Harrah's Takes Over

Harrah's Entertainment Buys the Rights to the WSOP

Binions Signed WSOP Poker Table
Binions Signed WSOP Poker Table

After almost 35 years of running the World Series of Poker, and after a lengthy family squabble, the Binions finally sold the Horseshoe and the rights to the WSOP to gaming giant Harrah's Entertainment. Harrah's in fact is the world's largest gambling company, and their management team was ready and willing to take the WSOP to entirely new heights. This transition ended up playing a significant role in the growth that the tournament was about to see.

This all coincided with a huge growth in poker generally that started to occur around this time. Poker players, who up until now had been relatively unknown in the public eye, started to become big celebrities, and celebrities wanted to become poker players. Poker, which could only be seen on TV once a year, was now starting to become pretty popular, especially with the success of the World Poker Tour. More events were becoming televised, and poker on TV became a regular event.

There's no question in fact that the WPT did more for the popularity of poker, far more in fact, in just the first couple of years of its existence than the WSOP did for it over several decades, but instead of competing with the WSOP, it was complimentary to it. When you throw in the tremendous growth that online poker was going through at the time, and the WSOP's acquisition by Harrah's, bringing in a gaming company of the highest magnitude to promote it, then things were ready to explode. And explode it did.

The 2004 WSOP saw 2576 players sit down at the main event, three times as many as the year before in which Chris Moneymaker walked away with the $2.5 million first place prize. This allowed organizers to double the first place winnings to a hefty $5 million, and also significantly expand the payouts for other finishers. For instance, second place was now worth $3.5 million, and third was set to pay out $2.5 million, the same amount Moneymaker won for winning the thing. Even fifth place got you over a million. However, with that many entries, things certainly got a lot tougher.

Chris Moneymaker also got hired on as a spokesperson for PokerStars, which was a natural move considered that's where he won his ticket to the big dance. As you might expect, this encouraged a lot more online players to look to get in on the action, and the number of online qualifying tournaments, and the amount of online players winning seats at the WSOP, grew tremendously. In fact, the huge growth that the tournament saw this year, which would continue over the next few years to come as well, was primarily driven by the online market.

Of course, the huge growth in publicity that the WSOP gained did have more land based players becoming involved as well, but this market was fairly limited. With millions of people playing poker at home being added to the potential entry pool, a whole new world opened up to the World Series of Poker. The larger online poker rooms, and even ones not that large, now had teams of players at the event, all wearing branded clothing of their sponsoring poker room. Many top pros would also get in on the action by being sponsored by poker rooms as well, and the muscle of online poker was now starting to really take over the event, and poker in general for that matter.

In spite of the much larger field this year, Dan Harrington was back at the final table again, for the second year in a row. Action Dan made his first final table all the way back in 1987, finishing sixth, He won it all in 1995, and finished third in 2003. This year, he would finish in fourth place, although due to the amount of entries this year, this probably was his biggest feat in poker, and this was also his biggest cash at the tournament, earning $1.5 million for fourth in 2004, as opposed to only getting a million for his first place finish 9 years earlier.

He also won a bracelet at a preliminary tournament that year, although that only earned him around a quarter of a million. However, the preliminary tournaments were really expanding, with no less than 32 being offered that year. This would continue to expand as the years went on and the tournament in general continued to grow. The prize money for these events also was really increasing, with the top payout that year going to Ted Lawson, $500,000, for winning the Pot Limit Omaha championship.

Greg Raymer
Greg "The Fossilman" Raymer

With so many entrants, it was natural that the final tables, and the final table in particular, were full of mostly unknown players. At the final table this year, only Harrington was well known, and the final three came down to himself, Josh Arieh, a little known pro, David Williams, who had won his entry online at PokerStars, and Greg Raymer, another online player who was known as "Fossilman" which was his screen name at PokerStars.

So it was the two online players versus a couple of pros, and the online guys certainly had their work cut out for them. Harrington is probably one of the best players of all time, and a former champion as well. His being in the top 4 two years in a row was seen as a huge feat, perhaps even putting himself in the elite category of the Brunsons, the Chans, Mosses, and the Ungars, all of whom won back to back WSOP championships. Harrington only won one of them, but this back to back top 4 was in fields much bigger than the other guys pulled off their back to back wins in. So he may not quite be in that class but it could easily be argued that this was a feat worthy of at least some comparison.

Josh Arieh was certainly regarded as one of poker's bad boys, being known for his verbal bullying of players, and was a stark contrast to the poker gentlemen of the past. He got himself in trouble for some of his antics at the 2004 WSOP, although he ended up apologizing after the event. Harrington was the first of the top four finalists to bow out, followed by Arieh, who busted out third. This left the two online players, Raymer and Williams, to battle it out for the championship.

In the final hand, Raymer was dealt pocket 8's. while Williams held AH 4S. The flop came 4D 2D 5S. Williams now had middle pair and a gutshot straight draw. Raymer check raised, and Williams called. The turn was 2H,, Raymer bet, and Williams called. The river was a 2C, giving both players a full house. Raymer's was hidden though as his pocket 8's were an overpair to the board.

The money got all in and Raymer walked away with the championship and the $5 million top prize. Williams became the highest finishing African American of all time as the tourney, and received a nice payout of $3.5 million for his efforts. Both players went on to become poker professionals, a trend started by Moneymaker the year before, and one that would continue in the coming years. With prizes that big, this was a very nice starting stake for any aspiring pro, and the top finishers definitely took advantage.