Believe it or not, the World Series of Poker has grown from a small tournament held in a small niche to what is probably the biggest event on the poker calendar, increasing its popularity immensely. With more players came more publicity and with more publicity came more sponsors, which, in turn, resulted in even more cash prizes at the tables.
How the World Series of Poker Began
The first seed for the World Series of Poker idea was initially planted when two men, Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey, organized what they called the 1969 Texas Players Meeting. They themselves, Benny Binion, who would end up hosting the first World Series of Poker next year, and many other big names in the poker world participated in many high stakes games over the course of several days. The Texas Gamblers Reunion would never be found again, as Binion instead decided to take the idea and create the World Series of Poker.
The first World Series of Poker was held in 1970 at a time when Las Vegas was home to less than 50 tables of poker. In fact, the site of the first World Series of Poker, Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, didn’t even have a poker room. It may seem surprising given that the game of poker is synonymous with the Old West and gambling in the United States, but there just weren’t a lot of tables of poker back then.
For the first World Series of Poker, about 30 players wandered into an alcove the size of a hotel room to compete for the first title of the new poker tournament. Johnny Moss won the first title without winning a poker tournament, being voted the best player of all competitors after many days of high-stakes poker games.
In 1971, Binion sought to improve the position of his tournament and give him the acclaim that the World Series of Poker title guarantees. Seven players paid an entry fee of 5,000, and Johnny Moss returned for claim that the winner takes the entire prize. But it wasn’t until the 1972 tournament that the World Series of Poker really began to gain public attention. Thomas Preston triumphed over Walter Pearson, the runner-up in 1971, in a great victory. Preston then molded his victory into a publicity storm that reached every corner of the United States. He appeared on television shows, wrote a best-selling book, and was cast in movies. Because of Preston, the World Series of Poker wowed audiences and the media, prompting CBS Sports to televise the 1973 tournament.
The World Series of Poker continued to grow in format, prize money, crowd appeal and diversity. In 1978, Barbara Freer became the first woman to compete in the World Series of Poker. Despite being called the “World Series of Poker,” the poker tournament rarely featured an outside player in the tournament by becoming the first non-American winner. Coming from England but born in Iran, Matloubi was the first poker player to bring the World Series of Poker out of the United States.
La Herradura struggled with the rapid rise in popularity and participants of the tournament until Harrah’s Entertainment, in 2004, finally acquired it along with the rights to the World Series of Poker. The group now known as Caesars Entertainment has continued to grow the tournament to this day.