Jack Binion was taking a leisurely stroll along Memory Lane several days ago, poking and prodding distant moments about the World Series of Poker, an event that began 50 years ago as a gathering of gamblers with Texas roots.
When did it all begin? Turns out it was in Reno at a casino owned by Tom Moore.
“We had gotten a call, this was 1968 from Vic Vickrey (the casino manager for Moore’s Holiday Casino) and it sounded interesting. So we (Jack, his brother Ted and their father Benny Binion) went to Reno for what was billed as a “get-together for Texas gamblers.”
I’m guessing Moore and Vickrey were anticipating some heavyweight action at the tables.
What did the Binion entourage expect? Oh, nothing much, maybe talk about the Binion family’s hopes for business in Vegas.
The concept of an event like the World Series did not exist then. They returned to Las Vegas and their Horseshoe Club on Fremont Street, talking about their several days of fun and games in Reno. They wanted a card room at the Horseshoe but it would have to wait until the time was right.
“The slots were simply making too much money to yank them out for a few poker tables,” Binion said.
This latest version of the WSOP began last week at the Rio and will continue there until mid-July. It has been there every year since the World Series and the rights to the use of the Horseshoe name in Nevada were purchased by Harrah’s in 2004. A flurry of industry consolidation saw Harrah’s acquire Caesars and then drop the Harrah’s name from the top of the corporate marquee to a secondary level. The parent company is now Caesars Entertainment.
“That trip to Reno is where I first met Doyle (Brunson),” Binion said. “But there was no shortage of Texas gamblers already acquainted with the Horseshoe’s approach to the gambling business.
The World Series of Poker is still the World Series with one not-so-tiny change. It has become a gigantic happening that reaches around the world, bringing thousands of poker buffs to the Rio with spending power that is being felt by hotels and casinos throughout the area.
The World Series “Is the beginning and end of the fiscal year for the poker players I know best,” said Eric Drache, who was the director of the event for about a dozen years beginning in the early ‘70s.
Drache has vivid memories of that period. He had migrated to Las Vegas from his boyhood home in Brooklyn joking that Vegas made sense because “My mother thought my handicapping sucked.”
The 1972 World Series was his first to participate in the action. He showed up for the seven-card stud event having no idea what to expect — several hundred players, maybe thousands?
He got to the Horseshoe and learned the game was delayed.
“Johnny Moss had played late the night before. The game would be postponed until he was awake,” Drache and Binion explained. By the time the first card was dealt there were eight wannabe champs at the table.
Binion laughs at that recollection saying, “We were kind of feeling our way forward in those days.”
The feeling then was that Moss, the “grand old man” of poker, was entitled to a few extra hours of sleep. Better to have him at the table if possible. WSOP marketing was difficult.
“We depended on word of mouth and a few press,” Drache said. “My goal was just to have one more player than we had the year before.”
Binion saw benefit from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer showing up to write about the big game and the cast of characters it attracted. He also notes that “Amarillo Slim” Preston’s 1973 victory got wide attention.
“Slim knew how to be colorful without trying and was happy to talk to newspaper and TV people,” Binion said of Preston, who was central casting’s idea of the folksy Texas cowboy gambler.
The fingerprints of Moss were all over early years of the World Series. Binion said the world poker champion in 1970 was decided not by any event but by a vote of the participants.
“We went to each participant and asked who they thought deserved the honor,” Binion said. “Each of them voted for himself. So we went and asked, ‘Well, who do you think was second best?’ That’s when most of them voted for Moss.”
Binion credited Drache with coming up with the system of satellite games that has given thousands of men and women the opportunity to win a seat in the big game without coming up with the $10,000.
Las Vegan Tom McEvoy took the chance and it paid off for him in 1985 when he entered a $100 satellite and playing his way through hundreds of others, ending up at the final table of the championship game with Doyle Brunson and Rod Peate. Peate knocked out Brunson and then McEvoy played heads-up with Peate for about six hours bnefore McEvoy ultimately prevailed.
Jack Binion no longer is involved with the WSOP. When I asked him why, he said, “I never knew it would get to be this big. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let them drag me out of it.”
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