HOW IT ALL STARTED
It`s hard to believe that when the World Series of Poker began back in 1970, there were fewer than 50 poker tables in the entire city of Las Vegas. There were only 70 poker tables in the whole state of Nevada. Binion`s Horseshoe, the host casino, did not even have a poker room. The contest that would come to decide poker`s first world champion was held inside an alcove about the size of an ordinary hotel room. Thirty or so gamblers shoehorned themselves around a few poker tables. They didn`t know it at the time, but they were making poker history.
Horseshoe Casino patriarch and poker icon Benny Binion is widely credited with dreaming up with the championship format. But laurels should probably go to two lesser-known men - Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey. Moore, a Texan, was part-owner of the Holiday Casino in Reno. Vickrey was a gambling insider, a visionary man with grand ideas and big dreams. In 1969, Moore and Vickrey jointly invited several poker aficionados to Reno to attend the first (and what turned out to be only) Texas Gamblers Reunion. Among those who played in several high-stakes cash games spread over several days were Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Rudy "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone, and Benny Binion. A few notable poker players made trek as well, including Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Johnny Moss, and Puggy Pearson. The seed that would eventually blossom into the World Series of Poker was planted.
Indeed, one must wonder if and how poker might be different today had Moore and Vickrey sustained their annual get-together. Instead, they passed on the opportunity to host a poker gathering the following year. What a fateful decision that turned out to be. Inspired by what he had seen in Reno a few months earlier, Binion pounced on what he envisioned as a golden opportunity.
With unprecedented growth came many changes. Binion`s Horseshoe was sold off in 2004, and Harrah`s Entertainment acquired the rights to the World Series of Poker. Fittingly, the world`s largest gaming company was now in charge of poker`s biggest spectacle. The takeover could not have come at a better time. In 2005, the WSOP moved to the cavernous RIO All-Suites Casino and Hotel. More gaming space meant that more tournaments could be added to the schedule. "Build it and they will come" became the corporate mantra. And they did. Thousands of players flooded into Las Vegas in subsequent years, wildly exceeding even the most optimistic projections for turnout and prize money.
By 2006, the World Series of Poker was comprised of 45 tournaments, all awarding gold bracelets to the winners. Well over $100 million in prize money was won, making the WSOP the richest event in all of sports. Jamie Gold overcame the largest field in poker history when he defeated 8,772 fellow players and won $12 million as the top prize last year, surpassing the payout of events such as Wimbledon, The Masters, and the Kentucky Derby - combined.
The World Series has also expanded its reach beyond Las Vegas, to nearly a dozen casinos spread throughout the United States. The newly-formed World Series of Poker Circuit allowed poker players nationwide the opportunity to participate in poker`s greatest tradition.
Big corporations also took notice. What was once an untouchable subculture largely rejected by potential advertisers and business partners has suddenly become a highly- desirable target demographic. Beer companies, auto makers, and other mainstream businesses are now eager to attach themselves to the success story that is the World Series of Poker. Incredibly, the next thing on the horizon for the World Series might be yet another boom.
But some critics believe poker`s popularity may have peaked. Some people think the World Series of Poker can`t possibly get any bigger. A few words of advice: Based on its long and rich history, don`t bet against it.
Nolan Dala has been the Media Director for the World Series of Poker since 2002. He was the former PR Director for Binion`s Horseshoe. He writes frequently on poker and gambling issues and lives in Las Vegas.