WSOP History - The History of the World Series of Poker

Johnny Moss and Jack Binion

Johnny Moss and Jack Binion

Event number 55 at the 2007 World Series of Poker is the high profile World Championship No-Limit Texas Hold’em. The winner will eat, sleep and breathe poker at the Rio Casino day after day while systematically defeating thousands of competitors. The reward? Only millions of dollars in cash and coveted gold championship bracelet.

Although the first official WSOP event occurred in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, its origins can be traced back to 1949 when casino owner Benny Binion staged an event that saw poker players "Nick the Greek" Dandolos and Johnny Moss face off in a variety of a cash games that reportedly extended into a 5-month event. Moss eventually won, and is claimed to have fleeced an Dandolos of an unprecedented two million dollars.

In 1969 Tom Moore bought the Holiday Hotel in Reno and held what he called "The Texas Gamblers Reunion." Essentially a who's who of the gambling fraternity, including Benny and Jack Binion, and several of the Texas Rounders - Amarillo Slim Preston, Doyle Brunson, Treetop Straus, Johnny Moss, "Corky" McCorquodale, Aubrey Day, Puggy Pearson, Jimmy Casella, Bill Boyd, Syd Wyman, Long Diddie, and Jimmy the Greek. Even Minnesota Fats, who was in town giving a pool exhibition showed up.

There wasn't a Main Event winner, hell there wasn't even a Main Event, but the seed of the WSOP had been planted.

Said Binion in a 1973 interview "So we enjoyed it very much, everybody enjoyed it so; good get together too, you know. So Tom Moore sold out, so I says, "Well, we'll just put it on." Arid Jack took ahold of it (my oldest son), went to puttin' it on. So we've really improved it over what it did--we improve it every year."

While Benny loved the idea, his family wasn't sold, with the profitability of poker in question Benny was on his own. But to his credit he pushed ahead and in May 1970 Benny opened a poker room in his casino and put the word out. The faithful answered his call and before long all the top players were there, Benny even made sure Minnesota Fats and Titanic Thompson were there, just so all the greats could be in the one place at the same time.

Now while these gambling men just did what they always did, play poker, Benny Binion was thinking big, and he had a big name, the World Series of Poker. Unfortunately it just didn't capture the general publics attention, it was missing something, after all they just played poker and at the end they voted Johnny Moss the champion.

A feature writer for the Los Angeles Times there to check out the event, Ted Thackrey Jr.suggested to Amarillo Slim they needed to make it more competitive to increase interest in the event. "You got to have a winner, a real winner," Thackrey said. "You need to find some way to make it a contest. If you want to get the press involved and turn the World Series into a real sporting event, you need to give it some structure, create some drama, and make it like a real tournament."

Jack Binion's Horseshwo Casino

Binion's Horseshoe Casino

Since every time poker was played with a big crowd it had been a freezeout, this was the obvious solution, chips moving back and forth just wasn't as exciting as a player being eliminated. When 1971 rolled around a new format was born, six players shelled out $5000 for a shot at taking home the whole booty of $30000. Johnny Moss backed up his 'voted' title from the previous year by eliminating the other five players, guaranteeing his place in history as the first WSOP winner.

It was only a year later that Binion 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."

Stu 'The Kid' Ungar and Doyle 'Texas Dolly' Brunson

Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar

The competition continued the grow throughout the 1970s, and so did the reputation of Benny Binion's hospitality at the Horseshoe. By 1980 when Stu 'The Kid' Ungar defeated Doyle 'Texas Dolly" Brunson to deny him of a third title, the prizemoney for first place had grown to $385,000. Ungar became the third back to back winner after Brunson and Johnny Moss when he claimed the title again in 1981.

In 1971 the cash games played at the WSOP included five-card stud, deuce to seven, low-ball draw, razz, seven-card stud and or course Texas hold’em. Over the years, other games have been added and removed like Horse and Chinese Poker. In 2007, Shoe will make a comeback.

In the early 1980s, with the introduction of preliminary satellite competitions with lower buy-ins, Binion's prophecy came to fruition and the popularity of the World Series of Poker soared. Competition for a World Series of Poker bracelet, and the chance to become a part of poker history, became even more fierce.

Phil Hellmuth Jnr in 1989

Phil Hellmuth Jnr winning in 1989

The late 80's saw more legends created when Johhny Chan went back to back in 1987-88. He was then beaten heads up by the youngest champion ever, 24 year old Phil Hellmuth Jnr in 1989, denying the "Oriental Express' a history making third successive title.

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. The main event prize money has increased proportionately, from $7,769,000 a decade ago to a staggering $56,190,000 in 2005.

Greg Raymer

Greg Raymer (2004)

Apart from Stu Ungar winning his third title in 1997, we have seen a new WSOP main event champion every year since Hellmuth won in 1989. The task of overcoming a 5,600 strong field has made the feat of securing successive, or even multiple titles, so difficult that it may never be accomplished again.

In modern times, the names Chris Ferguson, Scotty Nguyen, Carlos Mortensen, Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem have become legends after their main event wins and the tournament continues to grow in prestige, entrants and prizemoney every year.

So who was the father of the WSOP, Benny Binion? He was a moonshing two-time killer before moving to Las Vegas and opening Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in 1951. He was a man of firsts and a man who believed in generous hospitality. The Horseshoe Casino was the first to carpet the previously sawdust-covered floors of a down-town casino, the first to offer a limousine service ferry around the punters and the first to offer free drinks to players. Of Binion, Poker great "Amarillo Slim" Preston said "He was either the gentlest bad guy or the baddest good guy you'd ever seen".

The Binion family went on to control Binion’s Horseshoe Casino and every WSOP series was held there until it was closed for non-payment of taxes in 2004. Harrah’s Entertainment bought the casino and it was renamed Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel. The final of the WSOP was held there in 2004 and 2005, however Harrah’s announced that future WSOP tournaments would be held in a moving circuit of Harrah’s casinos. The Rio hosted the final WSOP table in 2006 and will host all the events the 2007 WSOP series.

The World Series of Poker in Rio

WSOP tables in the Rio

With the introduction of the WSOP circuit, the World Series of Poker branded events are now held throughout the year at casinos right across the USA. And the World Series of Poker on ESPN is one of the world's highest rating sports telecasts. Through ESPN and the circuit events, hopefully the WSOP will continue to expand into more homes throughout the world.

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 World Series of Poker 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 as a poker legend.

Joe Hachem

Joe Hachem after winning the 2005 WSOP

Just ask Aussie Joe Hachem, who came up from down under to claim the biggest ever first prize of $7.5 million in the 2005 WSOP Championship.

Some memorable moments in WSOP history include:

  • 1972 - Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston won the third WSOP event beating Johnny Moss the previous two year’s winner. He took home $80,000. The tournament had only 12 participants.
  • 1973 - CBS Sports televised the World Series for the first time.
  • 1974 – Johnny Moss beats 15 other players to again win the main event and $160,000
  • 1977 - Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson backs up his 1976 win to make it back-to back WSOP wins.
  • 1978 – Place prizes were introduced for the first time with the 2nd to 5th finishers of the main event sharing in the prize money for the first time.
  • 1989 – Benny Binion, the father of WSOP, passes away this year.
  • 1991 – Prize money for first place in the main event tops $1 million for the first time.
  • 1997 – Stuey "The Kid" Ungar makes a comeback and wins the main event for the third time after his previous back-to-back wins in 1980 and 1981. And the main event was played outdoors.
  • 2003 – Unknown rookie Chris Moneymaker qualifies for the main even by winning his entry to the tournament though an online qualifier, paying only $39 and went on to become the champion winning $2.5 million dollars.
  • 2004 – The WSOP was held at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino for the last time, after the Horseshoe was bought by Harrah’s Entertainment.
  • 2005 – Johnny "Orient Express" Chan wins his 10th WSOP bracelet setting a new record for the most bracelets won with his victory at the Pot-Limit Omaha event. Four days later, Doyle Brunson also won his 10th WSOP bracelet in the $5,000 No Limit Short Handed event.
  • 2006 – College student Jeff Madsen becomes the youngest winner ever of a WSOP event. Aged 21 years, one month, and nine days, he won event #22 taking the $660,948 prize.
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