Before poker was cool, legends gave it a boost

June 03, 2014 3:00 AM
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Before poker was cool, legends gave it a boost Before Chris Moneymaker and what we know as the modern age of poker, there were several gentlemen who elevated the game before poker was cool. It’s debatable who did the most for poker, but it’s undeniable that it’s close. I was lucky enough to have a personal relationship with four of these legends, and I actually worked for two. My connection with these four men helped shape my career, and I will always be indebted to all of them.

Jack Binion, while president of the Horseshoe Casino, showcased poker twice a year and made it his main marketing tool with the Poker Hall of Fame and World Series of Poker. He hired Poker Hall of Famer Eric Drache, who in turn, worked with Jack McClellan as his tournament director. Together these three grew poker every year and made the WSOP the premier poker tournament in the world.

In the early days, I found myself short of money. I told my friend Ray Hall I wanted to play a tournament, but I was broke. He said, “Go see Jack Binion, tell him you’re a poker player, and you’re broke.” I thought this was unusual, but what did I have to lose? I went to Jack and said, “Jack, I’m broke, and I want to play the tournament tomorrow.” He replied, “Go to the cage and tell them I said to give you $2,500.” He took a poker player at his word and gave him a bankroll, no questions asked. That’s how it was in those days. We were like a big family.

When he was trying to grow the WSOP to a hundred players in 1982, there were only 96 signed up. I had not won a satellite to get in the Main Event that year. Another friend of mine said, “Jack wants to get it to 100. Tell him you’re not in.” I went to Jack, and he put me in the tournament. There were four of us he put in to reach his goal. This is a man who put his money where mouth is. How could you not love a guy like this? I like to call these the Golden Days, and it was all because of Jack Binion, who continued his father Benny’s legacy.

Jack hired PR firms to promote the WSOP, had professional photographers document it and provided free rooms and food for the players for years. He surrounded himself with his closest friends, who happened to be poker players. His love of the game and people who played it changed poker forever.

Steve Wynn needs no introduction. I went to work for Steve around 1977 as a poker host at the Golden Nugget. He had just put in the most beautiful poker room in Las Vegas. Before that, card rooms were just an afterthought in most casinos. The two major poker rooms in the late 70’s were the Stardust and Golden Nugget. The Nugget had a better reputation for poker than Stardust for two reasons: one was Bill Boyd, a legend in the industry, who was the poker room manager at Golden Nugget, and two, the Stardust had an underworld reputation.

In the early 80’s the Stardust expanded poker and hired a tournament director named Bob Thompson who created the Stairway to the Stars and gave Steve a run for the money. Not to be outdone, Steve created the Grand Prix of Poker. This friendly competition caused Steve to create one of the best poker tournaments in the world at the time.

Not only did Steve have to outshine the Stardust, he had to outdo his friend Jack Binion. He decided to give away prizes for the best all-around players. One year he gave away a large boat. The next year he gave away a Corvette.

Steve was the first one to bring poker and Hollywood together. He brought glamor to the game. Like Jack, he surrounded himself with poker players. His president at the time was Bobby Baldwin. Steve did something no one else had ever done before or since – he put on a fashion show for the wives that was second to none. He spared no cost on the production.

But there is one thing I will never forget. Before the main event of the Grand Prix, he turned off all the lights in the casino. Giant screens came down from the ceiling, and he showed video highlights.

Binion and Wynn had taken poker to the next level. Everyone has been playing catch up ever since.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry and is co-founder of Crown Digital Games. Twitter @thechipburnerRobert can be reached at robertturner@gamingtoday.com.

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