The Figures Who Made The World Series Of Poker, And The Way Forward

November 2, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Earlier this week, the MGM Springfield, one of Massachusetts’ only casinos, officially reopened its poker tables after an 18-month hiatus that was prompted by Covid-19 restrictions. In doing so, it became the only casino in the state to offer poker to patrons, who had clamored for the reintroduction of the game for several months now.

Poker is, as we have written in the past, a game most beloved by Americans. In fact, Colonel Jacob Schenck, the erstwhile-U.S. minister to Great Britain in the 1870s, once called it America’s “national game.” At the moment, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament is on at the Rio in Las Vegas, after taking a couple of years off.

Today, we conclude our mini-series on poker with a look at two key figures in the history of the game’s most prestigious tournament, and how poker can reach new heights by appealing to women.

Benny Binion

Benny Binion and his son Jack created the WSOP in 1970 at the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, focusing on Texas Hold’em. For the next several decades, the Binion family retained control over the tournament, until around 2004, when the Horseshoe and the rights to the WSOP were sold. We have already detailed the history of the WSOP, but the story of the man who created it is truly incredible, with his legacy casting a long shadow over the competition for decades.

A sickly child, Benny Binion did not complete any formal learning, being sent, instead, on the road with his father, a horse trader. It was there that he learned how to trade horses and also had his encounters with gambling and card games, which were popular with those he met.

He moved to Dallas at the age of 24, looking to try his luck at becoming a horse trader. Over the course of his career there, he became involved in gambling operations and bootlegging, as well as with the mafia and local politicians. Accused of many murders in the 1930s and 1940s, his luck ran out when he attempted and failed to murder a competitor.

Binion promptly packed up his wife and five children and fled to Las Vegas, where he opened the Horseshoe Casino in 1951. It was not known, at the time, to be a particularly reputable or fancy establishment, but it did serve alcohol freely to patrons, drawing a sizable crowd. It also became famous for, among other things, “accepting any bet a player would put on the table.”

Horseshoe also developed a reputation for being extremely unfriendly towards cheaters, with those caught being physically “punished.” Binion’s reputation preceded him, with his exploits and murders being known. He even managed to escape unscathed after blowing up a former FBI agent in a parking garage in 1972, largely due to his well-connected network.

Between 1954 and 1957, Binion was thrown in jail for tax evasion related to his gambling operation in Texas. It was here he learned to read, and when he was released, he took on a “consultant” role, leaving the running of the casino to his sons and wife, as he was not allowed to hold a gambling license. He died on Christmas in 1989, at the age of 86.

Binion was known to be larger-than-life. A convicted felon, he still wielded firearms everywhere he went. With a cowboy hat, real gold coins serving as shirt buttons, and a swagger to match, the man was described as “tall,” “unshaven,” and “robust.” Even today, there remains a bronze statue of him across the street from the casino he founded.

The Moneymaker Effect

When Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP in 2003, the tournament had been losing fans and spectators alike. It was Moneymaker’s unexpected win that became, according to many, the defining moment in the history of the game. ESPN calls him “one of the most recognizable players in the history of poker,” while others say that there is “hardly a more important name in poker history.”

An amateur but passionate poker player and a full-time accountant from Tennessee, Moneymaker did not even expect to make the Main Event himself. In fact, at one point, he reached the final four of a satellite game and tried to exchange his seat for $8,000, which happened to be his outstanding credit card bill at the time. Moneymaker also did not have to pay the entry fee of $10,000, as he won his place through a series of satellite events.

A series of coincidences and well-meaning loved ones persuaded him to continue competing, leading him to Vegas, beating many better-known players along the way. That year, the Main Event had an extremely lucrative pot of $2.5 million and over 830 people competing for it, the largest number ever until that point.

Moneymaker’s final showdown was against Sam Farha, the favorite for many. His victory created the “Moneymaker effect,” in which millions of people across the world were inspired by him to try their hand at online poker to win big, especially without having to worry about exorbitant buy-ins.

Moneymaker still plays today, leveraging his win into endorsements and public appearances. He prefers lower-stakes small-buy-ins now, and enjoys the quiet life with his family.

Women In The WSOP

With an eye on the horizon, there are several experts who believe that opening up the game to the other half of the population is the key to fueling the game’s growth. At the moment, by nearly any measure, women make up a tiny part of the poker world. Most estimates place women as making up about 5% of the players in poker rooms. According to demographic data released by the WSOP, only 350 played in the 2019 Main Event out of 8,569 entrants (4.1%), and only 44 of them were age 30 or under.

Only three women have ever been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame — Linda Johnson, Barbara Enright, and Jennifer Harman. Enright remains the only woman to ever make the final table of the WSOP Main Event (placing fifth in 1995). No woman has ever won more than three WSOP bracelets, while among the men, Phil Hellmuth holds the record with 15. The male all-time leader in career tournament earnings is Bryn Kenney, with more than $56 million. The highest-ranking woman is Vanessa Selbst in 70th place with just about $12 million.

The reasons behind this table game being so heavily skewed towards men are complicated. On one hand, in the early days, poker was considered just another gambling activity that gathered primarily shady characters, most of whom were men. Women had no place at the poker table, and their peers closely scrutinized the rare ones who tried to breach that barrier.

Others chalk it down to the notion that perhaps women are not as naturally aggressive as men, or that they haven’t traditionally had the same kind of discretionary income to gamble with. Definitely, some women players are turned off by what can be a “boys will be boys” atmosphere that sometimes verges into vulgar or even outright abusive, experts have said.

Either way, many say that it is just a matter of time before more women start breaking into the top tier of the WSOP. Bringing more women into poker “benefits the whole industry,” says Lena Evans, the founder of the women’s group Poker League of Nations. “It’s bigger prize pools, it’s bigger fields. That’s the goal basically is to help us all by bringing in more players. The only way you can do it is by supporting women.”