How The World Series Of Poker Became A Beloved American Contest

August 3, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Less than 60 days from now, on Sept. 30, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) will make its return to the Rio in Las Vegas after a hiatus of over two years. Operators and spectators alike are hoping for a truly spectacular showing, especially in the Main Event, scheduled for November 4–17.

In 2019, when the tournament was last held, it drew 187,298 competitors from nearly 120 countries across the globe. The WSOP is the game’s longest-running competition, and over its five-decade run has given out over $3.2 billion in prize money. For amateurs, professionals, casual viewers, celebrities, and general fans of card games, this tournament remains the gold-standard.

Today, let us take a look at the inception of this ever-popular championship and how it evolved into the behemoth it is today.

It All Started In A Tiny Desert Town…

A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the history of the game of poker itself goes back centuries, with various origin myths pinning its birthplace as China or Persia. It gained popularity, however, in the Americas, when it became the preferred game of choice on the frontier. On the other hand, the flagship event of the game, the WSOP, has only been around for a handful of decades.

The first edition of what would come to be known as the World Series was held in 1970, in Nevada, with around 30 or so participants. At that time, gambling and card games, albeit popular, were slightly frowned upon in “polite” society. Nevada only had 70 poker tables across the state, while Las Vegas had fewer than 50. The host casino didn’t even have a designated poker room.

The inaugural tournament was held at the Horseshoe Casino, owned by Benny Binion. A year previously, Binion had played at the Texas Gamblers Reunion in Reno, put on by industry insiders Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey. Invitations were extended to some of the biggest names in poker of the day and the event was received fairly well, though it did not attract much attention from outside their circle.

When the pair declined to host the event again the next year, Binion seized on the opportunity, seeing its value, and hosted the first-ever WSOP. The champion that year was Johnny Moss, though in reality, he did not so much as win the tournament as he did win his peers’ votes for “best all-round player.” The event was held without fanfare, with no one outside Las Vegas seeming to care about it.

Binion didn’t give up. The next year, he changed the format to a “freeze-out.” There were seven players, each of whom paid an entry fee of $5,000, with the winner getting the whole pot. That person turned out to be Johnny Moss once more.

The first sign of growth for the tournament came in 1972, when “Amarillo Slim” Preston won. The savvy Texan leveraged his win for publicity, both for himself and the game, touring the country to proselytize the virtues of poker to anyone who would listen. He appeared on The Tonight Show 11 times, acted in movies, and wrote a best-seller, drawing unparalleled attention to poker and the WSOP. The following year, it was aired for the first time on CBS Sports.

It was seven years later, in 1979, that an amateur bested elite players for the first time, with Hal Fowler’s win inspiring many to try their hand at entering the tournament, including several foreign players. In 1981, NBC Sports aired the WSOP, bringing it to millions more homes.

The rapid growth of the competition led the Binion family to buy a casino next door, to expand their operations and open a full-time poker room. The patriarch of the family, Benny, died on Christmas 1989, at the age of 86, leaving the running of the casino and WSOP to his son, Jack.

In 1990, an Iranian expatriate living in the UK became the first non-American to win the most prestigious prize in poker. Less than a decade later, the popularity of the WSOP began to wane, as infighting in the Binion family caused a deterioration in the competition.

In 1998, Planet Poker, the first online poker room, was launched, giving a platform to millions across the world. Though these humble beginnings would later unspool into a multibillion dollar industry, Planet Poker was forced to suspend real-money operations in 2007, and formally shuttered its virtual doors a decade later.

The dwindling interest in poker all changed, however, on one miraculous, unbelievable evening in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker, an out-and-out amateur beat the tournament favorite to win the $2.5 million prize. His unlikely victory spurred millions around the globe to try becoming millionaires through online poker. Within a short timeframe, poker players became recognizable celebrities, and celebrities became poker players.

The Horseshoe was sold in 2004, and Harrah’s Entertainment (now known as Caesar’s Entertainment), the largest gaming company of the day, bought the rights to the WSOP, the game’s biggest event. From 2005 onwards, the tournament has been held at the Rio All-Suites Casino and Hotel.

The expanded space allowed for more events to be added to the schedule, drawing thousands of players to Vegas. By 2006, the WSOP spanned 45 tournaments and $100 million in prize money. That year, the winner bested over 8,500 competitors and won $12 million — an award that far outstripped the combined winnings of Wimbledon, the Masters, and the Kentucky Derby.

2012 saw the first-ever $1 million buy-in tournament at the WSOP, called the Big One for One Drop. It was also announced that a significant proportion of every buy-in would be donated to efforts to bring clean drinking water to underserved communities all across the world. Predictably, the tournament drew in a huge number of players, and culminated in Antonio Esfandiari winning a whopping $18.3 million prize.

With time, the WSOP expanded overseas, to Europe, Africa, and Asia, establishing a World Series of Poker Circuit. As the game became more ubiquitous and mainstream, it attracted new and lucrative advertising deals, only growing the value of the industry as a whole.

Poker In The Time Of Covid

Over the last year and a half, poker has seen a boom that could rival that generated by the Moneymaker effect. According to estimates, interest in online poker reached a five-year high last year, indicating that increased downtime, limited leisure activity options, and higher internet usage is driving people towards playing poker for fun.

Further, the 14th edition of the Sunday Million tournament attracted a record 93,016 entries and an $18.6 million pot, compared to 2019’s 61,342 entries and $12.2 million prize. Last October, both New Jersey and Pennsylvania saw record revenues from online casinos and poker rooms, up 106.7% in the case of the former.

It seems to many that poker professionals and casual players, as well as the general population, are choosing to indulge in online poker, with casinos across the country shut down by Covid-19 restrictions. Federal gambling regulations mean that to play in the WSOP online events, players must be physically located in Nevada or New Jersey, prompting some to play from grocery store parking lots in neighboring states. Others traveled abroad to take part.

All WSOP events in 2020 were held online, with the Main Event taking on a hybrid avatar and the final taking place at the Rio. Initially denied a U.S. visa, Argentina-native Damian Salas won the Main Event in January 2021. The American portion of the online tournament comprised 31 events, 44,000 entries, and $26 million in winnings, with an average buy-in of just over $800. 

Despite this stellar showing in what was an off-year for the casino and gaming industry as a whole, many are hoping that the return of the full tournament to Las Vegas this year will be nothing short of a triumph. With Nevada making a steady but slow comeback, there are few who would argue that a mega WSOP tournament this fall would be unwelcome.