Winds of change blow on WSOP

Ship Teh Chips

Last week the Internet poker community was abuzz with the rumor that the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event final table would be delayed for up to three months so it could be played live on television.

Purists decried the supposed move and fans of change raised their voices in support, only to be let down when the official word came down from WSOP headquarters that no such policy would be enacted this year.

Even though Harrah's says the rumored change won't take place, it's worth noting that change is nothing new at the WSOP.

In fact, other than cards and chips, change has been one of the constants at the series since its inception. Here's a look back at a few of the more important changes that have taken place at the WSOP since it first began.

Champion determined by freezeout (1971)

Binions
Home of the World Series of Poker.

The first iteration of the WSOP was held at Benny Binion's Horseshoe on Fremont Street in May 1970 as a "gambler's convention." At that time there was no tournament poker to speak of in the world; the convention was simply a continuous series of cash poker, with the title of "World Champion" going to the man voted top player by his peers. That title, of course, went to the legendary Johnny Moss.

When the world's greatest gamblers returned to the Horseshoe in 1971, Binion decided to change the format in order to generate more interest in the event. Rather than having a vote at the end of the convention, he decided to use the now-familiar freezeout format, in which the last man standing is declared the winner. Johnny Moss backed up his title from the previous year by defeating five other entrants in the $5,000.

The introduction of the freezeout at the WSOP gave birth to modern tournament poker, and was the first major change of many that would follow at the Horseshoe.

New event added (1972)

As mentioned above, the 1971 WSOP was the first to feature a freezeout. In 1972, a second event was added to the schedule: a $10,000 Five-Card Stud tournament. That it drew only two competitors is insignificant from a historical standpoint; what matters is that it set the precedent for the practice of adding new events that has persisted throughout the WSOP's history.

The WSOP's schedule has become so crowded with events in recent years that it now takes nearly two full months to play them all. Some who would style themselves poker purists have decried the dilution of a bracelet's value because of the additional events, but they miss the essential point that the WSOP's structure and schedule has been in flux almost since its inception. Change is the rule at the WSOP, not the exception.

Satellites (1981)

It is hard to imagine today, with all the readily available WSOP satellites both live and online, that there was a time when you couldn't win your way into the world's biggest tournament on the cheap. But for the first decade of the WSOP, that's exactly how things worked. The situation changed for good in 1981 on the eve of the big event.

As poker historian Gary Wise relates the story, Eric Drache, who had become the first tournament director of the WSOP back in 1973, was desperately trying to get signups for the Main Event the day before it began.

He began asking players on the floor at the Horseshoe to sign up, and eventually came to a table of 10 men who had $10,000 between them. Drache suggested to the men that they should play freezeout-style for all the money on the table, with the winner entering the Main Event. The men agreed, and Drache realized he had a winning idea on his hands.

Tom McEvoy
The first satellite winner to win the Main Event.

The name of the original satellite winner is now lost to history. Just two years later, however, a different name would enter poker history when Tom McEvoy became the first satellite winner to claim the Main Event crown.

Outdoor final table (1997)

The first WSOP was designed to draw traffic to the Horseshoe by giving the people passing by on Fremont Street something to watch. The only problem was that they actually had to come inside to see the tournament being played. In 1997, Jack Binion and his staff tackled that problem by moving the Main Event's final table outside onto the street.

The idea proved to be ill-conceived. By the time May rolls around, Las Vegas positively swelters; holding the final table outdoors meant subjecting its participants to intense heat. To make matters even worse, the notorious gusty Las Vegas winds meant that the dealers had to slide hole cards to the players and deal the flop under a sheet of plexiglass in the middle of the table.

In addition to the problems the environment presented for players and staff, the fans in attendance found the game hard to follow. Tom Sims, reporting on the event for ConJelCo, the gambling book and software publisher, described the scene:

"From a spectator's point of view, it was very difficult to follow the action. The overhead television monitors were almost useless because of the glare and outdoor brightness, and the television crews and photographers completely obstructed my view about 75 % of the time. They did have much larger bleachers outdoors than they have had indoors, but if you can't see, more seats aren't a plus factor."

The outdoor experiment was never officially declared a failure, but the fact that it never returned was proof enough that it simply didn't work.

Hole cams (2002)

No single innovation in poker has made the game more accessible to a wide audience than the hole cam. Early television broadcasts of the WSOP, aired without any indication of the players' hole cards until they were turned up, were curiosities at best compared to today's numerous poker programs.

Often they featured a poker-playing actor such as Gabe Kaplan or Dick Van Patten, assisted by the tournament director and sometimes a professional player in the commentary booth attempting to read the action as if he were at the table; Phil Hellmuth, ever the self-promoter, often helped with this aspect of the production.

In 2002, ESPN produced the first WSOP coverage that featured hole cards. While the graphic presentation was somewhat primitive in comparison with today's TV coverage, the new information changed televised poker immediately. Rather than feeling like a documentary film about a poker tournament, the new breed of coverage had the feel of a sporting event. That sporting allure would prove instrumental in drawing hundreds of thousands of new players to the game in the next few years.

Move to the Rio (2005)

Rio at Night
The new home of the WSOP.

Since its beginning, the WSOP had always been played at the Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, a natural fit for the Binion family's annual poker extravaganza. When the Horseshoe was forced to close in January 2003, it looked for a time as if the WSOP might cease to exist. Luckily for poker players, Harrah's Entertainment stepped in to purchase the casino and the now-storied WSOP.

With the event's burgeoning popularity fueled by the so-called "Moneymaker effect," and its new owners also the holders of several large casino properties in Vegas, it was only a matter of time before the event moved away from the only home it had ever known. That time came in 2005, when the event moved to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino on Flamingo Road.

The new venue was cavernous compared to the tiny Horseshoe, easily able to hold the entire 2,576-strong starting field of the 2004 WSOP Main Event. That the move was a smart one for Harrah's was underscored when the 2005 Main Event smashed the previous year's record by drawing a field of 5,619 runners and created the largest prize in tournament poker's history. In a nod to WSOP history, the Main Event final table was played out at Binion's one last time, but every hand dealt at the WSOP since then has been dealt at the Rio.

So, when purists decry real or rumored alterations to the WSOP format and schedule, it's worth remembering that the tournament series has been in flux more or less since its birth. But come what may, it's a pretty safe bet nothing will alter poker players' burning desire to snag one of its coveted bracelets.

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