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Expect WSOP to be bigger in ‘21

Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series on the history of the World Series of Poker.

Participation in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) rapidly increased beyond all expectations after its start in 1970 — 50 years ago, while the prize money rose into the millions. The WSOP was further expanded beyond Las Vegas in 2005 when it introduced the World Series of Poker Circuit involving additional casinos across the country, allowing ever more poker players to participate.

Unfortunately, the Circuit was postponed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. For 2020, plans were to have 35 stops and to increase the size of the prize pool by 50 percent to be shared among 10 percent of the entrants. The auspicious bracelets awarded to the winners of the various WSOP tournaments were to be included, with more diamonds, rubies, and gold, adding to their value.

For the seniors

In 2010, the legendary Oklahoma Johnny Hale introduced the Seniors WSOP Championship, a $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament. (He died in December 2019 at the age of 92.) Participation required players be over 50 years of age.

The Seniors event quickly became one of the most popular tournaments in the poker world. Four years later, in 2014, the Seniors No-limit Hold’em Championship attracted 4,425 entries, the most ever for this event. That year, Dan Heimiller of Las Vegas won $627,462 plus the Golden Eagle trophy. He has made 15 final tables in WSOP events.

In 2016, the seniors event drew 4,499 entries, when Jonny Craig, a Canadian-American, now residing in Baytown, Texas, took the top prize, $538,204 — the largest seniors poker tournament prize in history. He also earned a gold bracelet. Jonny is well known in the entertainment industry as a singer/songwriter.

This outstanding success led to the introduction of a new Seniors WSOP event, the Super Seniors tournament planned to start this year as a $1,000 buy-in event, with an age requirement of at least 65 years — until the coronavirus Pandemic struck resulting in its postponement.

International success

As for the WSOP main event, Hossein Ensan who was born in Iran and later moved to Germany, won the top cash prize of $10 million in 2019 and was also awarded the WSOP Main Event bracelet. Ensan is the second German champion in WSOP history.

The first was Pius Heinz, who won the 2011 Main Event. And he is the third Iranian-born Main Event winner, following Monsour Matloubi (1990) and Hamid Dastmalchi (1992). Runner-up was Italian pro Dario Sammartino who earned $6 million for his second-place finish. Third-place finisher was Canadian Alex Livingston who walked away with $4 million.

The Poker Gods saw to it that this would not be an “ordinary” Main Event. Early in the Main Event, an earthquake struck in neighboring California — so powerful it was felt in Las Vegas. The Rio Casino trembled to its rafters for a few moments. Play was halted while casino staff verified that the tournament rooms were safe. The moment was just an inkling of things to come.

Last year saw a record 187,298 entries in the World Series of Poker events, creating a 50-year high of $293,183,345 in prize money. In addition to the Main Event (8,569 players), signature events included Big 50 (28,371 participants), Deepstack No-Limit Hold’em (6,150), Millionaire Maker (8,809), Double Stack (6,214), Monster Stack (6,035), Crazy Eights (10,185), the Seniors WSOP Championship (5,916), Colossus (13,109), Deepstack Championship (6,140), Mini Main Event (5,521) and Little One for One Drop (6,248) — each exceeding 5,000 entrants.

All in all, the 2019 World Series of Poker attracted an astounding 111,267 entries. All these signature events were expected to return in 2020. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, more than 500 poker tables had been planned for this year’s WSOP, occupying nearly 200,000 square-feet of ballroom space to accommodate over 100,000 players who were expected to attend.

Locations change

Caesars Entertainment bought the Rio in December 2019, including the WSOP, and formed Dreamscape Companies. Then, Caesars Entertainment sold it to a real estate investment company for over $500 million. Recently, Caesars finished construction on a 300,000-square-foot conference center on the Las Vegas Strip called the Caesars Forum, where the WSOP is expected to move in 2022 — bigger and better than ever.