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40 Years of the World Series of Poker: The Beginning

As the World Series of Poker approaches its 40th anniversary in just a few short weeks, PokerListings will be looking back in a series of articles at how it has evolved.

From its beginnings as a small invitation-only gathering of exclusively male, U.S. gamblers, the WSOP is now the richest international, equal-opportunity sporting event in the world.

But before we start that journey, we need to go back even further, 21 years earlier, when the future father of the WSOP, Benny Binion, was presented with an interesting request.

Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Dandolos, the son of wealthy Greek parents, had a huge bankroll and the desire to play the best poker player around in a marathon heads-up match. Binion set up the contest, choosing the legendary Texas-born Johnny Moss.

Beginning in January, and ending sometime in May, the two men played every form of poker imaginable. In a brilliant marketing move, the match was held in the front lobby of the Horseshoe, luring curious onlookers to the casino.

Poker Becomes Spectator Sport

For the first time, Poker had become a spectator sport.

But it was not until 21 years later at the Holiday Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada that the seeds of the WSOP really began to germinate.

For those outside the poker world, 1969 is remembered as the year of anti-war protests, the beginning of Richard Nixon's presidency and Neil Armstrong's infamous walk on the moon.

Doyle Brunson

For poker players, however, it was the year that the World Series of Poker had its beginnings.

A weeklong convention dubbed the "Texas Gambler's Reunion" was organized by Tom Moore, who had recently purchased the Holiday Hotel and Casino.  He invited the top gamblers of the day to a week-long re-buy poker tournament as part of the convention.

Those who attended the multi-day gathering were not exclusively from Texas, but were all seasoned poker players.

They included Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Johnny Moss, Crandell Addington, Puggy Pearson, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Jack "Treetop" Straus, Felton "Corky" McCorquodale, Brian "Sailor" Roberts, Aubrey Day, Jimmy Casella, Bill Boyd, Syd Wyman, Long Diddie, Benny and Jack Binion and even Minnesota Fats.

"There was no such thing as one game for the championship," Addington told PokerListings.

"These were all cash games, they didn't follow the format that you see now where you have a certain buy-in and once that buy-in is gone, you're out of the tournament.  It was a tournament, a competition.  All the top players were there, but they were entirely cash games."

Addington won the most money that week and was named Mr. Outside, a title awarded to the best road gambler.

He still has the silver trophy given to him by Moore, but it certainly wasn't his focus at the time.

"Poker players back then weren't playing for trophies or bracelets," he explained. "We were playing for the money."

When Benny and Jack Binion learned that Moore was not planning to hold another reunion, they decided to hold their own at the Horseshoe the very next year.

Renamed the "World Series of Poker"

Renamed the "World Series of Poker," the 1970 event was attended by many of the same gamblers who had participated at the Holiday convention the year before.

At the time, there were fewer than fifty poker tables in all of Las Vegas. Binion's Horseshoe actually had no poker room and so three tables were squeezed into the small baccarat area.

Amarillo Slim Preston

'The best player is the one who won the most.'

Just 38 poker players participated.

Over the next week and a half, they played Five-Card Draw, Deuce-to-Seven Draw, Seven-Card Stud, Razz, and No-Limit Hold'em.

Legend has it that Addington, Brunson, Carl Cannon, Moss, Pearson, Amarillo Slim, and Brian Roberts all voted for who would be named the winner in the end and Moss won.

But according to Addington, this was not exactly how the decision was made.

Addington claims the Binions decided to announce a winner simply because there was so much interest from the press.

"Jack Binion went around to all the poker players and asked them to vote on who was the best player and every poker player said, 'Me.'" He said.

"Well, that wasn't going to work, so he went around to see who would get the most votes for second place. Moss got the most votes for second place - except some of us refused to vote.

"Slim screamed bloody murder and said 'This is absurd. We're not voting on who's the best player. The best player is the one who won the most.'"

In the end however, the objectors were overruled, Moss was awarded a silver cup and is forever listed as the winner of the first WSOP.

As the festivities were wrapping up, Ted Thackery, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times sent to cover the first WSOP, gave Benny and Jack some advice.

He said the key to getting even more press involved was turning the World Series into a real sporting event with some structure - A real tournament with real life drama.

The next year the Binions began the freeze-out tournament structure, added prize money and a bracelet and a real sporting event it became.

The current structure of the WSOP was born. And this time, without any question, Johnny Moss came out on top.

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All Poker News
Phill Provance
2009-05-27 04:17:00

*And before I give FlashJ any superficial fodder for his retort, I meant “poker-news SITE,” so you can skip the ad hominums and go straight for the meat. Let’s argue! 😉

Phill Provance
2009-05-27 04:13:00

Couple points:

First, Zed – that’s fascinating actually. What’s your source on that? I’d be interested in hearing more for professional reasons as well as out of personal interest.

FlashJ – I’m thinking the point Shari makes in her article (correct me if I’m wrong of course, Shari) is that it wasn’t intentionally marketed as a sport from the beginning but got classified as such for the sake of allowing to L.A. Times to classify it into a section and, as a result, took on a few aspects of sports and began marketing itself as such. Seriously, all things considered I hardly think it’s right to label poker players (as you imply) as lazy. I agree that it’s questionable as to whether poker is a “sport” per se, but ESPN isn’t complaining about the WSOP’s ratings, and in fact, if you check the definition of the word, one of them is “a diversion; recreation; pleasant pastime.” Anyhow, assuming you have two golfers using a cart to wheel around from hole to hole, how much more physical activity do they get than, say, Phil H. when he pushes a giant stack of chips to the center? I’m sorry, man, but on a poker-news sight you’re just going to lose this one, especially when you’re using a stroke of fate to argue that people who like poker are [email protected]$$es – which is what it seems you’re getting at.

Shari: Again, sterling article. Thanks much.

2009-05-09 00:22:00

The match between Moss and Dandololos was an exhibition match in which they pushed high denomination chips around the table for the entertainment of the railbirds. Dandolos may have had money, but he was also a professional gambler and shill, and while he may have lost $2m in chips, there is no reason to believe that the money was his,, because they were both working for Benny Binion. The payoff for Dandolos was most likely that he could ply his trade in Binion’s casino, which was making sidebets with players who were running hot, who were usually glad to accept bad odds so that they could brag that they had taken on the famous gambler.

2009-05-05 20:05:00

Is Crib a sport? How about Bridge? Why is poker a sport? I hear all this talk about “the equal gender sport” but its not a sport! Its a card game! It’s great it’s equal opportunity but I have to say calling it a sport seems more like wishful thinking to me by a large group of people who spend their days sitting around a table getting 0 exercise.

Get up from the table once in a while, grab a tennis racket, snowboard etc and check out what a sport really is. Your body will thank you.

2009-05-05 17:27:00

It was Ted Thackery from the LA Times and Addington confirmed it was Ted’s idea to make it more of a real sporting event by making it a tournament with a clear winner.

Phill Provance
2009-05-05 06:12:00

…. But not all that surprising. I would imagine them sending a sports reporter, not knowing how else to file it. Wonder who they sent? Any answers Shari?

2009-05-05 01:54:00

Interesting that a reporter was the one to suggest the freeze out format.

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