The World Series of Poker (WSOP) is the biggest poker tournament in the history of poker. The WSOP started as a rag-tag team of professional rounders and road gamblers meeting in a downtown Las Vegas casino 50 years ago. Since then, it has evolved into “poker’s annual Woodstock” and the premier poker tournament in the world. 2019 marks the 50th WSOP, which will be held May 28 to July 16 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
You may remember a day when sports channels were more interested in reruns of professional football games and daily highlight shows than high-stakes card games. Since 2003, the biggest championship tournament in poker has maintained a near constant presence on TVs around the world. So, where did the World Series of Poker begin, and how did it end up in your living room? Let’s take a look at the origin of the most popular annual card tournament in the history of poker.
The Early Years of the WSOP
The World Series of Poker (WSOP) dates back to 1970, when Las Vegas casino legend Benny Binion invited seven of the country’s best-known poker players to Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, to take part in a tournament to determine the best-of-the-best. Due to the nature of the tournament, which had a set time period for completion, the winner, Johnny Moss, was determined by popular vote. Other players in the first WSOP tournament were Amarillo Slim Preston, Sailor Roberts, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Crandell Addington, and Carl Cannon.
Following the 1972 tournament, the WSOP began to gain a larger following, thanks in part to champion Amarillo Slim Preston’s talk-show circuit tour following the tournament’s completion. Amarillo Slim was one of the original Texas Road Gamblers, along with fellow poker legends Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts. Amarillo Slim was a real character; he was part hustler, part raconteur, with a disarming grin and a witty way with words. His repartee helped his poker game, and all of the talk shows of the time wanted to hear his tales. Soon, word of the professional poker world and the WSOP spread like wildfire.
By 1982, the small poker tournament had grown into a 52-participant Battle Royale with pre-qualifying satellite tournaments popping up around the country. From there, popularity exploded. By 1987, the WSOP series, including qualifiers, boasted over 2,100 entrants. The 2006 WSOP tournament, which included 45 events covering the majority of popular poker variants, marked the height of the tournament’s participation growth, with 8,773 registered players. Following 2006, new legislation on online gambling restricted the number of online qualifiers for the tournament, but popularity continued to grow.
Acquisition and Expansion
The WSOP was held at Binion’s Horseshoe casino up until 2005, when Harrah’s Entertainment, now known as Caesars Entertainment Corporation, purchased the Binion brand and moved the event to the Rio Hotel and Casino, also in Las Vegas. Following the move, the tournament’s new operators created a tournament circuit, which featured events located in all of the company’s properties throughout the United States. In the new format, winners and other qualifying players from each site were eligible for a new Tournament of Champions at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which featured a grand prize of $1 million.
While a variety of games are featured at the WSOP, there is little doubt that the no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, which currently features a $10,000 buy-in, is considered the main event among players and fans. Winners of this tournament traditionally take home the largest cash prize of the series, as well as one of the coveted WSOP gold bracelets, which signify the tournament’s annual champions. An additional 8-game championship, featuring a variety of poker variants and a $50,000 buy-in, was introduced in 2006; often referred to as The Poker Player’s Championship for its diversity of necessary skills and huge entry fee, which is five times larger than the next most expensive tournament.
With a huge boom in popularity came expansion for the WSOP. In 2007, the World Series of Poker Europe was the first event offering championship bracelets held outside of Las Vegas. In 2010 and 2013 respectively, the World Series of Poker Africa and World Series of Poker Asia-Pacific continued the tournament’s international expansion. Since its inception, the tournament’s popularity has only increased, which is good news for both players and fans of the game.
WSOP Fame and Fortune
Poker professionals from around the world gather at the WSOP each year to win cash and fabulous prizes, including the coveted WSOP gold bracelet. The WSOP awards gold bracelets to the winner of each poker event, and dozens are awarded each year in addition to cash prizes. Despite its relatively low cash value, it is the single most desired prize to poker players. It has been compared to winning the Stanley Cup or a Super Bowl ring. After winning her 2005 Women’s Championship bracelet, actress and poker player Jennifer Tilly said it was “better than an Oscar.”
The WSOP bracelet has been modified over the years, from its early days of resembling “gold nuggets hammered flat” to its more distinctive design today. These days, the bracelet is usually made of white and yellow gold or platinum, and encrusted with rubies and diamonds. In its early years, the bracelet didn’t have a lot of meaning to some players, including Doyle Brunson, who didn’t even pick up 2 of his winning bracelets. The famed Brunson has won 10 bracelets, and only one player has won more.
The only players with ten or more WSOP bracelets are Johnny Chan (10), Doyle Brunson (10), Phil Ivey (10), and Phil Hellmuth (15).
However, the prestige afforded the bracelet has grown over the years. The actual cash value of a bracelet is usually $1,000 – $5,000 in material cost, but its real value is much higher. As a symbol of the history of poker and its celebrities, the value has climbed to astronomical levels. Bracelet winner Peter Eastgate auctioned his main event bracelet on eBay—and it sold for more than $147,000. The money went to UNICEF.
There are hundreds of WSOP bracelets in existence, but only one WSOP Poker Hall of Fame. To get on this exclusive list, a player has to do more than win bracelets and cash; those inducted into this ultimate tribute club must have made indelible contributions to the game of poker. Benny Binion originated the Hall of Fame in 1979, and kicked off the event with some posthumous awards to some very important poker legends. Legendary gunslinger and poker player Wild Bill Hickok was one of the first inductees. He was a famous poker player, and one of the very few players who died while playing. Wild Bill was shot in the back while playing poker in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1876. The poker hand he was holding when he was shot, 2 aces and 2 eights, is now called the Dead Man’s Hand.
As of 2018, 56 people have been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, 30 of whom are still living. Stu Ungar and Johnny Moss are the only players to have won the Main Event bracelet 3 times. To most professional poker players, induction into the Hall of Fame is the holy grail of poker achievements. The names of the players in the WSOP Hall of Fame have been written into the history of poker forever.
Over the years the WSOP has received not only great coverage and attention by the media, but has also created a very devoted fan base. Although the main World Series of Poker events this year are set to run from May 28 to July 16, 2019, at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, pre-events have already begun.