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It was no surprise when the highly acclaimed 2020 World Series of Poker was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The poker world’s leading multi-tournament event had been scheduled to run at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas from late May to July 15.

Meanwhile, several online tournament events are being held. Serious consideration is being given to significantly changing the WSOP format and location during the next few years.

At this time, we thought it appropriate to offer our readers an historical overview of the WSOP as it has evolved since its founding 50 years ago. 

The World Series of Poker is to the poker world what the Oscars are to the film industry. Its cash prizes and gold bracelets are recognized as the ultimate awards for players throughout the world. Since its start back in 1970, it has grown beyond all expectations.

The WSOP started in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas. At that time, there were only 70 poker tables in the entire city.

The idea came up during a tournament in Reno in 1969, involving Benny Binion, Vic Vickrey and Tom Moore. Also participating were Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Rudy “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Johnny Moss and “Pug” Pearson — all poker legends. And Benny Binion’s vision and perseverance made it happen.

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In 1972, with only 12 players involved, “Amarillo Slim” Preston’s victory was special for both the WSOP and the poker world. He became poker’s ambassador. An extensive publicity tour brought attention to the WSOP and substantially enhanced its status.

Preston appeared on television eleven times as a guest on the popular Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson. He was cast in movies and wrote a best-selling book, Play Poker to Win. Thanks to “Amarillo Slim,” the WSOP had caught the public’s eye, encouraging more people to take up the game.

In 1973, the action at the fourth annual WSOP was televised on CBS Sports. While smoking his familiar big cigar (now, no longer allowed in casinos), Pug Pearson was the big winner. It was also expanded to include four preliminary events — Texas hold’em, seven-card stud, razz, and deuce-to-seven draw, two of which Pearson won. In 1974, Johnny Moss won his third championship; and then Doyle Brunson became even more famous as one of poker’s top players by winning back-to-back titles.

A significant change was made in 1978 when the main event prize money was divided for the first time, the top five finishers receiving cash payoffs. And it was the first time that a woman, Barbara Freer of El Cajon, Calif., participated in the WSOP.

Subsequently, in 1996, Barbara Enright, a native of Los Angeles, became the first woman to win a World Series of Poker major event, the pot-limit hold’em open tournament. A year earlier, in 1995, she had made it to the final table of the $10,000 buy-in main event, finishing in fifth place. (Dan Harrington won that event.) Then, in 2005, she also finished in the money in the main event, after earning her entry through a $10 online satellite tournament. As of 2019, she had also won three WSOP bracelets.

The legendary Stu “The Kid” Ungar, born and raised in New York’s Lower East Side, captured the poker scene in 1980 when he won the WSOP main event, and then repeated in 1981 and then again, 16 years later in 1997. A fearless high-stakes poker player, Ungar also was as a professional gin rummy champion.

His poker achievements served to further publicize the World Series of Poker, especially when NBC Sports covered the 1981 main event, introducing the game via television to millions more.

Unfortunately, after winning three main events, it was soon to be the end for Ungar. In November 1998, he was found dead in a Las Vegas motel room — at the age of 45.

We’ll have more about the fascinating history of the World Series Of Poker in Part II next week.

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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