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Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series on the history of the World Series of Poker. Part one can be read here. 

By 1982, in addition to the $10,000 buy-in Main Event, the World Series of Poker had already expanded to 11 preliminary events when the Ladies World Championship was added. In all, there were 13 events that year, with cash prizes of over $2.6 million — setting a new record.

During the early 1980s, the aging Benny Binion turned the WSOP operations over to his son, Jack who assumed most of the daily duties of running the casino from his father. Jack’s protégé, Eric Drache, with considerable experience in playing and managing poker establishments, became the WSOP tournament director. Together, they introduced the concept of tournament satellites, helping others to better afford the buy-ins for the 13 events.

After Benny Binion’s death in December 1989, the WSOP continued to grow as Jack McClelland and Jim Albrecht joined the management team. It now ran four weeks and included twenty individual tournaments.

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Over time, more women and foreign poker players participated. In 1990, Mansour Matloubi was the first non-American to win the championship. Born in Iran, he lived in England.

The following year, in 1991, the WSOP awarded its first $1 million cash prize. There were 215 entries into the main event — a new high. It had grown from only a handful of players at its start in 1970.

A new rival, the World Poker Tour (WPT), opened up and competed with the WSOP. As a result, the 2003 WSOP was much smaller. But that was to be only a temporary setback.

That same year, Chris Moneymaker, a 27-year-old accountant and recreational poker player from Nashville, Tenn., entered the main event and soon gained fame and fortune.

After winning an online satellite with a buy-in of $86, he turned it into the WSOP top prize of $2.5 million against a field of 839 players. That became known as “the Moneymaker effect,” triggering a massive poker boom.

A year later, the WSOP Main Event drew 2,576 entrants — more than three times the number from 2003. It drew wide media coverage, including an appearance on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” The final table was televised world-wide on ESPN; and Moneymaker — suddenly made rich — became a hero to millions of potential poker players who readily identified with him as he enjoyed his dream come true. The WSOP became the door to the riches. WSOP participation and prize money escalated.

One year later, in 2004, another recreational player, Greg Raymer, a 40-year-old patent attorney from Raleigh, North Carolina, took home $5 million winning the WSOP main event. Like Moneymaker, he earned the entry fee by winning an online satellite.

Raymer was nicknamed “the Fossilman” because his hobby was collecting fossils. He used a miniature fossil as his card guard and lucky charm.

The WSOP needed much more space to accommodate the fast-growing number of entrants and media coverage. Binion’s Horseshoe was sold in 2004, with Harrah’s Entertainment gaining the rights to the major annual event. The following year, in 2005, it was moved into the vast Rio All-Suites Casino & Hotel. More tournaments were added. Thousands of players flooded into Las Vegas, wildly exceeding all forecasts for turnout and prize money.

By 2006, the World Series of Poker included 45 tournaments. With over $100 million in prize money, the WSOP was the richest event in all of sports. Jamie Gold, a film producer from Malibu, Calif., overcame the largest field in poker history, defeating 8,772 other players, and went home with the $12 million top prize. He has made it to the final table in eleven other WSOP events.

In part 3 next week, we’ll look at the current state of the World Series of Poker.

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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