Things Start Taking Off

When the WSOP Really Started to Take Off

In 1972, the third year of the World Series of Poker’s existence, the number of entries doubled from 6 the year before to 12. It was won by Amarillo Slim, who then proceeded to take his legendary showman skills and conduct a publicity tour. The WSOP was virtually unknown at the time, but once Slim won it, he wanted everyone to know about it, and he sure did. Over the next several years, among other things, he made several appearances on the Tonight show, wrote a book, and even appeared in several movies.

This was exactly what the WSOP needed, someone who was willing to put his face out there and talk up the championship to whoever would listen. Back then, being a poker player was seen by many as a stigma, especially since it was for the most part being a criminal, and viewed that way by a great many people.

Amarillo Slim was proud of both his championship and his career, and wasn’t afraid to get up on the soapbox like others of his time were. This also led to the main event being televised for the first time in 1973, where viewers got a glimpse of what high stakes poker looked like. This was also the first year that the entry fee for the main event was set at $10,000, where it still stands today.

It wasn’t until the mid 70’s in fact that the great Doyle Brunson finally got his own family to accept his profession, and he credits this as inspiring him to win back to back WSOP main events in 1976 and 1977. Needless to say, with players feeling that way, and people thinking ill of them as well, it was nothing like it is today, with the top players being idolized and professionals being proud of their occupation. This obviously created some real challenges in promoting the series, but thanks to the newfound brashness of Amarillo Slim and others, the WSOP was really starting to get known by now.

1978 was the year that the format changed from winner take all to a multi player payout structure, with the number of entrants growing to 42, and the top 5 being paid. Benny Binion remarked that he envisioned the WSOP growing to as many as 100 players some day, which was met with quite a bit of skepticism, believe it or not. $10,000 was a lot of money in those days just for a seat at a poker tournament, and this was well before there were any satellites to the thing.

The championship that year was won by Bobby Baldwin, and participants included actor Gabe Kaplan, who actually developed into a pretty good poker player in his own right, winning in excess of a million dollars in tournament poker over the years. It also included Barbara Freer, the first woman to play in the WSOP, who competed with the men as they didn’t have a separate woman’s division until a year later.

1979 saw the main event won for the first time by an amateur by the name of Hal Fowler. This is still considered the biggest upset inWorld Series of Poker history. Not only was Fowler an amateur, the seasoned players considered him to be a bad amateur, although having luck on your side is sometimes enough. On the final hand, Fowler got all his chips in needing to hit an inside straight draw versus Bobby Hoff’s pocket aces, and managed to hit the 4 outer to win the championship. It’s said that Fowler didn’t even have the $10K entry fee and had to borrow it from Benny Binion, however he would have had no problem paying this loan back from the $270,000 he walked away with from finishing first and becoming the world champion of poker for that year.

The 1980 WSOP was won by a brash kid from New York by the name of Stu Ungar. Ungar had been a professional gin rummy player and is widely considered to be the best of all time at that game. He once put together a run of winning 86 matches in a row against a field of top players, and after that amazing demonstration, people simply refused to play against him anymore. He even was willing to put himself at a serious disadvantage by offering handicaps to opponents; still though there were no takers.

He then turned to no limit hold’em, and in 1980 he won the world championship in his first try. The next year, his combination of genius IQ and photographic memory proved no match for opponents again, and he successfully defended his title. He almost didn’t get to play that year, as shortly before the event, Benny Binion had him banned from the Horseshoe for spitting in a dealer’s face. Binion’s son Jack ended up convincing his father to reconsider, given the increased publicity that Ungar brought to the tournament, which was significant indeed.

Ungar’s talents were so extreme that he once bet $100,000 that he could count down a six deck shoe of cards and determine what the last card was, which was an unthinkable feat. He won the bet. Not surprisingly, many consider him to be the best poker player of all time, however a serious drug addiction which developed around this time, and which would eventually end up costing him his life, plus his penchant for going bust on horse race betting, would limit him to only scratching the surface of his full potential.

As the 80’s progressed, Jack Binion started to take over the family business from his father Benny, and the running of the WSOP in particular. Under his direction, a new and exciting concept was brought into play, which was running satellite tournaments to allow players who would not or could not manage the large entry fee to be able to win a seat by investing only a fraction of it. So 10 seat satellites were set up, with the players putting up $1000 each and the winner getting a seat at the big tournament. This would change things forever.