Guest Post by Jason Kirk, June 1, 2014
Nearly a decade and a half into the 21st century, the World Series of Poker is recognized around the world as the greatest of all poker tournament series. The Main Event, in particular, is uncontested as tournament poker’s unofficial world championship. Winning a gold bracelet in any of the Series’ dozens of events is still regarded as one of the highest achievements in the game. And the expansion of the series overseas has helped legitimize the game around the world, setting the stage for poker’s continued growth into the future.
Original Photo credit: West Side Story (1961), PD US no notice, wikipedia.org
All of these outcomes were never a guarantee, though. The WSOP has been through great changes in its 45-year WSOP history, changing from a family reunion of old road gamblers to a massive, seven-week conference of the world’s poker playing community. In many ways, the story of the WSOP is the modern story of poker itself.
The first World Series of Poker tournament was a sort of family reunion among a handful of old road gamblers, held in the spring of 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. Horseshoe Casino owner Benny Binion drew inspiration for that initial WSOP from two past events.
The first inspiration was an epic heads-up match between the legendary Texas road gambler, Johnny Moss, and the equally legendary high-rolling gambler from Crete, Nick “The Greek” Dandolos. Held at the Horseshoe in early 1949, crowds gathered to watch as the two men faced off in a five-month duel, giving Binion his first hint that poker could be packaged as a spectator event. There has been some speculation among poker historians as to whether this event took place in the manner described in later years by Binion and Moss, or indeed ever took place at all - but in the absence of any definitive accounts, it remains part of WSOP lore.
Binion’s other inspiration, one we can confirm definitively, was the 1969 “Texas Gambling Reunion,” a high-stakes cash game event put together by Tom Moore & Vic Vickrey at the Holiday Casino in Reno. Moore and Vickrey declined to renew the event in 1970, so Binion, who attended with old friends like Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, Puggy Pearson, and Amarillo Slim Preston, decided to host a similar event at his Vegas casino a few months later.
That inaugural WSOP drew a handful of attendees, including the bunch who had ventured north with Binion the previous year. The bulk of the line-up consisted of Moss, Pearson, Preston, Brunson, Jack “Treetop” Straus, Bill Boyd, Brian “Sailor” Roberts, Jimmy Casella, Titanic Thompson, and Crandell Addington, professional gamblers one and all. After several days of high-stakes poker they cast a vote to determine the best all-around player. Legend has it that each player voted for himself on the first vote; only on the second vote was Johnny Moss, “The Grand Old Man of Poker,” selected as the inaugural champion of the World Series of Poker. To commemorate this honor, he was presented with a silver cup.
Unlike his forerunners in Reno, Benny Binion was insightful enough to invite his friends back for a second go-round in 1971. Thus was born the annual tradition of gathering to play poker in Las Vegas. Word spread far and wide, and by the end of the 1970s, thanks to the hard work of Binion’s son, Jack, the WSOP had grown to encompass 12 side events and the $10,000 Main Event.
The second annual WSOP was the site of the innovation that gave us tournament poker as we know it today. Rather than playing cash games and voting on a winner as they had in 1970, the attendees played freezeout tournaments in five disciplines. Four fixed-limit tournaments with $1,000 buy-ins were played in seven-card stud, razz, five-card stud, and ace-to-five draw, while the $5,000 Main Event was played in No Limit Texas Hold'em. The next year the Main Event’s buy-in was raised to $10,000, where it has remained ever since.
Television cameras arrived at the World Series for the first time in 1973. CBS Sports showed up to film the Main Event and captured the $130,000 victory by Puggy Pearson. CBS continued to produce an hour-long special at the WSOP into the 1980s. ESPN would replicate the CBS one-hour format in the 1980s and 1990s before adopting hole-card camera technology beginning with the 2003 WSOP Main Event. With that advance came the expansion to dozens of hours of programming per year, including the final tables of side events in some years.
The gold bracelet, the symbol of excellence given to winners of all WSOP events, was first awarded to winners in 1976. Prior to that any number of commemorative trophies, cups, and plates had been given to winners sporadically. (Wins from any year the WSOP has been held are still referred to colloquially as “bracelets.”) Other prizes have been awarded occasionally over the years, too, including the champion’s weight in silver for the 1994 Main Event.
Eric Drache, who was appointed the WSOP’s tournament director by Jack Binion in 1973, was responsible for introducing a full schedule of side events and numerous other structural changes at the Series, but his invention of the satellite tournament has had a lasting effect on the game. As the story goes, Drache was watching a 10-handed cash game before the 1978 Main Event and realized that everyone at the table had more than $1,000 in play. He suggested that they all play a $1,000 freezeout, with the winner going on to play in the big tournament. So was the first satellite was born, setting the stage for enormous growth over the next three decades.
The key to the WSOP’s expansion over the years has been attracting new players, and the collective wit of the WSOP’s organizers and participants has helped make that happen almost from the very beginning.
Amarillo Slim’s WSOP Main Event victory in 1972 was one of the greatest things that ever happened to poker. The gregarious champion was a willing pitchman for poker. He began making public appearances, including 11 guest spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and wrote books and appeared in films, including Robert Altman’s California Split. Though it can’t be directly attributed to his efforts, poker’s growth throughout the 1970s was certainly helped along by Slim’s promotional acumen.
International players began to show up in the late 1970s, including Irish poker pioneer Terry Rogers and his friends Liam Flood and Noel Furlong, the businessman who would win the 1999 WSOP Main Event. Rogers exported poker to his native Ireland, creating the Irish Poker Open, the world’s second high-stakes poker tournament. Johnny Chan became the first foreign-born American to win the Main Event in 1987. Iranian ex-pat Mansour Matloubi, who lived in London at the time, became the first player from outside the United States to win it in 1990. Since then nearly half of the players to win the Main Event were born outside the United States.
Barbara Freer played in the WSOP Main Event in 1978, becoming the first woman to enter. Others joined in over the years, though it wasn’t until Vera Richmond won the $1,000 Limit Ace to Five Draw bracelet in 1982 that a woman finally beat an open event outright. (Starla Brodie had teamed with Doyle Brunson in a “Mixed Doubles” event in 1979.) Three-time bracelet winner Barbara Enright became the first (and to date only) woman to make the Main Event final table in 1995. Later, Jennifer Harman and Vanessa Selbst would win two open-field bracelets each. Though poker today remains very much a male-dominated game, women have a growing presence thanks to these pioneers.
By 1979 the Main Event had grown from the six original players to a field of 54, bringing true Benny Binion’s 1973 prediction that the field for the championship would someday top 50 players. The Main Event field cracked 100 in 1982, when Jack “Treetop” Straus won. The introduction of satellites helped the tournament grow much more quickly over the next decade, particularly after satellite qualifier Tom McEvoy won the 1983 Main Event. By 1991 the tournament field had grown to 215 players. That year Brad Daugherty became the first player to win $1,000,000 in a poker tournament, the same prize that would be awarded to the tournament’s winner for the rest of the decade. Five years later the field would top 300 for the first time, foreshadowing the enormous growth that was yet to come in the 21st century.
The WSOP Main Event grew to new heights as the 21st century began. The 2000 tournament, won by Chris Ferguson, featured 512 players. That number jumped to 613 in 2001, and then to 631 in 2002. But the WSOP’s brightest days were still ahead of it.
The 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event was the first to ever feature online satellite qualifiers. This helped, in part, to boost the tournament’s field to an all-time record of 839. Among their ranks was a young accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker, who won a $39 online satellite to earn his seat. He ended up outlasting the field for the record $2,500,000 top prize - and he just happened to do it during the first year that ESPN filmed multiple days of Main Event coverage.
What’s commonly known as the poker boom swept in after Moneymaker’s win went into constant rotation on ESPN. Hundreds of thousands of players flocked online, hoping to win big just like the amateur Moneymaker had done. They helped to swell the field of the 2004 WSOP Main Event to an completely unprecedented 2,576 players, stretching the Horseshoe far beyond capacity. Online qualifier Greg Raymer came out on top, winning a record $5,000,000 for first place. And the WSOP schedule outside the Main Event expanded to 32 preliminary events to accommodate the ever-growing crowds who wanted their chance at glory.
By this point the Binion family was a shell of its former self. Father Benny passed away on Christmas Day 1989. Daughter Becky Binion-Behnen had run the Horseshoe and the WSOP since the late 1990s after winning a bitter feud with brother Jack, but after the death of brother Ted she was completely on her own. In 2004 she found herself in a major dispute with the unionized workers at the casino. The United States federal government stepped in and, for the first time, wrested ownership from the Binion family. Harrah’s stepped in and bought the casino, and with it the WSOP.
The first move Harrah’s made was to host the 2005 WSOP at the Rio Convention Center, a mile off the Las Vegas Strip, marking the first time the Series had ever taken place anywhere but the Horseshoe. With room to grow, the schedule expanded to 43 side events plus the Main Event, which drew an astounding 5,619 players. The final two days of the tournament were played downtown at Binion’s Horseshoe, where Joe Hachem won the record $7,500,000 top prize and kicked off a burst of popularity for poker in his home country of Australia.
The poker boom was now in full swing, and the 2006 WSOP would prove to be its pinnacle. The Rio was put to full use as a total of 46 preliminary event bracelets were awarded. The Main Event drew 8,773 players for a total prize pool of $82,512,162, still an all-time record to this day. The tournament was so large that it was broken into four separate Day 1 fields, each of which played down to 800 players. Then those groups were combined into two separate Day 2 fields, after which the rest of the tournament was played out with a single group of players. The tournament was led nearly from the start by Jamie Gold, a former talent agent from California with a surreal ability to get his opponents to make the moves he wanted them to make. He won the tournament and with it $12,000,000, climbing instantly into first place on the all-time money list.
The closure of the United States market to online poker at the end of 2006 kept the Main Event from continuing its exponential growth, but it has remained the world’s largest, richest poker tournament. It has drawn at least 6,352 players every year since 2007, and each champion has won a minimum of $8,250,000. Meanwhile, side events have continued to boom. In 2013 there were 62 bracelets awarded in Las Vegas, not counting the Main Event.
With poker’s popularity growing worldwide, and the WSOP’s corporate parent (Harrah’s Entertainment, later Caesars Entertainment) always on the lookout for greater profit opportunities, the WSOP headed overseas to London in 2007 for the World Series of Poker Europe. The first bracelet ever awarded outside Las Vegas went to Germany’s Thomas Bihl, who defeated Jennifer Harman heads-up to win the £2,500 HORSE event. Dario Alioto of Italy won the £5,000 Pot Limit Omaha bracelet, and 18-year-old Norwegian phenom Annette Obrestad took down the WSOP Europe Main Event.
WSOP Europe has been held every year since 2007, though the venue has shifted from London to Cannes and finally to Paris. A total of 35 bracelets have been awarded in Europe, including wins by some of the game’s best known players.
In 2013 the WSOP expanded once again, this time to Australia with WSOP Asia-Pacific. The six events held at the Crown Casino in Melbourne all awarded gold bracelets, including Phil Ivey’s ninth career win and Daniel Negreanu’s sixth, in the inaugural WSOP-APAC Main Event. It was announced in 2013 that in the future WSOP-APAC and WSOP Europe will be played in alternate years to avoid over-saturation. WSOP history keeps evolving from year to year.
For decades the $10,000 Main Event remained the WSOP tournament with the largest buy-in. But in the 21st century, as the value of the dollar declined, a number of tournaments with larger buy-ins were introduced.
The 2006 WSOP saw the debut of the $50,000 HORSE tournament. The bulk of the tournament was played in a fixed-limit, mixed-game format with alternating rounds of Hold’em, Omaha hi-lo, Razz, Seven-Card Stud, and Stud Hi-Lo. The final table was played as no-limit hold’em to make for easier television viewing. Chip Reese outlasted the field of 143 world-class players to win his third career bracelet, finishing off Andy Bloch after the longest heads-up duel in World Series Of Poker history.
After seeing declining participation in the $50,000 HORSE over the next few years, the WSOP replaced the tournament with the $50,000 Poker Players Championship. The tournament’s format included all of the HORSE games in addition to fixed-limit 2-7 triple draw, no-limit hold’em with antes, and pot-limit Omaha. Two of Michael Mizrachi’s three career gold bracelets have come in this event.
As a special event for the WSOP’s 40th anniversary, the 2009 Series featured a no-limit hold’em tournament with a $40,000 buy-in. The 201 players who entered combined to build a $7,718,400 prize pool. Russia’s Vitaly Lunkin out-dueled American Isaac Haxton to take home the $1,891,012 top prize.
The 2010 WSOP added a $25,000 Six-Handed No-Limit Hold’em event to the schedule. A field of 191 players bought in, building a $4,536,250 prize pool. Online star Dan Kelly won the event, defeating Shawn Buchanan heads-up for the $1,315,518 top prize and his first gold bracelet. The event was left off the schedule the next two years but returned in 2013, when Steve Sung beat Phil Galfond heads-up for $1,205,324.
In 2011, a $25,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em tournament was played. Jake Cody outlasted the 128-player field, defeating Yevgeniy Timoshenko heads-up for the $851,192 top prize.
In 2012 the WSOP teamed up with Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté’s clean water charity, the One Drop Foundation, to host the $1,000,000 Big One For One Drop tournament. From each million-dollar buy-in, $111,111 went to the charity. A field of 48 players played the tournament, with the $18,346,673 top prize going to Antonio Esfandiari after he beat Sam Trickett heads-up. The Big One will return to the WSOP in 2014.
In 2013 a special $111,111 One Drop High Rollers No-Limit Hold’em tournament was added to the schedule. The tournament drew 166 players, building a $17,891,148 prize pool. Anthony Gregg defeated Chris Klodnicki heads-up for the $4,830,619 top prize.
WSOP Europe got in on the big action in 2013 with a €25,600 High Roller No-Limit Hold’em event. A field of 80 players turned out, building a €1,920,000 prize pool. Daniel Negreanu defeated Nicolau Villa-Lobos heads-up for the €725,000 top prize and his fifth career WSOP bracelet.
Johnny Moss became the first two-time World Series of Poker winner in 1971, taking the entire $30,000 prize pool when we won the Main Event. Then he did it again in 1972, becoming the first three-time winner. By the end of his life in 1995, the Grand Old Man had won nine WSOP bracelets, three of which came from the Main Event and seven of which were won in the 1970s. It took until 2003 for anybody to match his record.
Doyle Brunson earned his first bracelets in 1976, winning the $5,000 No-Limit Deuce-to-Seven Draw tournament and the Main Event. Then he won two more in 1977, including a second Main Event win, and picked up one in both 1978 and 1979, for a total of six. Then he stopped playing in a lot of the events because the cash games became so big that he couldn’t ignore them. Brunson finally won another bracelet in 1991, picked up another in 1998, and then tied Johnny Moss’ mark of nine in 2003. His 10th (and to date last) came at the 2005 WSOP, days after being beaten to the new record by Johnny Chan.
Stu Ungar was a card-playing genius who came out of nowhere to win the WSOP Main Event in 1980 at the age of 26, defeating two-time champion Doyle Brunson heads-up for the title. Ungar had only recently begun to play no-limit hold’em, and Brunson said that the young man actually improved as the tournament went on. Then Ungar returned and successfully defended his title the next year, becoming just the third player to win the Main Event twice. In 1997, deeply in debt and battling drug addiction, Ungar improbably won the Main Event for a third time, earning his fifth career bracelet and tying Moss’ record for the most Main Event victories by a single player.
Johnny Chan became the fourth (and to date final) player to win back-to-back Main Event titles in 1987 and 1988. (His victory against Erik Seidel in 1988 was immortalized in the film Rounders.) He nearly won the 1989 tournament as well, eventually finishing second. Chan added two more bracelets in the 1990s, but there were five more waiting for him in the 2000s. In 2005, he set what was then a record for the most bracelet wins with the 10th of his career.
Phil Hellmuth broke Stu Ungar’s record as the youngest player ever to win the Main Event when he defeated Johnny Chan heads-up for the title in 1989. That also kept Chan from becoming the third three-time winner in Main Event history. Hellmuth went on to win five more bracelets in the 1990s, the most of any player during that decade, including three in 1993 alone. But it’s been his track record since then that has been most impressive. Where other winners from the WSOP’s past have slowed down their rate of bracelet wins, Hellmuth has actually stepped up. He matched Brunson and Chan with his 10th bracelet win during the 2007 WSOP. Since then he has added three more to become the undisputed all-time leader with 13, including a win at the 2012 WSOP Europe Main Event, which made him the only player to win both the Main Event and the WSOPE Main Event. He has also cashed 100 times and made 49 final tables, both records.
Phil Ivey won his first bracelet in 2000 at the age of 24, but it was his three-bracelet performance at the 2002 WSOP that made his reputation. Seven of his nine career bracelets came in the 2000s, matching Johnny Moss’ record (set in the 1970s) for the most bracelets won in a single decade. Still just 38 years old, Ivey has already matched the achievements of most of the members of the Poker Hall of Fame, even though he himself isn’t yet eligible to join its ranks for two more years. His 13-year span from first bracelet to ninth is the shortest ever.
Though the tournament’s reputation has changed a lot over the years, particularly in the wake of the massive fields during the poker boom era, the WSOP Main Event remains poker’s unofficial world championship. Here are all the players who have won the Main Event:
The World Series of Poker didn’t begin handing out its Player of the Year award until 2004. Since then these WSOP champions have stood above their peers in WSOP history:
2004: Daniel Negreanu (1 bracelet, 5 final tables, 6 cashes, $346,280 earnings)
2005: Allen Cunningham (1 bracelet, 4 final tables, 5 cashes, $1,007,115 earnings)
2006: Jeff Madsen (2 bracelets, 4 final tables, 4 cashes, $1,467,852 earnings)
2007: Tom Schneider (2 bracelets, 3 final tables, 3 cashes, $416,829 earnings)
2008: Erick Lindgren (1 bracelet, 3 final tables, 5 cashes, $1,348,528 earnings)
2009: Jeff Lisandro (3 bracelets, 4 final tables, 6 cashes, $807,521 earnings)
2010: Frank Kassela (2 bracelets, 3 final tables, 6 cashes, $1,255,314 earnings)
2011: Ben Lamb (1 bracelet, 4 final tables, 5 cashes, $5,352,970 earnings)
2012: Greg Merson (2 bracelets, 2 final tables, 5 cashes, $9,785,354 earnings)
2013: Daniel Negreanu (2 bracelets, 4 final tables, 10 cashes, $1,954,054 earnings)
Photo credit: CC BY 2.0ikipedia.org, Cardplayer.com
Most bracelets: Phil Hellmuth (13)
Most final tables: Phil Hellmuth (49)
Most cashes: Phil Hellmuth (100)
Most Main Event cashes: Berry Johnston (10)
Most earnings, No-Limit Hold’em: Antonio Esfandiari ($20,879,700)
Most earnings, Limit Hold’em: David Chiu ($1,056,194)
Most earnings, Omaha: Daniel Alaei ($1,647,166)
Most earnings, Omaha Hi-Lo: Vyacheslav Zhukov ($889,710)
Most earnings, Seven-Card Stud: Men Nguyen ($894,850)
Most earnings, Stud Hi-Lo: Eric Rodawig ($463,373)
Most earnings, Razz: Frank Kassela ($227,379)
Most earnings, HORSE: Freddy Deeb ($2,360,462)
Most earnings, No-Limit 2-7 Draw: Erik Seidel ($717,259)
Most earnings, Limit 2-7 Triple Draw: Lenny Martin ($342,661)
Most earnings, Limit A-5 Draw: Johnny Moss ($128,560)
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Jason Kirk has been writing about poker since 2005 and has covered the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, and WSOP Circuit in various capacities for numerous outlets. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife of 10 years and two dogs.
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