We would wager that some of you knew this year marks the golden anniversary of the World Series of Poker. It started in 1970, and it’s quite a story. Let’s ante up some history.
First, in some ways, we already HAD the anniversary. In 1969, some of the world’s greatest poker players came together in Reno for what was called a Texas Gamblers’ Reunion. Tom Moore, a Texan who co-owned Reno’s Holiday Casino, was behind it with an operator named Vic Vickery. Benny Binion of Las Vegas Horseshoe fame didn’t participate, but he was a Texas gambler, so he was there. Moore was disappointed in the attention the event received and the revenue it generated. Binion asked Moore if he minded if he took the idea to Las Vegas. Moore said to go ahead, and Binion went to work.
In May 1970, Amarillo Slim Preston, Puggy Pearson, Treetop Straus, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss and several other of the world’s greatest poker players sat around tables at Binion’s Horseshoe for about ten days. They played a variety of games. Then they voted on awards for one another. Jack Binion reportedly asked them to vote on the best all-around player, and legend has it that on the first round, each of them voted for himself. Ultimately, they gave the award to Moss.
A couple of those present said the event just wasn’t that exciting. How to change that? How about a winner-take-all tournament? The next year, six poker players put up $5,000 each, and Moss won the tournament and the $30,000. The next year, Amarillo Slim won it, and built on that victory to promote himself and the poker business. From there, the World Series just started growing. By 1978, 42 poker players put up $5,000 each, and Bobby Baldwin took home $210,000—at age 28 the youngest winner ever, and, yes, the future top executive at The Mirage, MGM Resorts, and City Center.
Through the next decades, the event kept growing. By 1991, the first prize topped a million dollars. But the growth wasn’t just from the big name participants. Benny Binion, his son Jack, and the executives they brought in to run the tournaments made changes. They added other tournaments besides the big one. They welcomed not just professionals, but everyday poker players. And poker grew beyond what was happening at Binion’s. There also was a big money world poker tour.
In fact, the World Series of Poker had some difficult years. The world poker tour helped reduce the size of the world series, and along with that, interest in it. In-fighting among the Binions removed Jack from running the tournament, and some of the players who were loyal to him wouldn’t participate.
As the event was starting to make a comeback, Harrah’s bought several Binion properties and the World Series of Poker in 2004. The event moved to the Rio. By 2019, it had grown to more than 100 tournaments and topped 180,000 entrants from 118 countries. The winner of the main event took home $10 million, with more than $3 BILLION in prize money over half a century.
This year? Well, it had to be postponed for reasons you can guess. But organizers planned an online tournament, and you can bet it got a lot of attention. Half a century after it started, the World Series of Poker is truly a worldwide phenomenon.
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