World Series of Poker, or simply WSOP, remains to this day the biggest poker competition on the planet. Although there are other popular festivals, like EPTs and WPTs, no other event has almost magic power to attract tens of thousands of poker fans and players and gathers them all in one place like WSOP. Year after year, people from all across the globe descend upon Las Vegas to join the biggest poker display on the planet, but things look much different when it was all starting.
When Benny Binion first kicked things off back in 1970, he probably wasn't aware that he was creating a poker history.Inspired by the Reno's Texas Gamblers Reunion a year before, Benny decided that it would be a fun (and lucrative) idea to host a World Series of Poker at his Horseshoe Casino. And so it began... The first iteration of what was later to become the biggest festival of poker ever came and went without anyone taking too much of a notice. Johnny Moss was named a winner by the vote of participating players and at that time it seemed that not much would come out of it. The next year, in 1971, Moss was the winner once again, this time coming first in the $5,000 tournament with seven total players, and that didn't pick much of public attention either.
It was a third time that WSOP was being hosted at the Horseshoe and things were about to start changing. 1972 was marked by the victory of "Amarillo Slim" Preston, the man who was well known in the gambling circles. Despite of only beating a small field of 12 players to seize the title, Slim became one of the first poker ambassadors and it was thanks to him that the game and WSOP started to receive some much needed publicity. It was this year that the buy-in for the Main Event was increased to $10,000, the number that would remain the same for decades to come to this very day.
Very next year, the Series got its first televised coverage as CBS Sports took an interest. The "coverage" was nothing like what we are used to seeing today, as technology was still very crude and hole cards camera was still a long way down the road (it was first introduced in 2003). Nonetheless, it was an important milestone for the WSOP as it was finally receiving some mainstream coverage. The year of '73 also saw the introduction of several other events apart from the Main. These events came to be known as preliminary events, or "prelims". Puggy Pearson went on a tear, winning the Main Event as well as two prelims, indicating that there was a place just for him in the poker history.
Between '73 and '78 saw the title exchanging hands between several pros. It was during this period that Doyle Brunson came to prominence, winning back to back Main Events in 1976 and 1977. The field was gradually increasing, but the numbers were still in the lower two-digits category. 1978 was the first time that the number of players increased to the point, where WSOP officials decided that it wouldn't be the winner-take-all format, but top five finishers out of total 42 split the prize money. Bobby Baldwin took home the title and $210,000 first place prize. Then came the WSOP of 1979 which would mark another big milestone for the Series. Hal Fowler, an amateur player, decided to chance his luck against the veterans of the game and succeeded to finish on top of the 54-strong field. This earned him $270,000, but more importantly, his win would encourage a number of amateurs to join in the years to come and see if they've got what it takes.
Wheels were off on the train called WSOP, but it would still take a couple of years before the numbers reached a three-digit category. Looking at today's number, this does sound quite funny, but it was a simple evolution process that was greatly helped by the man called Chris Moneymaker at one point down the road.
Stu 'The Kid' Ungar made his first appearance at the World Series in 1980. Widely renown as possibly the best gin rummy player that's ever lived, Ungar was running out of opponents and was looking for a new game to help him make his monthly wages. Being in Las Vegas, he naturally stumbled upon poker.
Although new to the game, Stu's natural talent for the card games helped him transition quickly and easily and he proceeded to win back to back, in his first event in 1980 and then in the next one in 1981. While this was happening, WSOP was picking up more popularity and NBC did a coverage of the '81 event, bringing the Series to the people.
This was probably one of the reasons that the Main Event of 1982, won by Jack Strauss, finally broke the one-hundred barrier, gathering 104 entries. The number of prelim events kept increasing as well so the WSOP was slowly shaping up to become what it is today. The whole thing was boosted even more when satellites to the Main Event were introduced in 1983, giving people an opportunity to win their seats for a small investment.
There was no looking back for the World Series as numbers kept growing year after year. It was during the second half of the '80s that some of the names still well known in today's poker circles started to make their legacy, first Johnny Chan with his back-to-back victories in 1987 and 1988 and then Phil Hellmuth in 1989, winning his first Main Event title and stopping Chan from doing what no one has done: win three Main Events in a row.
It was late in that same year, 1989, that the original creator of the WSOP, Benny Binion passed away, leaving his legacy to his son, Jack Binion who would continue to build on his father's work and efforts.
After Jack had taken over from his father, he proceeded to introduce some improvements to the Series, bringing in two veterans to help him with it all - Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland who, in a way, would become synonyms for the WSOP in the years to come.
By this point in time, the Series contained twenty events every year and the number of players continued to grow. By 1997, the year marked by the return of Stu 'The Kid' Ungar to the throne, there were more than 300 players participating in the Main event.
Other highlights from this period include the triumph of Mansour Matloubi in 1990, making him the first non-American in the history of WSOP to win the Main Event up until that point. The year after that, 1991, it was the first time the Main Event winner took home a cool million and that pleasure went to Brad Daugherty.
As 2000s began, the $1,000,000+ prizes for the Main Event winners have become a common place as the fields regularly went over 500 players. However, nobody could predict what was about to happen and change the history of WSOP and poker as such forever.
It was the Main event of 2003 and the number of players in the field was a respectable 839, creating the first place prize of over $2.5 million. What was about to happen couldn't have come at the better time for the Series, as they were starting to lose some grounds to the brand new rival on the scene - World Poker Tour.
Chris Moneymaker, the man who ended up capturing the prestigious title and heaps of cash that year, was an amateur player in every sense of that word. He won his seat playing a $39 online satellite and proceeded to win a whole thing - right before the ESPN cameras! An unknown accountant from Atlanta became a poker made millionaire risking measly $40 in the process. Entire world was mesmerized by poker.
The game has become the "next big thing" over night and that would reflect on WSOP numbers as well. The very next year saw 2,576 players take it to the felt; year after that - 5,619, with 2006 Main Event, won by Jamie Gold for the record breaking $12,000,000, saw the biggest turnout recorded to date: 8,773 players!
You can find the list of all the champions and their respective prizes at the end of this article, but the most important thing to emphasize is, they've all become multi-millionaires after their victory, and that fact, combined with a worldwide exposure turned World Series of Poker into phenomenon like few other things out there.
The concept of November Nine was first introduced to the WSOP Main Event in 2008. Instead of playing the entire tournament in one piece until the winner, it was decided that the tournament would stop with final nine players and the play for the champion would then continue in November. Although there was some criticism about this idea, the tournament officials and people from ESPN believed that this was the way to build some suspense leading to the final table.
The concept stuck and all the Main Events since have featured the November Nine, including the most recent one in 2014, won by Martin Jacobson. Although the number of players at the Series has fluctuated somewhat over the years, it mostly maintained a positive trend. The Main Event has however never reached the number of entrants from 2006.
To this day, WSOP continues to grow and develop with every year, introducing plenty of new events, changing structures and buy-ins for the prelims to attract greater number of players, and some of the recent events, like the Monster Stack and, most recently, Colossus.
The Main Event, however, remains one constant in terms of buy-in at least, as it has never changed from $10,000 since 1972, despite of currency fluctuations and, most probably, it never will unless there is really big change in dollar value. World Series of Poker has grown from a small tournament of only a few hardcore players to the worldwide phenomenon that gathers tens of thousands of poker aficionados at the same place every year. As such, it stands out as the most important poker event in existence today and will continue to be so in the years and, most likely, decades to come.