The Beginnings of the World Series of Poker
Back in 1969, two men by the names of Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey had an idea to bring together the best known poker players of the era and invite them to the Holiday Casino in Reno, Nevada, which Moore was a part owner of, to play in an organized poker gathering known as the Texas Gamblers Reunion. At the time, poker games were informal, consisting of a collection of road gamblers who would travel from town to town to play in what we would consider today to be home games. The idea of a poker tournament at the time was still on the horizon, but this planned event by these two men planted the seeds for the annual event that we know today as the World Series of Poker.
The format was high stakes cash ring games, and included such notable names as Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Jimmy "The Greek," Johnny Moss, "Minnesota Fats," and Puggy Pearson. They weren't playing for any sort of championship, and the idea was to provide these players with an opportunity to all sit down together at a poker table at one location, and also to provide an opportunity to renew old acquaintances. As well, Nevada was the only place that gambling was legal in the United States at the time, so this also provided a welcome break from having to worry about games getting busted by the police, or worse, held up and robbed.
In addition to these famous names, the participants of this get together included Benny Binion, the owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, who became inspired by the idea. Why not host an annual event at his casino, bringing together the best poker players of the day, who would then play for the title of poker supremacy? So the next year, in 1970, the World Series of Poker was born.
Poker wasn't anywhere near as popular back then as it is today, and in fact that would be quite an understatement. There were only about 70 poker tables in the entire State of Nevada at the time, and it comprised only a miniscule fraction of the casino business overall. So back then, it certainly wasn't something that was set up as a money making enterprise, and it was Binion's personal love of the game of poker that inspired it, in addition to his vision that in time this could develop into something much bigger.
The very first running of the WSOP was limited to who Binion felt at the time were the 7 best poker players in America, who all received personal invitations to compete. The participants were Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, Sailor Roberts, Puggy Pearson, Carl Cannon, and Crandell Addington. The format was once again cash ring games, and since it wasn't set up as a tournament, they needed a way to decide the winner. So this was done by way of a vote among the players after play was completed, with players voting for who they thought was the best player at the event.
It is said that two voting rounds were needed, as amusingly, each player voted for himself during the first one, and they then needed a second vote, with the requirement that players had to vote for someone else. As a result the first winner of the World Series of Poker became Johnny Moss, who received a silver cup for his efforts. The awarding of the cup to WSOP champions continued until 1976, when the prize changed to the familiar bracelets that we know today.
The next year, Benny Binion realized that the scheme of voting could certainly be improved upon, and decided that since it was held to be the world championship of poker, the winner should actually win the event through competing and not merely be voted the winner. So the format was changed from cash to a freeze out tournament structure, which has continued to the present day. So players were given an equal number of chips, and when you lose all your chips you're out, and the last man standing becomes crowned champion.
These players were not accustomed to playing for anything but fairly high stakes though, so each put up $5000 each, winner take all. It's worth mentioning that 5 grand was a lot more money, relatively speaking, than it is today of course, and much bigger than the $10,000 buy in of today. In fact there weren't many people around that both could afford this large entry fee and at the same time have a chance to win against the world's best players. So there were only 6 entrants in the main event that year, and Johnny Moss successfully defended his title, and made $25,000 profit, which again was a tidy sum of money in those days for a day's work.
This was also the first year where other events were added to the main event, which included four preliminary events, with prizes of $10,000 each. Puggy Pearson won the Limit Seven Card Stud match, Jimmy Casella won Limit Razz, Bill Boyd captured the title for Limit Five Card Stud, and Johnny Moss took home the prize for Limit Ace to Five Draw. This continued over the years, with more and more preliminary championships being added, encompassing additional forms of poker. The main event became No Limit Texas Hold'em, which of course continues to be the case to this day.
So the groundwork and the foundation was laid, all those years ago, for what would become a huge annual event in the years to come. So from very modest beginnings, where the entire event was held in an area no bigger than a hotel room, the seeds were planted. Back then the WSOP wasn't even known outside the small circle of this handful of players, along with a few people in the know in Las Vegas, and didn't even receive any media coverage. That all would change though of course, and pretty dramatically, in the years to come.