World Series of Poker
When you hear the term, the World Series of Poker, most people today think about ESPN coverage and thousands of people all laying down $10,000 to become the next poker millionaire. The top players are cult icons and have turned their fame into small fortunes, hocking chip sets, instructional videos, books, video games, and websites. But it hasn’t always been that way.
The idea for the World Series began in the summer of 1949 when Nicholas “Nick the Greek” Dandolos approached Binion’s Horseshoe owner Benny Binion to set up a match between Dandolos and the legendary Texas road gambler, Johnny Moss. Binion did so with the stipulation that the game would be played in public view.
Crowds gathered at Binion’s Horseshoe to watch this marathon contest that lasted five months with breaks only for sleep. Moss ultimately won 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.” Binion, always a promoter at heart, 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.
However, 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.” He sent word out to find the best poker players in the country and 38 top pros showed up. They played for several days mixing different games. In the end, the decision was democratic in that the champion was decided by popular vote. After the first vote when each gambler voted for himself, Binion changed the rules so that no man could vote for himself. Naturally Johnny Moss came out on top. Thus the WSOP was born.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the tournament structure was born. Binion created the freeze out structure where everyone would play until one man had all the chips after each put up $10,000. Only 6 men would put up that much money (5 of the 6 eventually won a World Series title). And again, Johnny Moss was victorious.
Through the years men became relatively famous by winning the title. Amarillo Slim Preston won in 1972. Doyle Brunson won in 1976 and 1977. Stu Ungar won in 1980, 1981, and later in 1997. And Johnny Chan won back to back in 1987 and 1988. Chan was later immortalized in the movie Rounders.
The size of the tournament changed dramatically a couple of times. One addition that Binion created was a satellite tournament. These were tournaments set up so that players who didn’t want to put down the full $10,000 buy in, could put up $1000 and play with a smaller tournament with 9 other players with the winner gaining an entry into the Main Event. This satellite concept quickly spawned many more entrants and other similar ideas (such as larger satellites with an even smaller buy in) grew around them.
In 2003, the World Series of Poker took a turn. The World Poker Tour had exploded and ESPN decided to televise the entire main event with hole card cams to give the viewers a look into the mind of the great players. And an unknown with a perfect name came out on top. Chris Moneymaker turned the poker world upside down with his victory over the greats of the game. And the poker phenomenon was born.
In the last few years, many of these satellites have begun to take place online. The boom of this online satellite system has been a key driver in the expansion of the WSOP and other poker events. Combined with the Moneymaker win, the size of the main event has gone from 613 in 2002 to 5619 in 2005.
Today, the legacy Benny Binion left the poker community ranks as the oldest, largest, and most prestigious gambling competition in the world. In 2005, with 5619 entrants, $7.5 million for first, and players from around the world, the WSOP has grown from a small gambling convention to an international sporting event.