How The World Series of Poker Went From Wild West Murder To Prop Bets11 months ago
While the poker world waits to see this year’s World Series of Poker in online version, let’s take a look back at how the most iconic poker festival all began – a tale of ‘Wild West’ poker games, murder and thrown titles…
Some 50 years ago in Las Vegas, this year due to be the 51st annual gathering if it goes ahead, Benny Binion and his son Jack brought the best players to their Binion’s Horseshoe Casino for the inaugural event.
The idea had been hatched the previous year when they joined a group of pros for the Texas Gamblers Reunion in Reno – with a similar festival in Vegas “a good way to bring people into our casino” according to Jack.
Last year, Michael Kaplan recalled these humble beginnings for the New York Post, in an excellent article titled ‘The scrappy seedy origins of the World Series of Poker’.
Tracing that first event, which was ‘won’ by Johnny Moss after the other players held a vote, Kaplan’s journey through the years reveals a poker world that is a far cry from what we know nowadays.
The instant photos and videos on social media of a Main Event champion with $10million in front of him, having won a televised final table, were anathema to the poker pros of old.
Though the legendary Amarillo Slim might have loved the fame-hungry 21st Century, his final two opponents in his 1972 win had other ideas.
“I didn’t want to embarrass my family. The common working guy looked down on gamblers,” is how Doyle Brunson described it to Kaplan when he and Walter ‘Puggy’ Pearson agreed to chop the money, but allow Slim to take the title and notoriety.
Remember, there was no such thing as a professional tournament circuit back then, and much of a professional’s money was made at the tables by masking their experience against less-skilled opponents.
Things change, of course, and by the late 70s the World Series of Poker Main Event was being filmed for TV and Brunson would take back-to-back titles in 1976 and 1977 and become the first player to win more than $1million in prizemoney.
Described as the “Wild West” by Erik Seidel, those early days saw incredible stories of lawlessness, the most graphic being the murder of a federal judge after a poker table conversation during the 1979 WSOP.
Actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles, asked drug trafficker Jimmy Chagra how much he’d pay to see the judge in his upcoming trial –‘Maximum’ John Wood – dead.
‘I’d give a million dollars to see that SOB dead,’ Charlie replied, or so the story goes, and Harrelson did just that, killing the judge in Texas and returning to Vegas for his money.
Nowadays you’d be much more likely to hear players discuss a $1million isolation or weight-loss prop bet, but back in the day it was murder and 30-year jail sentences.
And so it went on, new names emerging and old famous names winning and dropping off the scene through death or old age – Stu Ungar’s the most disturbing story of all perhaps with his drug addiction overtaking his genius at cards.
When 2003 arrived, and Chris Moneymaker went from internet satellite qualifier to Main Event champ and a $2.5million payday, the modern era had well and truly arrived.
There have been great stories since at the World Series of Poker of course, but the romance and edgy mystery of its beginnings is now just a memory. Some memories, however, deserve to be heard again and again.
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