World Series of Poker hits the big 5-0

May 22, 2019 3:01 AM

A lot can change in 50 years. Just look at Las Vegas.

Casinos have come and gone. The Strip has grown exponentially. Professional sports leagues are, and will be, here. 

The one constant has been the World Series of Poker. The only changes it has seen are larger venues and larger pots.

The tournament has come a long way since its inception in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe on Fremont Street. What started as an event that had no fanfare outside of a growing gambling city has evolved into the biggest two-month spectacle this side of Las Vegas Boulevard.

The golden anniversary begins May 28 at the Rio. 

“It’s hard to fathom that this started with six people in 1970 at downtown Binion’s,” said Seth Palansky, the tournament’s vice president of corporate communications and of Caesars Interactive Entertainment. “It’s quite a thing, and nothing really anyone expected in 1970. It’s great to have withstood the test of time.”

Johnny Moss won the inaugural poker tournament that featured no more than seven players. The entry was $5,000 and Moss won a silver trophy.

In 2018, 123,865 people played the World Series of Poker. Nearly 8,000 of them took part in the main event won by John Cynn. He won $8.8 million, a 251 percent hike from the approximate $35,000 Moss won 50 years ago.

Caesars Entertainment acquiring the WSOP in 2004 has also been a game-changer. There were 14,054 entrants in 2004 with winnings totaling at $45,973,770. Last year, $266,889,193 in prize money was handed out.

Palansky has been with Caesars for the past 12 years and part of this growth, he said, is the global impact of poker and its accessibility. 

“Instead of having to go in smoky card rooms to play the game, you can play in your own home and learn the game,” he said. “A whole generation, or more now, have grown up learning the game online.”

Another ace up the WSOP’s sleeve, as well as Caesars Entertainment, has been ESPN maintaining the broadcasting rights. The joint venture should only prove to be more lucrative when the Worldwide Leader sets up shop for its new studio at The LINQ in 2020.

“In some ways, we call it our greatest marketing tool,” Palansky said of ESPN. “It really emphasizes what the beauty of the World Series of Poker is. No one can get on the court and compete with the Golden State Warriors today and see themselves in the NBA Finals. But poker, you see the amateurs, you see the gardeners, to the school teachers, to the delivery men stepping up and going against the game’s greatest poker players and beating them. It happens in this game and you can get a seat at this table. You can get on this field of play, so to speak.

“That whole dynamic, ESPN captures really well. The cards dictate a lot of it, and you have a good chance. That’s really alluring if you’re at home.”

As for what the partnership between Caesars and ESPN could bring next year, Palansky said there’s cause to be excited for that.

“We haven’t gotten that far down the road, but definitely the relationship we’ve had for them for the past 15 years as it relates covering the World Series of Poker was instrumental in forming those relationships and that trust in each other to take this next step in terms of sports betting,” he said. “It’s going to be great to have them here. 

“You would imagine that this could evolve in ways that didn’t exist before because of this new partnership.”

ESPN will begin its World Series of Poker coverage July 3.

There has not been a repeat champion since Johnny Chan in 1987-88 and only three (Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson and Moss) before then. The rarity of that and the allure of the WSOP is what creates the excitement.

Palansky said the unofficial motto of the WSOP is “anyone can enter, and anyone can win.” That’s why it’s setting up well to succeed for the next 50 years.  

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