According to legendary poker player Doyle Brunson, the World Series of Poker began as a way to attract poker players to Las Vegas for cash games. Forty-three years later, the event has grown to the largest poker spectacle in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of players over the years — 572,622 to be exact.
In its first year, the WSOP drew seven entrants. Last year, the WSOP awarded 68 gold bracelets, including seven given out in Europe. With another 62 events on the schedule for 2013 and the addition of the WSOP Asia-Pacific that awarded five gold bracelets in April, the 43rd installment of the WSOP is set to be the largest ever.
While many of the historical references out there credit Benny Binion, owner of Binion's Horseshoe, with drumming up the idea to begin the WSOP, San Antonio, Texas native Tom Moore really got the ball rolling when he hosted the "Texas Gamblers Reunion" at his Holiday Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada in 1969. Alongside gaming veteran Vic Vickrey, Moore invited several poker players up to Reno to take place in the event, although it would turn out to be the only time the event was held.
With Moore opting not to hold the Texas Gamblers Reunion the following year due to the lack of revenue generated by the event thanks to all the invitees doing nothing but play poker, Binion went to Moore and asked him if he could run something similar in Las Vegas. Moore gave the go ahead, and just like that the WSOP was born.
In 1970, Johnny Moss was awarded the winner, but not by winning a championship event. Rather, Moss was voted by his peers as the best all-around player and given the title. The following year in 1971, Binion made the change to the freezeout format that is played in today's Main Event, but Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston has been credited to this idea.
The $5,000 Main Event had just six players. According to Brunson, it was himself playing alongside Moss, Jimmy Cassella, Brian "Sailor" Roberts, Walter Clyde "Puggy" Pearson and Jack Straus. Moss defended his title as world champion and won the event for $30,000.
Over the next several years, the WSOP as a whole began to take on somewhat of a snowball effect, with the number of events, players and Main Event entrants growing steadily just about every year. Although the number of gold bracelet events fluctuated a bit more, the number of Main Event entrants grew year upon year from 1971 to 1991, before taking a slight dip back in 1992. Following that though, it began to grow and grow once again.
Much of this growth can be attributed to the great Preston, who took the title in 1972, but more importantly took the reigns as poker's lead ambassador.
While the WSOP Main Event was held with the initial buy-in of $5,000, it was increased to $10,000 for 1972, the year Preston won the event. Although the official prize results say that Preston earned $15,000 for the victory while Pearson and Brunson each took $32,500 for their finishes in second and third place, respectively, it was a deal that truly gave Preston the win. With Pearson and Brunson not wanting to win the event due to the unwanted publicity, the two agreed to let Preston "win," dividing up the money in terms of their chips. As it turns out, the result was great for the game.
Long-time WSOP Media Director and one of the great historians of the game Nolan Dalla described Preston's venture to bring poker into the limelight on WSOP.com:
"...he parlayed his personal triumph into a tidal wave of publicity that flooded the nation. Afterward, the talkative Texan became poker's greatest living ambassador. He went on a publicity tour that brought attention and status to the WSOP for the first time. Over the next decade, Preston appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show eleven times. He was cast in movies. He wrote a best-selling book. With Preston as the willing matador waving a red cape to the media, the WSOP had caught the public's fancy."
The next year in 1973, CBS Sports televised the WSOP and TV poker was born, which should be directly credited to all of the hard work Preston put in to getting the word out about the game.
Through 1977, the Main Event was played out in a winner-take-all format. That changed in 1978 when Bobby Baldwin won the title in the first year that the money from the prize pool was divvied up to several places, not just to the winner. Of the 42 players in the field, the top five received a cash, although the payouts were extremely weighted towards the winner.
In Part 1 of PokerNews' 40 Years of WSOP series, which leads up until 2010, the beginning of the WSOP is discussed and many greats provide stunning insight into how it all began:
Another radical movement in 1978 came when Barbara Freer entered the WSOP, becoming the first woman to do so. In 1979, Freer won the $400 Women's Seven-Card Stud event, and went on to record five other WSOP cashes throughout her career.
Throughout the late seventies and into the eighties, many of poker's most respected names began to emerge. Brunson really put his stamp on the game by winning the Main Event in 1976 and 1977. Stu Ungar matched that back-to-back feat in 1980 and 1981, then Johnny Chan did it in 1987 and 1988. Each year it seemed things were getting bigger and bigger, which can be credited very much so to tournament director Eric Drache and his revolutionary idea of implementing tournament satellites for the WSOP.
Drache got involved with the WSOP in 1973 and felt that it would be great if the WSOP Main Event was able to gain at least one player each year. Not only did the size of the Main Event grow each and every year, minus a tiny set back from 1991 to 1992, but entrants rose from just six to 393 up until the year 2000.
It was during this stretch that the Horseshoe became overflowed with WSOP players. So much so that the help of adjacent casinos such as the Golden Nugget and Four Queens was enlisted for extra space. Then in 1989, the year Phil Hellmuth stormed onto the poker scene by winning the Main Event and stopping an epic three-peat of Chan from occurring, Binion passedaway on Christmas Day, leaving the WSOP in the hands of his son Jack Binion.
In next week's Part 2 of PokerNews' History of the World Series of Poker, we'll take a look at the massive growth of the Series in the 2000s and the acquisition of the WSOP by Harrah's.