The World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournaments, televised and watched around the world by millions, have transformed poker and particularly Texas Hold’em Poker into a national pastime for players and a national spectator sport in the United States. And it all started so simply with the arrival in Las Vegas of an itinerant Texas cowboy and professional craps shooter named Benny Binion, circa 1946.
Benny was a gambler but he knew how to hold on to his money and when the opportunity arose, he bought the Eldorado Club from its financially strapped owners, soon changing the name to “Binion’s Horseshoe”.
The idea of starting a highly-publicized poker tournament came to him after attending a special invitational poker tournament run by Benny’s friend, Tom Morehead of the Riverside Casino in Reno.
Benny hired the legendary and flamboyant odds maker and gambler Jimmy the Greek (Snyder) to handle the tournament and arrange publicity. The first tournament attracted only seven players but Benny was surprised at the amount of public attention drawn by the Greek’s astute advertising campaign.
The tournament winner, Johnny Moss, was dubbed the “First World Champion of Poker” and was awarded the prize of a silver cup.
The 1971 tournament was the first in which cash prizes were awarded. The publicity put Binion’s Horseshoe “on the map”. As a result, Benny Binion decided to call the event “The World Series of Poker and make the tournament an annual event.
In 1973, five card stud was added to the tournament but the main event was no-limit Texas Hold’em.
The number of players entering the tournament has grown every year but the start of the 21st century was when the World Series of Poker finally blossomed into a spectacle beyond the wildest dreams of Benny Binion, who died in 1989. Benny would have looked on in disbelief as 4,780 poker players entered the 2,000 WSOP. Within the past five years, participants have continued to enter the WSOP by the thousands. In fact, there were more than 23,000 players in 2005 – 839 of whom made it to the Main Event.
The WSOP for 2006 will have a maximum allowable participation of 8,000. Now Binion’s Horseshoe, the place where it all started is just “Binion’s”, the name shortened by the new owners, the gaming giant “Harrah’s Entertainment”, who purchased the property in 2004.
In 2005, the World Series of Poker was relocated from Binion’s to a larger Harrah’s property, the Rio, just off the Strip on Flamingo Road since the smaller size of the older Binion’s would be unable to accommodate the many thousands of players and spectators. However, in honor of Binion’s and the celebration of the 100 years founding of Las Vegas, the final two days of the WSOP Main Event was held in Binion’s.
In addition to the prize money, gold bracelets have been awarded to tournament champions. Two players, Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson and Johnny “Oriental Express” Chan, have won ten bracelets each. Again, one must wonder if Benny Binion could ever, beyond his wildest imaginings, believe that in the 2005 WSOP Tournament, 560 players won more than 47 million dollars and the first prize was a stupendous seven and a half million.
What a bonanza for Harrah’s as well with a 6% to 10% tournament rake, ESPN coverage and major tournament sponsors, Miller Brewing and Pepsi among many others, licensing fees from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. And it all started with an imaginative cowpuncher named Benny Binion thirty-five years ago.