Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A little WSOP History

The first World Series of Poker (WSOP) was organized by Las Vegas pioneer Benny Binion and inspired by a 5 month heads up match between Nick "The Greek" Dandolos and Johnny Moss which had taken place in 1949. During that historic match Moss reportedly won between two and three million dollars, but more important to Binion were the crowds that gathered to watch the spectacle. The first World Series of Poker which took place at Binion's Horseshoe in 1970 was nothing more than a high stakes game that went on for several days designed to draw people into the casino. The game was populated by seven of the foremost players of the day and the champion was determined by a simple popular vote among the players. The following year the event adopted a tournament format and 13 entrants each put up $10,000. All of the money went to the winner, Johnny Moss, who was not coincidently also the previous years champion. As the tournament grew, more events were added with smaller buy-ins. While players competed in various forms of poker during these preliminary events (in 1988 there were 12 events total), the main event remained No limit Texas hold 'em.

A few revolutionary happenings came together around 2003 that led to an explosion in poker popularity and shaped the WSOP as we know it today. In 2002 the travel channel made a deal with the organizers of 13 of the largest existing annual poker tournaments to film the play of the final six players. This wasn't the first time poker had been on TV, but the key difference between these and previous broadcasts was tiny cameras in the table (called lipstick cameras) that allowed the viewers to see every players hole cards. In the past watching poker had been like watching paint dry, but now all the bets, bluffs and blunders were there for everyone to see. The following year ESPN jumped on the poker bandwagon when they filmed the 2003 WSOP in a similar manner. The main motivation for this endeavor was the NHL hockey strike which left huge holes in ESPN's prime time line up. They filled these holes with poker.

The internet also played a huge role in poker's growth. While you could play poker for money online as early as 1998 it took a few years to work out the bugs and even longer for people to trust that the games were fair, safe, and secure. But, once that started to happen it meant that people who didn't live within 500 miles of a card room or casino could get in the action. In fact the eventual winner of the 2003 WSOP main event was an unknown accountant named Chris Moneymaker (his real name!) who got into the tournament by playing a $40 internet qualifier. He parlayed that $40 into a 2.5 million dollar payday after beating 849 of the worlds best (and a few of the worst) players. The following year the size of the field in the main event tripled to over 2,500 entrants. In 2005 the tournament grew by leaps and bounds again to over 5,600 entrants (that's a prize pool of over 56 million dollars!) with a first place of 7.5 million dollars (plus everyone in the top 9 won at least a million dollars). This was the biggest cash prize in television history and in fact even if you won all 4 of golf's major tournaments (The Masters, The U.S. Open, The British Open, and the PGA Championship) you'd still come up short of the prize money for first at the WSOP! This year there are 45 events scheduled and the main event is expected to draw around 8,000 entrants. I'll be among those 8,000 and while 7,200 of us will be coming home with nothing but a story I'm planning to be one of the 800 winners.

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