The scrappy, seedy origins of the World Series of Poker

Tonight at 9, three people will sit around a casino poker table and gamble for $10 million. It marks the culmination of the 2019 World Series of Poker Main Event, the richest and most democratic competition on the planet.

Earlier this month, 8,569 people put up $10,000 each to play the poker variant known as Texas Hold ’em and chase that pot of gold. Over 10 days, competitors raised, folded and bluffed those chips away, leaving just the final three. It goes down inside the 1,475-seat Penn and Teller Theater at Rio Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. ESPN will broadcast the proceedings live. Players will have cheering sections.

It’s a far cry from the first tournament, 50 years ago, when the bash was populated by outlaws, fights could break out at any moment, drugs were a badly kept secret and at least one murder originated at the tables.

“Dad and I flew up to the Holiday Casino in Reno for the Texas Gamblers Reunion back in 1969,” recalled Jack Binion, whose father, Benny, was the boss and founder of Binion’s Horseshoe, a casino in downtown Las Vegas.

“There was a group of professional poker players, mostly Texans, who were always looking for good games. The idea was for them to go to Reno and play. But I don’t think the game was as lucrative as everyone expected” — largely because it was all skilled pros playing against one another with nary a sucker in site. “Still, we thought an event like that could be a good way to bring people into our casino.”

A year later, the game moved to the Horseshoe in Vegas and was renamed the World Series of Poker. At its conclusion, players voted on the best among them. Taciturn Johnny Moss won. A gambling friend described him as “having a personality suited for poker but not much else.”

Two years later, in 1971, the little-known event attracted just six players buying in for $5,000 each (the equivalent of $31,400 today, with the winner’s take worth $188,451 in 2019 valuations).

Word began to spread in ’72, when publicity-hungry Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston won and went on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” to brag about his poker prowess. Lanky and sly, wearing a tapered suit with solid-gold coins for buttons and a cowboy hat that had an open-mouthed rattlesnake coiled along its brim, Slim embodied everybody’s idea of a successful gambler. There was just one problem: He didn’t actually beat the other players.

The 1972 tournament was thrown. Doyle Brunson — who went on to become one of the world’s most talented and successful card sharks — was leading the tournament with three players left and bowed out, ironically, to preserve his reputation.

In the book I co-authored, “Aces and Kings,” he said he objected to the notoriety that might come with winning: “I didn’t want to embarrass my family. The common working guy looked down on gamblers.”

Brunson and another remaining player, Walter Clyde “Puggy” Pearson, agreed to let Slim win, while each player took a portion of the prize money commensurate with the chips that they had.

“They stopped the tournament, chopped the money and played it out to show that Slim won,” Binion recalls. “Then he went on Carson and wanted me to give him money in exchange for mentioning the Horseshoe. That pissed me off. He did a good job with his corny sayings but never mentioned the Horseshoe.”

Other World Series winners were less TV-ready. In 1980, when New York-bred poker savant Stu Ungar — whose drug and gambling addictions contributed to his dying at age 45, in 1998, in a dive motel off the Vegas Strip — was asked what he would do with his $365,000 in prize-money, he impatiently replied, “Gamble with it.”

Every dollar was blown.

Benny Binion ran his Horseshoe Casino with the forcefulness of the Texas outlaw that he used to be. That suited his poker players just fine.

“It was the Wild West,” says Erik Seidel, formerly an options trader from Manhattan who went on to become one of the game’s top practitioners.

‘It was the Wild West. … Anything went, and poker players felt very protected.’

“There was a poker player from Texas, and he had a very attractive girlfriend. While he was playing, a guy watching the game began hitting on her. The Texan jumped up from the table, punched the guy out and just went back to playing. I’m sure the guy who got beaten up was never allowed back in the Horseshoe. Anything went, and poker players felt very protected.”

The place was run like a family business, and Benny’s kids were around for it all. Daughter Becky remembers the time she influenced the outcome of the World Series. In 1982, a 6-foot-6 pro by the name of Jack “Treetop” Straus thought he had lost all of his chips and got up to leave.

“The table was elevated, and I was two steps down,” says Becky. “I looked up and saw that he had one chip left. I let him know. He laughed, sat back down and got to betting real high. He wound up winning the World Series with just one chip. Years later, I heard people using the saying, ‘Chip and a chair.’ I had no idea what they were talking about until somebody told me that it referred to Jack.”

Then there was the time she had to shave the head of Phil Hellmuth — who has won 15 World Series championships, more than anyone else — after he vowed to go bald if New Yorker Robert Varkonyi won it in 2002.

“They got into an altercation, this MIT nerd won, and we had to find a razor,” she recalls. “Phil actually loved it. He wanted all the attention, and took it away from Robert.”

Less benign dealings involved a dead woman in a player’s hotel room — “Nothing happened to [the player],” recalls a source. “[Benny Binion] took good care of his people” — and the infamous proposition that ended with actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles, killing a federal judge.

Jimmy Chagra, the drug trafficker who inspired Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Old Men,” was playing in the 1979 World Series while awaiting sentencing from a Texas judge known as “Maximum” John Wood.

Between hands, says Becky, “Charlie Harrelson said to Chagra, ‘How much would you give to see that SOB dead?’ Chagra told him, ‘I’d give a million dollars to see that SOB dead.’ Charlie went to Texas, killed him, came back to Vegas and told Chagra that he wants his money.” (According to reports, the sum paid was actually $250,000.)

Did he get it? “Of course. The man had just killed a federal judge. What would he do to Chagra? Jimmy gave him the money in a Pampers box.”

Chagra would receive a 30-year sentence, while Harrelson received two life sentences and died in prison in 2007. Becky says a Horseshoe employee was arrested for playing a role in acquiring the murder weapon.

The first amateur to win a World Series of Poker Main Event was Hal Fowler, a public-relations agent from Ventura, Calif., in 1979. He outplayed a murderers’ row of card sharks to get heads-up with Bobby “The Wizard” Hoff, a seasoned pro and golf gambler from Texas.

“He was a weird guy, Fowler,” recalls Jack Binion of the champion. “He was a pill head, and Bobby had a drug problem, but it was different.”

In the book “Cowboys Full,” author James McManus (a writer and professor who miraculously finished fifth in the 2000 Series) characterizes Hoff as a “young, cocaine-addicted poker genius” and describes Fowler “popping as many as 20 Valiums to calm his nerves.”

“Fowler played a couple times after he won, and nobody ever heard from him again,” Jack says, still sounding bummed that The Wizard lost. “I don’t know if he died or got broke.” (Fowler died in 2000 at the age of 73.)

At that point, the series was low profile enough — and the $10,000 entry fee still seemed like a hell of a lot of money — that amateurs did not exactly flock to the Horseshoe and try their luck. Most were content to drop by, maybe watch a hand or two, and pose for photos in front of a horseshoe-shaped display that contained $1 million in $10,000 bills.

It would be another 24 years before a nobody would win the Series and set off a poker heyday.

Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Nashville, Tenn., won his $10,000 entry via the online gaming site PokerStars. To use poker parlance, at the 2003 Series, he “ran like God,” knocked out the most fearsome pros and, late in the game, flashily bluffed his one remaining opponent.

After winning the Series, Moneymaker helped set off a poker boom that brought amateurs to the game and made it more lucrative for pros.

Goosed by the so-called Moneymaker Effect, the advent of online poker (before the US government shut it down in 2011) and the 1998 movie “Rounders,” World Series of Poker participation went from 839 in 2003 to 2,576 a year later to 7,874 in 2018. Inspired by it all, hometown champions and gambling dreamers found the Series irresistible.

“You can go there to see the professional players in their element, and for 10 grand you can be one of them,” says Jonathan Grotenstein, co-author of “All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker.” “And you might even win.”

In 2004, contending with familial and financial trouble, Binion’s Horseshoe and its World Series were sold to Harrah’s Entertainment at a fire-sale price. Having lost out on the gold mine his father dug, Jack Binion, who has made plenty of money through other gambling endeavors, is philosophical about the last 15 years: “I never thought it would get as big as it has. None of us did. If I thought that, I’d never have let it go.”

While the World Series of Poker has skyrocketed from the days when Doyle Brunson would have been embarrassed to win (he has since taken down 10 Series tournaments, including two Main Events), Jack maintains that some things about big-money poker remain unchanged.

“Money is the lifeblood of all gambling, and that is what the World Series is still about,” he says. “Prestige is a big deal, but winning $10 million will change your life.”

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