Today begins the Main Event at the 50th annual World Series of Poker. That’s the 50th annual, mind you — not the 50th anniversary of poker’s most famous tournament series. That’ll happen next year, as the WSOP began in 1970.
Nor is this the 50th Main Event, as the first one didn’t happen until the second WSOP in 1971. (You knew that… right?)
To mark the start of this year’s Main Event, here are some interesting items from each of the WSOP’s first 50 years, including some highlights that might have escaped the notice of even the most ardent poker fans. Let’s call these WSOP “nuggets,” since gold is the stone commonly associated with 50th anniversaries. (But wait… it’s the 50th annual, not the 50th… never mind.)
As mentioned, there was no “Main Event” at the first WSOP in 1970. That meant Johnny Moss didn’t have to win a tournament in order to be named the first WSOP champion. Rather he was voted by his fellow players the “Best All-Around Player” (after, that is, players were told they couldn’t vote for themselves). Before the WSOP debuted at Binion’s Horseshoe, there had been an event called the “Texas Gamblers Reunion” held at the Holiday Casino in Reno the previous two years, with poker one of the games played in 1969. Moss had been voted the best player among the poker players that year as well, winning a silver platter naming him the “King of Cards.”
In 1971 the buy-in for the Main Event was $5,000. Six players took part and Moss won the entire $30,000 prize pool. There were four preliminary events that year as well, each with $1,000 buy-ins — seven-card stud, five-card stud, ace-to-five draw, and razz.
In 1972 the Main Event buy-in was raised to $10,000 (where it has been ever since), although Benny Binion is said to have contributed $5,000 to each buy-in to encourage players to participate. Even so, only eight took part. According to Doyle Brunson, “there were twelve players signed up, but with the cash games so good only eight of us played.”
The 1973 WSOP was the first one to receive television coverage as CBS filmed a documentary later shown as part of its weekend sports anthology show, CBS Sports Spectacular.
In 1974 poker player William “Bill” Walter Boyd won his fourth career WSOP title when he topped a field of eight players in the $5,000 limit five-card stud event. In fact, each of Boyd’s WSOP wins came in the same variant — five-card stud — a game that disappeared from the schedule for good starting in 1975.
Speaking of non-hold’em games, 1975 was the year Billy Baxter won the first of his seven WSOP bracelets in a deuce-to-seven no-limit draw event. All seven of Baxter’s bracelets were won in “lowball” games (five in 2-7 NL, one in ace-to-five, and one in razz).
As the preliminary event schedule slowly began to expand, a second no-limit hold’em prelim was introduced in 1976. Such would remain the case through the mid-1980s. Interestingly, the two NLHE prelims were distinguished on the schedule by their names, with the lower buy-in one called “Preliminary Hold’em” and the larger buy-in one called “Non-Professional Hold’em.” Despite the name, anyone — pros or amateurs — could play the Non-Professional Hold’em event.
Buy-ins for bracelet events dipped as low as $400 in 2019, but that’s not a record. The lowest ever buy-in for a WSOP event came in 1977 with the introduction of the “Women’s Seven-Card High (limit) World Championship” which cost $100 to play.
Barbara Freer, became the first woman ever to participate in the Main Event in 1978. “She came in 18th in a field of 42 players, blowing everybody’s mind,” reported Maurice Zolotow for Los Angeles magazine. This was also the first year the Main Event wasn’t played as a winner-take-all tournament, with the top five cashing and winner Bobby Baldwin taking half the prize pool ($210,000). Freer would win the Women’s event the next year, when the buy-in had climbed to $400.
Hal Fowler was the first ever amateur to win the WSOP Main Event in 1979. Hailing from Vermont and then living in California, Fowler was not the first non-Texan to win the WSOP Event. While Moss (1970, 1971, 1974), Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston (1972), and Doyle Brunson (1976, 1977) all came from Texas, Walter “Puggy” Pearson (1973) was born in Kentucky, Brian “Sailor” Roberts (1975) was from Oregon, and Bobby Baldwin (1978) was born in Oklahoma.
With 73 runners, the 1980 Main Event had expanded to a four-day tournament. Welcome Back, Kotter star Gabe Kaplan was the chip leader to start Day 3, and while he’d make the final table he’d ultimately bubble the tournament, finishing sixth when the top five cashed.
As explained in a press release, among the rule changes introduced at the 1981 WSOP was a new one to “require an eight or better to qualify for low in the Seven-Card High-Low Split event.” Another change — “the Limit Draw Poker High event will now be played ‘California Style,’ using the joker to accommodate Southern Californians used to playing the game this way.”
Among the notes to reporters provided by the WSOP in 1982 was a directive perhaps inspired by superstition: “DO NOT use the 13th annual world series of poker” to refer to the series. Indeed, in much of the promotional material, the fact of the WSOP celebrating its 13th year is not referenced (whereas earlier and later years often did note which “annual” it was).
Many know how in 1983 Tom McEvoy became the first Main Event winner to win his seat via a satellite. In fact, the year McEvoy won runner-up Rod Peate won his entry into the Main Event via satellite, too. Whereas McEvoy won an $1,150 sit-n-go to earn his seat, Peate started with a $25 satellite that got him an entry into another $110 one involving 100 players which Peate won.
Omaha (then called “Omaha hold’em”) was first introduced at the WSOP in 1983 as a fixed-limit event won by influential poker author David Sklansky, his third and last bracelet. In 1984 came the debut of pot-limit Omaha. Sklansky did well again, ultimately finishing second of 108 to William Bennett.
In 1985 longtime television and film actor Telly Savalas surprisingly showed up to play at the WSOP, joining Gabe Kaplan as the most famous celebrity player taking part. According to one report the Kojak star entered a $1,000 preliminary event in order to “get the feel” of playing before also entering the Main Event. In fact, Savalas earned a third-place finish that year in a $1K seven-card stud hi-lo event to earn his first recorded tournament cash.
A huge change in Main Event payouts was introduced in 1986. In 1978 the tournament was changed from winner-take-all to the top five cashing. In 1981 and 1982 the top six cashed, then from 1983-1985 the top nine finishers made the money. Then in 1986 the top 36 players cashed, albeit 19th through 27th got $10,000 (i.e., the buy-in) and 28th through 36th got $7,500 (even less).
There were 152 entrants in the 1987 WSOP. After Day 1, 94 remained with Jay Heimowitz the chip leader and Johnny Chan in third. After Day 2, Bob Ciaffone led the 24 left with Chan way down in 20th. After Day 3, just six remained and Chan was on top, and after Day 4 Chan had won the $625,000 first prize.
Chan won the Main Event again in 1988, the final hand from which was immortalized a decade later in Rounders. Seidel was Chan’s heads-up opponent, of course, but did you know Humberto Brenes was at that final table (he finished fourth)? So was T.J. Cloutier (fifth) and 1993 champ Jim Bechtel (sixth).
Chan almost won three Main Events in a row, finishing second to 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth in 1989 when 178 played. First paid $755,000 and second $302,000, and in the final hand Hellmuth reraise-shoved with 9♣9♠, Chan called all-in with A♠7♠, and the board came K♣10♥K♦Q♠6♠ to give Hellmuth the win.
According to Hellmuth’s account in his autobiography Poker Brat, the pair actually left the room before the board was dealt in order to discuss a possible deal to narrow the gap between first and second. After some negotiating, Hellmuth offered Chan $100K should Hellmuth win the title, while Chan would give Hellmuth $150K if he won. As Hellmuth won, that meant Chan secured an extra $100K on top of the second-place prize (and Hellmuth earned $100K less).
Mansour Matloubi won the Main Event in 1990. While Johnny Chan was the first champion born outside of the U.S., the Iranian-British Matloubi was the first non-American to win the title.
You might know this one — 1991 was the first year the winner of the WSOP Main Event was awarded $1 million. Brad Daugherty took away the top prize. Gabe Kaplan finished 13th, his second career Main Event cash (the other coming in 1986 for finishing 21st).
After the first Main Event in 1971, the starting field increased 20 straight times through 1991. In 1992, however, that streak stopped, as after 215 played the year before there were 201 taking part. Another 14-year streak of increases began the following year, however, extending through 2006.
By 1993 the number of events on the WSOP schedule had expanded to 21, and that year two different players each won three bracelets — Ted Forrest and Phil Hellmuth. Puggy Pearson earlier performed the feat in 1973, and Phil Ivey (2002), Jeff Lisandro (2009), and George Danzer (2014) would subsequently do so (with one of Danzer’s coming at the WSOP Asia Pacific).
Hugh Vincent of Florida finished runner-up in the 1994 WSOP Main Event out of a field of 268. As shown on the televised coverage, Vincent had the chip lead when eventual winner Russ Hamilton won a big all-in to claim a 1,980,000-chip pot, announced at the time as being the largest pot in WSOP history to that point. (In 2018 there were 393,700,000 chips in play in the Main Event, the most ever.) Shortly after, Vincent ordered a large hamburger and was munching on it throughout the final hand won by Hamilton.
The 1995 WSOP marked the first time that a brother and sister played at the same final table. Annie Duke finished sixth in the $1,500 pot-limit hold’em tournament that year, outlasting her brother Howard Lederer who took ninth. Speaking of women doing well at the WSOP, this was also the year Barbara Enright finished fifth in the Main Event, the only time (still) a woman has made the Main Event final table.
Huck Seed’s victory in the 1996 Main Event is largely obscured by history thanks to the fact that after having covered the WSOP Main Event final table each of the previous nine years, ESPN did not do so that year. (Every WSOP from 1997 forward has been covered on TV.) Looking back at reporting by Tom Sims from that year’s series, he notes how “I did not see any celebrity announcer, nor did I see any ESPN cameras, or any other network that I recognized. Lots of cameras though.” Sims also points out how just before the six-handed final table started Jack Binion introduced Donald Trump who made an announcement regarding what would be the 1996 United States Poker Championship that took place at the Trump Taj Mahal later that year.
ESPN returned for the 1997 WSOP Main Event, which means there is video of the only time in the history of the series that the final table was played outdoors. The table was set up under a canopy on Fremont Street, and according to Sims “the temperature was around 98 degrees” amid windy conditions. “I believe indoors is much, much better,” commented Sims. Others agreed as the experiment was never repeated. Stu Ungar won his third title that year after having earlier won in 1980 and 1981.
Everyone remembers how when the 1998 Main Event reached heads-up and the final hand, Scotty Nguyen told Kevin McBride “you call, going to be all over, baby.” And how McBride did call and it was all over.
Few recall that T.J. Cloutier finished third in the 1998 Main Event, one of several deep runs in the tournament by the Poker Hall of Famer. As already noted, Cloutier had finished fifth in the Main Event in 1988, and would also finish second twice in 1985 and 2000. Three other players have finished runner-up twice in the Main, too — Puggy Pearson (1971, 1972), Crandall Addington (1974, 1978), and Dewey Tomko (1982, 2001).
As reported by Andy Glazer, actor Wilford Brimley (The Thing, The Natural) was one of the 393 players who entered the 1999 Main Event. While Brimley didn’t cash he did outlast the previous year’s winner Scotty Nguyen, Phil Hellmuth, and many other stars.
The Ladies event was played as a seven-card stud tournament from its introduction in 1977 through 1999. In 2000 it became a split limit-hold’em/seven-card stud event (with a $1,000 buy-in). It would stay that way for the next four years before changing to limit hold’em only in 2004, then to no-limit hold’em in 2005.
In 2001 Carlos Mortensen won the Main Event while Daniel Negreanu finished 11th (of 613). Fourteen years later Negreanu would again get knocked out in 11th place (of 6,420) in the Main Event, this time by eventual champion Joe McKeehen.
Amateur Robert Varkonyi topped a field of to win the 2002 Main Event and $2 million first prize. That was the first year Lon McEachern commentated on the final table for ESPN, joining Gabe Kaplan for the broadcast. Norman Chad would partner with McEachern the following year, and the pair have been part of the coverage every year since.
Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event in 2003 and the number of entrants quickly skyrocketed thereafter. You knew that. Did you know that in 2003 Barry Greenstein was the chip leader at the end of Day 1 before eventually cashing in 49th? Here’s another tidbit, once shared by Greenstein for an oral history of the event. At the very end of Day 2, Greenstein almost felted eventual runner-up Sammy Farha, leaving the latter with just 5,000 after winning an all-in against him. Farha nearly left the table, but Greenstein called him back and Farha promptly went all-in dark and doubled. Then Farha did it again. A few hands later Farha was back up over 50,000 to end the night, and three days after that was heads-up with Moneymaker for the title.
1995 Main Event champion Dan Harrington finished third in the 2003 Main Event out of 839 players. Incredibly, Harrington finished fourth out of 2,576 players in 2004.
After being played in the spring for 35 years, the 2005 WSOP was moved to the summer which meant the Main Event did not finish until mid-July. Before giving the “shuffle up and deal” call at the start of that year’s Main Event final table, 2004 winner Greg Raymer mentioned how he got to enjoy being the reigning champ for 14 months instead of 12.
The 2006 WSOP Main Event was the first one at which the final table took place somewhere other than Binion’s Horseshoe. Harrah’s Entertainment purchased the WSOP from the Binion family in 2004, then in 2005 the series was moved over to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino except for the final two days of the Main Event which played out back at the Horseshoe.
When the final table of the 2007 Main Event began, Philip Hilm was the chip leader and Jerry Yang eighth in chips. But after winning six of the first 14 hands, Yang knocked Hilm out in ninth place on Hand #15. About 14-and-a-half hours later, Yang won the title.
The “November Nine” was introduced in 2008, which meant Dennis Phillips was the Main Event chip leader for nearly four months from the stoppage of play with nine left in July until the November restart. Do you remember that Phillips nearly suffered a fate similar to Hilm to become one of the first final table knockouts? About an hour into the final table, a huge confrontation between Ivan Demidov and Phillips resulted in the latter folding to an all-in and tumbling to eighth in the counts. Phillips would recover, however, to finish third behind runner-up Demidov and winner Peter Eastgate.
When Eastgate won in 2008 he broke Phil Hellmuth’s record as the youngest-ever Main Event champion. While Hellmuth enjoyed that record for 19 years, Eastgate held it for only one as Joe Cada broke it in 2009. Eastgate was 22 when he won, but Cada was 21 (a week shy of his 22nd birthday) when he won his title to set a new standard (which he still holds today).
In 2010, 97-year-old Jack Ury established a record as the oldest player ever to participate in the Main Event. The record has yet to be surpassed. Last year 88-year-old John Olsen was the oldest player to take part.
The 2011 WSOP Main Event final table featured players from seven different countries, the most ever represented — Germany (winner Pius Heinz), Czech Republic (runner-up Martin Staszko), Ireland (Eoghan O’Dea), Belize (Badih “Bob” Bounahra), Ukraine (Anton Makiievskyi), U.K. (Sam Holden), and the U.S.A. (Ben Lamb, Matt Giannetti, and Phil Collins).
In 2008, poker player and author John Vorhaus published a poker-themed novel titled Under the Gun that featured a climactic poker tournament called the Poker Apocalypse, the buy-in for which was $100,000. That seemed strictly the stuff of fiction at the time, but soon thereafter “super high rollers” with six-figure buy-ins became commonplace. Then in 2012 the WSOP set a new standard with the “Big One for One Drop,” a $1 million buy-in event that attracted 48 players. Antonio Esfandiari won the event which awarded a first prize of $18,346,673.
Ryan Riess won the big one in 2013, while two-time Main Event winner Doyle Brunson cashed in 409th. That made five different decades in which Brunson made the money the Main Event. Here’s a list of Brunson’s Main Event finishes and cashes:
After finishing ninth in the Main Event in 2013 (from a field of 6,352), Mark Newhouse amazingly finished ninth again in 2014 (from a field of 6,683). Most thought at the time no one would ever replicate Newhouse’s feat of making it back to a WSOP final table in this era of 6,000-plus fields, but it would happen again — more than once (see below, 2017).
During the 2015 WSOP Anthony Spinella won the first ever “online bracelet” in a $1,000 buy-in event, although the final six-handed table was played live at the Rio. This summer nine of the 90 bracelets being awarded are of the online variety.
In 2016 the WSOP introduced a “Tag Team” event in which teams of 2-4 players could compete. It was the first time since 1983 there had been an event in which players could partner up — the fifth and last year of “Mixed Doubles” events at the WSOP in which one man and one woman could play as partners.
After nine years of the “November Nine,” the WSOP decided in 2017 to abandon the delayed final table and instead had the Main Event play out to its conclusion in July. Two of the players who made the final table that year had finished third in the Main Event before during the “boom” era — Antoine Saout in 2009 and Ben Lamb in 2011. Saout finished fifth this time, Lamb ninth. Then last year 2009 champ Joe Cada made a return trip to the final table as well where he finished fifth.
After finishing 11th in the WSOP Main Event two years before, John Cynn won the 2018 title following what was the longest heads-up battle in Main Event history with Tony Miles. After Michael Dyer was knocked out in third, Cynn and Miles played 199 hands over the next 10 hours before Cynn finally won. The entire final table took 442 hands to complete, also a record.
From 1971 through 2007, the starting stacks in the WSOP Main Event always matched the buy-in — e.g., for $10,000 players got 10,000 chips. In 2008 the buy-in stayed the same but the stacks doubled to 20,000, then in 2009 they were increased again to 30,000 where they remained through 2015. From 2016-2018 the WSOP gave players 50,000 chips to begin, and in 2019 there will be another increase in the starting stack — to 60,000.