Forty-four years ago, a small group of men sat down to play some cards and unwittingly launched the greatest poker event in the world.
Although today the World Series of Poker attracts thousands of entrants and millions of spectators, in the early days, they could all fit in one room.
Flash back to 1970. Kirk Kerkorian’s International Hotel was the new joint in town, King Elvis was singing of suspicious minds, and Benny Binion decided to invite seven of the greatest poker players on earth to his Binion’s Horseshoe casino for a little tournament. After several days of high-stakes Texas Hold’em, the winner was determined not by comparing chip stacks but by a vote among the players, who elected the road-toughened Johnny Moss as their champion. He was awarded a small trophy and a modest sum of money. While everyone in the game enjoyed a good wager, it’s unlikely that any of them would have bet on that first, low-key World Series of Poker evolving into the behemoth it is today. This year’s WSOP saw a record-breaking 82,360 entries in 65 events, with the largest total prize pool ever: $227,712,923.
Looking at the group—of whom only former Horseshoe president Jack Binion, venerable poker star Doyle Brunson, and largely forgotten poker wizard Bob Hooks remain alive—Binion divulges, “There were a lot of good poker players back then. Doyle was the best. Johnny Moss possessed the guts of a high diver. Puggy Pearson had a terrible personality. But the desire to gamble and the camaraderie of gamblers overcame everything. As soon as this picture was taken, I’m positive that the guys all went back to the poker tables and resumed playing.”
This month, nine players—whittled down from 6,683 entrants—take the stage of the Rio All-Suite Hotel’s Penn & Teller Theater to conclude the series’s Main Event. The so-called November Nine will compete for a first prize of $10 million—in honor of the tournament’s 10th year at Rio—before a TV audience of millions. As the cards hit the felt and history is made, this year’s contenders will have the hustlers, crossroaders, geniuses, and hucksters pictured above to thank for the slow-grind rise of poker that began 44 years ago.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF BINION'S HORSESHOE COLLECTION 91-30, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS