The World Series Of Poker – How it all started

WSOP Table & Chips

The World Series of Poker (WSOP), the Main Event and Championship Bracelets always get discussed by players at today’s poker tables, especially as the summer months approach.

Nothing in poker has more prestige than a WSOP bracelet. You could only win one in Vegas, by beating a solid field of competitors. In 2020, 85 WSOP bracelets will be won online in the “Summer Online World Series of Poker”.

You could go back further than 50 years and nobody would know what you were talking about. The WSOP is a modern success story.

Throughout the 20th century, America historically had the most players of any country and games could be found in every major city. Meaning that there were hundreds, if not thousands of (mainly) men, hoping to win bragging rights about being the best poker player in town. Every player knows that poker, confidence and big egos often go together at a poker table. But how could you prove you really were the best player around without an organised structure?

It wasn’t until 1969, when a small group of some of America’s best poker players were invited to a casino in Reno, to compete against each other at a single table, to find out who could justifiably call themselves the best. The special event was won by Crandell ‘Dandy’ Addington, a self-made millionaire who told reporters that he mainly played for fun. The event caught the attention of anyone who considered themselves a top poker player and the first step towards today’s WSOP had been taken.

The following year, one of Las Vegas’ most infamous casino owners, Benny Binion, persuaded seven of the best-known poker players to his Horseshoe Casino for a similar tournament event, calling it the World Series of Poker. This event had a fixed start and finish time, and the winner was decided by a secret ballot of the players.

The next year, and every subsequent year, the winner of the tournament was rewarded with a large cash prize based on the number of entrants and the buy-in amounts, in addition to the bragging rights of calling themselves World Champion. During the 1970s various formats and new events were added or removed in an attempt to attract bigger and bigger fields. In 1976, the now-famous winner’s Bracelet was awarded to the winner of the annual WSOP for the first time and became a popular and sought-after emblem of success.

Even with all these new ideas, the WSOP tournament grew slowly and only exceeded 50 participants for the first time in the early 1980s. A new marketing ploy was needed to increase interest and participation in the event, and the satellite event was born. For the rest of the 20th century WSOP satellite tournaments were held in various locations across the USA throughout each year to encourage participation in the WSOP. Some online tournaments were organised with the winner being offered an entry ticket to the WSOP too.

These tournaments allowed recreational poker players to win their way into the various WSOP events rather than having to bankroll their entrance fee. The satellite idea increased popular interest in the WSOP and by the end of the 1980s there were over 2000 entrants playing in the series. The event became more widely reported upon and advertised and consequently increased its commercial success across America.

By the turn of the century, there were almost 5000 participants in the various events. The number of competitors in the WSOP continued to grow every year until at the 2006 World Series of Poker, there were more than 10000 entrants, playing in 45 different events, covering almost every variant of poker.

The blue-ribbon tournament, which closes the annual WSOP event, is called the Main Event and takes almost a week to play. It is hugely popular, even with its $10,000 buy-in requirement it is considered the largest no-limit hold’em event in the world.

For the last thirty years the Main Event has drawn in players from all over the world. Every one of them wants a shot at reaching the Final Table along with the cache and money it provides. During this era, the winner of the Main Event has generally received a multi-million-dollar cash prize, in addition to the coveted and much revered Bracelet. The winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event is also generally considered to be the World Champion of Poker and the bragging rights afforded to those contestants. Since the inauguration of the televising of the Final Table, many previously unknown recreational players have made it to the Final Table and been shot into the limelight to receive their 15 minutes of fame in Las Vegas and the respect of their local players.

In 2004, when the World Series of Poker was taken over and sponsored by Caesars Entertainment Corporation it marked a leap forward in professional management and marketing. In 2005 the WSOP event was switched to the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada and has been held there up to the present day.

The following year, 2005, to mark the centennial of the founding of Las Vegas, the organisers decided that the final two days of the Main Event would be held in the older ‘downtown’ district of Las Vegas in the “Binion’s” casino, where it all started.

The WSOP also added a television-special, a $2 million “freeroll”, to mark the special occasion and increase interest from the national and international Press. The invitational event was a star filled game consisting of the best and most famous players from around the world of poker and appropriately named the Tournament of Champions.

Earlier that same year, the WSOP had begun the World Series of Poker Circuit, a satellite series held at various casinos across the United States intended to increase participation and excitement for the WSOP. The top qualifying players from each satellite event earned eligibility for the annual Tournament of Champions. Consequently, the 2005 TOC which was held at Caesars Palace Casino in Vegas, consisted of the top twenty qualifying players from each Circuit event, plus the members of the final table from the 2005 Main Event and also every winner of nine or more WSOP bracelets (only three players had achieved this amazing milestone).

Mike Matusow won the first prize of $1 million and all the players at the final table won significant amounts. The TOC was a success and the WSOP saw a surge in interest across the USA.

In 2006 this success was clearly demonstrated when almost 9000 players from every type of background and origin sat down on Day 1 of the Main Event, amazing commentators and players alike. The eventual winner, Jamie Gold, cashed out for $12 million a world record win for any poker event.

Unfortunately, the following year saw the introduction of new gambling legislation in the USA which restricted the number of online qualifiers to the event. The consequence was the first drop-off of players at the Main Event for decades. The WSOP bounced back from this minor setback with additional marketing and miraculously the field of players resumed its upward growth in 2007. Every year since then the number of hopefuls entering the Main Event halls at the Rio Casino has always reached into multiple thousands. Numerous players, both professional and recreational, have been seen at the Cashier cage re-buying 2nd and 3rd bullets to re-enter the $10,000 Main Event in an attempt to reach the pinnacle of world poker.

The poker world also found a high profile way to demonstrate a charitable side to the glitzy world of High Limit players. In 2011, Guy Laliberte, the Canadian billionaire and founder of Cirque du Soleil, joined up with the World Series of Poker to announce plans for a special fundraising event, known as The Big One for One Drop. The event would be played in July, 2012 with seats limited to 48 players. Amazingly, each and every one of those players would need to pay a record breaking $1 million entry fee.

The event would be for the benefit of Laliberté’s charity, the One Drop Foundation One Drop, which had projects in Central America, India and West Africa providing advice and support to get clean water to disadvantaged groups. Eleven percent of each entry fee would go direct to the charity, $111,000. The WSOP charitably waived its normal rake of the entry fees and covered the significant running costs of the event themselves.

Such was the popularity of this charitable gesture, many of the available seats had already been taken up before the announcement and official launch, including one by Laliberte himself. However, by the time the event began, all 48 seats were filled, resulting in a first prize in excess of $18 million, the largest pay out in history. Antonio Esfandiari eventually won the event, and in addition to the huge pay out also received a special platinum WSOP bracelet.

The World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) was the first expansion of the World Series of Poker outside of mainland USA. The first WSOPE consisted of three events held in London in the autumn of 2007 and it proved a popular format, drawing players from all across Europe. The Main Event, with the usual £10,000 buy-in tournament, was amazingly won by a Norwegian woman, Annette Obrestad just before her 19th birthday. This made her the youngest person ever to win a WSOP bracelet and one of the few women to achieve this landmark win.

The next expansion of the series was in 2010 with the World Series of Poker Africa (WSOPA) which took place in Gauteng, South Africa. However, this event was treated as a WSOP Circuit event, with no bracelets awarded. The winners of this inaugural event were also denied the customary WSOP gold ring or their standing for the WSOP Circuit National Championship. This was unpopular with all the hopeful players who attended the event and the ruling was changed for the next event held in 2012.

In 2011, the organisers decided that WSOPE would be moved from London to Cannes in the south of France and the buy-ins and pay-outs changed from being paid in British pounds to euros. Once again most of Europe’s top players travelled to the event to take on a raft of hopeful recreational players to compete all the way to the Final Table.

In 2012, the WSOP and the Australian casino ‘Crown Melbourne’ jointly announced the launch of the WSOP Asia-Pacific, the next stage in the expansion to bring the WSOP brand to worldwide status. The first event was held in Melbourne in April and five bracelets were awarded in the series. From 2013 to 2017 the expansion events ran concurrently with WSOPE being held only in odd-numbered years, with the even-numbered years hosting the Asia Pacific tour expansion. However, due to increased demand and popularity, since 2017 WSOP Europe has been held annually.

In 2015, the WSOP tour concluded their ambitious expansion plans when the World Series of Poker introduced their International Circuit. Their Circuit events would now be truly global, with rounds now held across Latin America, the islands of the Caribbean, several Canadian cities, numerous European venues and right across the Asia-Pacific region and also Africa. The winner of each Circuit tournament would be invited to join the other Circuit winners to play the annual WSOP Global Casino Championship. Since 2018 the WSOP International Circuit has grown to include 13 international annual events. The 2020 WSOPC took place online at poker room GGPoker, flagship poker site on the GG Poker Network. The site doesn’t accept USA poker players – as online poker is not 100% available in the United States (see our USA Poker legislation guide for details on state-by state poker legality in the USA).

Today, the WSOP consists of 101 events, with most poker variants featured but always focusing on the most popular format, Texas hold-em. The constituent events traditionally take place during one day but some of their larger-field tournaments, including the Main Event are held over several consecutive days. The WSOP is usually held during the months of June and July at the Rio Hotel and Casino, with numerous satellite events being held in the months before to build up the eventual fields. The hugely popular, $10,000 Main Event closes out the world-famous Las Vegas event with the winner earning the unofficial title of World Champion.

As with many unofficial titles some participants and commentators expressed a different view and poker players are no different. In 2002, Daniel Negreanu famously argued that the Texas Hold-Em game doesn’t require the most skill to win the game and consequently the Main Event should switch to pot-limit hold ’em. A number of other professional players professed similar opinions but the WSOP declined to change the Main Event structure from Texas Hold-Em.

The arguments rumbled on for the next few years until 2006, when the $50,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. event was added to the WSOP selection of games. Many of the world’s top professionals took the opportunity to insist that this tournament should be viewed as deciding the world’s best player. They recognised that the $50,000 buy-in tended to deter most recreational players from playing in the event, thus removing the rare possibility of a player hitting a mathematically unlikely long lucky streak which would override experience and skill. Secondly, the wide variety of games played in the H.O.R.S.E. format require a broader knowledge of poker strategies and tactics, another factor to deter lucky recreational players from winning the title. Surprisingly, the argument was never decided and the WSOP stuck to their original decision.

In 2010, the $50,000 event slightly changed direction moving from the H.O.R.S.E. mixture to an eight-game format, by adding no-limit hold ’em, pot-limit Omaha, and 2–7 triple draw. The tournament was re-branded as The Poker Players Championship and has proved to be yet another popular event in the amazing and challenging WSOP.

The organisers and sponsors of the WSOP are continuously reviewing the methodology and perception of their events. They enthusiastically encourage feedback from every possible source in an attempt to keep the events current and challenging to encourage new players to take up the game.

If you want a chance to join the giants of poker, whose names appear in the numerous books about poker, the WSOP is where you need to go!

The 2020 WSOP is currently postponed – with the possibility of the series taking place in the Autumn.

Finally, I wish all my readers good fortune at the poker table but remember…If you can’t afford to lose, DON’T PLAY

The Author

P.S. Scholars have often said that history is written by the victors. Although I have entered several WSOP events over the years, I am sad to admit that I am still unable to tell you that I am the holder of one of the fabled WSOP series Bracelets. Hopefully, once the world has recovered from the current pandemic, I can return to the Circuit to try to remedy that situation.

Peter Hoggett