While the earliest poker games can be traced back a couple of centuries, poker didn’t really start to make its way into the American mainstream until the early 2000s. That was when ESPN greatly expanded its broadcast offerings for the World Series of Poker and helped the event grow into what it is today.
That was back in 2003 when the aptly-named Chris Moneymaker made headlines by winning the Main Event at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). In doing so, Moneymaker became the first person to win the event after qualifying for the tournament at an online poker site.
While the World Series of Poker wasn’t on the radar of many casual fans before 2003, the event does have a much longer history. Here’s a brief look at the history of the WSOP Texas Hold’em tournament.
WSOP Tournament History
The World Series of Poker tournament actually dates back to the 1970s. 1970 was the year when Benny Binion – a gambling icon and early Las Vegas casino mogul – invited several of the United States’ top poker players to participate in a Texas Hold’em tournament.
Those seven players gathered at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino for the tournament, and the winner was decided afterward with all seven players voting on the winner via an anonymous ballot.
That first WSOP tournament featured cash games of five-card stud, deuce to seven low-ball draw, seven-card stud, and Texas Hold ’em. Texas Hold’em was the format used for the Main Event starting the following year in 1971.
The winner in 1970 was a player known as Johnny Moss, who was rewarded with a silver cup for his efforts. Binion had long dreamed of hosting a poker tournament featuring the world’s best players, and the first WSOP Texas Hold’em tournament made that dream a reality.
Starting in 1972, the Main Event at the World Series of Poker tournament has used a $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold’em format. That came after Moss was voted as the 1970 champion by his peers, while the 1971 edition featured just a $5,000 buy-in.
The WSOP tournament winner receives a gold bracelet along with a massive cash prize. Moss repeated as WSOP champion in 1971 and received $30,000 in winnings. In 1972, the first year with the higher buy-in, Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston banked $80,000 in winnings.
The winner of the World Series of Poker has also been tapped with the unofficial title of world champion. However, some still believe no-limit Texas Hold’em may not be the best way to actually decide which poker player is truly the most skilled.
In 2002, the WSOP attempted to alleviate these concerns by adding a $2,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. Texas Hold’em tournament to the festivities. John Hennigan won the inaugural event that year and took home over $117,000 in winnings.
The H.O.R.S.E. tournament grew into a $50,000 buy-in by 2006. Four years later, in 2010, it was replaced at the WSOP tournament by what is now known as the Poker Players Championship. This is still the highest-stakes mixed games event offered at the competition, and many believe it is the most prestigious event at the modern-day World Series of Poker.
ESPN began to broadcast the WSOP Texas Hold’em tournament on tape delay in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2003 that the network decided to expand its coverage, which led to poker’s massive popularity boon.
ESPN’s improved WSOP coverage included a “featured table” that gave viewers a sneak peek at each player’s hole cards via specially-located cameras.
World Series of Poker Tournament Fun Facts
Most WSOP Tournament Main Event Wins
As of 2022, the World Series of Poker dates back more than 50 years. However, no single player has won more than three Main Event titles over the course of the WSOP Texas Hold’em tourney’s lengthy history.
Moss, who won each of the first two Main Events in 1970 and 1971, is one of them. He would go on to win it again in 1974. The Dallas native would eventually be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame for his exploits in 1979 before his death in 1995.
Moss shares the honor of being a three-time WSOP Texas Hold’em Main Event winner with Stu Ungar. Ungar’s first two victories also came in back-to-back years in 1980 and 1981. However, his third Main Event triumph didn’t come for another 16 years until 1997.
Ungar, who died just a year later at the age of 45 after years of drug abuse, is widely regarded as the greatest poker player in history. He is also the only player in history to win Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker on three separate occasions.
Doyle Brunson (1976-77) and Johnny Chan (1987-88) are the only other players in WSOP tournament history with multiple Main Event titles under their belts.
Most WSOP Tournament Main Event Final Tables
Jesse Alto made it to the final table of the WSOP Texas Hold’em Main Event a whopping seven times over the course of his own illustrious career. That is still the standing WSOP record for most appearances at the final table.
While Alto cashed in several events during his career, he never once actually won the World Series of Poker despite challenging for the title on a number of occasions. Alto also finished as the runner-up just once, when Brunson won his first of two straight WSOP titles in 1976.
Most WSOP Main Event Money Finishes
Veteran poker player Berry Johnston holds the distinguished title of having the most money finishes in the history of the World Series of Poker. Johnston, an Oklahoma native, has finished in the money 10 times at the Main Event over the course of an esteemed professional career.
Johnston won the WSOP Texas Hold’em tournament for the first and only time in 1986, but he has won three other lesser bracelets at the same event over the years.
Johnston also has a pair of third-place finishes (1983 and 1985) on his ledger in addition to a fifth-place showing in 1990. He cashed in at least one WSOP event in every year between 1982 and 2010, which is another remarkable individual accomplishment.
The number of players participating in the World Series of Poker grew exponentially between 2000 and 2006. However, new legislation that went into law in 2006 led to a slight decline in poker’s popularity.
After the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 was passed, players were no longer allowed to qualify for the WSOP via paid online poker sites. That greatly restricted the number of players that were eligible to qualify for the Main Event.
While several years have passed since poker’s halcyon days in the American mainstream, the World Series of Poker is still going strong. Just last year, Koray Aldemir became just the third German player to ever win the WSOP Main Event. He earned $8,000,000 in winnings after defeating American George Holmes in the final round.