poker player. You don’t have to be a celebrity. You just have to be good. In both 2003 and 2004, the WSOP champion came from an online poker room and turned a tiny initial buy-in into upwards of $2.5 million (2003) and $5 million (2004). The stories surrounding the WSOP are the stuff legends are made of.
Though the WSOP made its official debut in 1970, the idea of the Horseshoe Casino’s annual tournament was actually conceived more than two decades earlier.
In the summer of 1949, as the story goes, inveterate gambler Nicholas “the Greek” Dandolos approached Benny Binion with an unusual request—to challenge the best in a high-stakes poker marathon. Binion agreed to set up a match between Dandolos and the legendary Johnny Moss, with the stipulation that the game would be played in public view.
During the course of the marathon, which lasted five months with breaks only for sleep, the two men played every form of poker imaginable. Moss ultimately won “the biggest game in town” and an estimated $2 million. When the Greek lost his last pot, he arose from his chair, bowed slightly, and uttered the now-famous words, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” Dandolos then went upstairs to bed.
Though significant in its own way as a chapter in poker history, the five-month marathon took on added importance to Benny Binion. He noted that the public had gathered outside the casino each day to watch the game with the fervor of dedicated sports fans, and he was amazed at the attention the event had attracted. But it wasn’t until 1970 that Binion decided to re-create this excitement and stage a battle of poker giants, dubbed the “World Series Of Poker,” to determine who would be worthy of the title “World Champion.” Some of the best players in the country were assembled, and Johnny Moss came out on top. The decision was democratic in that the champion was decided by popular vote.
The following year, the winner was determined by a freezeout competition, with players being systematically eliminated until one player had all the chips. Moss again was declared the World Champion. In 1972, when Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston won the title and went on the talk-show circuit, the WSOP began to gain a wider following.
It was only a year later that Binion participated in the Oral History Project at the University of Nevada-Reno and discussed the World Series with interviewer Mary Ellen Glass. “This poker game here gets us a lot of attention,” he told Glass. “We had seven players last year, and this year we had 13. I look to have better than 20 next year. It’s even liable to get up to be 50, might get up to be more than that.” Binion then paused and, as if gazing into the future, prophesied, “It will, eventually.”
In the early 1980s, with the introduction of preliminary satellite competitions with lower buy-ins, Binion’s prophesy came to fruition and the popularity of the WSOP soared. But even Benny Binion, who passed away on Christmas Day of 1989, would have had difficulty foreseeing the enormous growth the Horseshoe’s annual tournament has experienced in the past decade or so.
In 1982, nine years after Mr. Binion participated in UNR’s Oral History Project, the tournament drew 52 entrants. Five years later, there were 2,141 participants, and the 2002 event attracted 7,595 entries. The prize money has increased proportionately, from $7,769,000 a decade ago to a staggering $19,599,230 in 2002. Whereas only 12 events, mostly Texas Hold’Em and 7-Card Stud, were scheduled as recently as 1988, the 2004 WSOP offered 33 competitions that feature a wide variety of games.
Today, the legacy Benny Binion left the poker community ranks as the oldest, largest, most prestigious, and most media-hyped gaming competition in the world, and no doubt it holds the promise of an even brighter future. But equally important, the WSOP has touched thousands of lives over the years, affording talented players the opportunity to follow their dreams, reach for the stars, and perhaps one day achieve greatness in their chosen endeavor.
Since the first official WSOP in 1970, there have been many champions. Here is a list of all winners in chronological order:
1972—Amarillo Slim Preston
1989—Phil Hellmuth Jr.