Poker pros, fans going all in

As the first winner of the World Series of Poker 36 years ago, poker legend Johnny Moss won a silver cup. Back then, a vote among the players decided the winner. No cash exchanged hands.
„When the tournament was over, we gave the cup to Moss and then had a few drinks and started playing poker again,“ poker legend Doyle „Texas Dolly“ Brunson said. „Those were the days. Boy, have times changed.“

Have they ever. No longer shunned to the dark, back rooms of casinos, poker is sizzling in the mainstream, having ridden twin tidal waves of exposure to the masses — the Internet and television.

The hottest happening is the WSOP — the longest continual tournament (eight weeks) in poker. The WSOP‘s eminent enticement begins Friday — the USD 10,000 buy-in Texas Hold’em main event that runs through August 10. First place could be worth USD 10 million.

As Las Vegas began baking July 16, 2005, with much of Sin City still asleep and the charity worker, magician, truck driver, law student, bar owner, former loan officer and vociferous poker professional having been vanquished from the final table of the largest, most lucrative tournament in poker history, pistol- and shotgun-armed security guards brought 17 boxes of cash from a fortified vault at Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel and dumped the currency on a table.

Looking on as 850 pounds of USD 100 bills worth USD 7.5 million swelled toward the ceiling were the last two survivors of the 5,619 players in the World Series of Poker’s No-Limit Texas Hold’em main event — Steven Dannenmann, a CPA and mortgage broker from Maryland, and Joseph Hachem, a chiropractor-turned-poker pro from Australia.

Six hands into heads-up action and eight days after the tournament started, Hachem’s straight bested Dannenmann’s aces to win the mother of all poker tournaments.

Just shy of 7 a.m., with an Australian flag draped over his right shoulder, tournament organizers gave Hachem the coveted white-gold and diamond bracelet, awarded to every winner of a WSOP event, and USD 7.5 million, a first-place reward worth more than the purse for the entire field (USD 7,154,642) in the 2005 British Open that weekend.

„I just wanted to make sure it was all mine,“ said Hachem, 40. „I remember thinking my wife could go shopping now.“

Super Bowl of poker

This year, the WSOP is on track to smash every tournament record for entrants and prize money. For instance, the women’s no-limit hold’em event attracted 1,128 players — nearly double the number who played in last year’s Ladies Event. Tournament No. 17 — a no-limit Texas Hold’em event with a USD 1,000 buy-in — had 2,891 players, the second-largest live poker tournament in history. The H.O.R.S.E. tournament, which consisted of five different poker games, attracted 143 players who each put up USD 50,000 to play — the largest entry fee ever for a poker tournament.

As of Wednesday, 6,965 had entered the main event; more than 7,500 are expected to put up the $ 10,000 entry fee. All 208 poker tables on 45,000 square feet of convention-room floor at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino just west of the Las Vegas Strip will be in play. All of poker’s best players are here, as well as numerous celebrities and sports figures, including Ben Affleck, James Woods, Shannon Elizabeth, Laura Prepon and „Spider-Man“ himself, Tobey Maguire.

„There’s nothing like this tournament,“ poker pro Cyndy Violette said. „It’s our Super Bowl, World Series, Kentucky Derby all rolled into one.“

Chris „Jesus“ Ferguson, the 2000 WSOP main event champion, added: „It’s the most painful tournament to get knocked out of because it’s so much fun and you have to wait a year for it to start again.“

The WSOP invites the proletariat in — anyone who pays an entry fee for a tournament and is at least 21 can play. This year, more than 30,000 players from more than 50 countries have played in the event’s 45 tournaments, trying to win some of the nearly USD 150 million in prize money.

„You think you’re prepared for it, but when you get to the WSOP, it’s overwhelming,“ said poker pro Robert Williamson III. „Every day, you walk in to a sea of people and poker tables. Then there are thickets of people gathered around the sea of people playing.“

„Last year, as I looked at all the poker tables and players, I was thinking about all the old-timers who helped evolve this thing,“ Brunson said. „All of them are dead and gone, but to see what has happened to the game, thinking about those old guys, brought tears to my eyes.“

The WSOP‘s long run to its lofty status started with a poker marathon in 1949. Nick „The Greek“ Dandalos asked Benny Binion, owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, to arrange the biggest poker game of all time. Binion called Moss, regarded as the best player in the world, bankrolled him, and Moss played Dandalos for five months outdoors in front of the casino. The two played every type of poker for pots of hundreds of thousands of dollars until Dandalos decided he’d had enough. He rose from the table and solemnly said, „Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.“

The epic battle, however, stayed with Binion, especially after he saw large crowds gathering every day to watch. The game gave Binion the inspiration to later start the World Series of Poker.

It took Binion a long time to realize his idea, but 21 years later, Binion gathered 35 of the game’s best players for an event he called the World Series of Poker.

The Moneymaker era

The WSOP slowly grew, both in participants and new events, with a majority of poker variants being used. In 1978, Bobby Baldwin, now CEO of Mirage Resorts, defeated 41 players to win the main event and USD 210,000.

„Poker was less popular,“ Baldwin said. „But the 42 players in the main event were very, very good, and the play was very, very intense. It was difficult to win that tournament, but it’s more difficult to win now. It’s easier to beat 41 players than it is 7,000.“

By 1988, there were 167 players in the main event. A decade later, there were 350, and in 2002 there were 631.

Then along came Chris Moneymaker. While the name helped, Moneymaker’s Cinderella journey from a USD 39 online satellite tournament to a USD 2.5 million payday for winning the main event in 2003 latched on to America’s imagination and jump-started the poker craze. TV ratings were the highest ever, sparking numerous poker shows and hordes of poker websites.

The WSOP‘s entrants jumped, too. Moneymaker, a former accountant, beat 838 players. The following year, 2,576 showed up, then 5,619 last year.

„Moneymaker caught a lot of people’s attention, and they discovered that you don’t need exceptional physical skills to play poker,“ said poker pro Lyle Berman. „I can’t dunk a basketball; I’m just not big enough. I can’t beat Tiger Woods in golf. But in poker, in the WSOP, you can beat the best players in the world.

„And poker is such a great game,“ Berman added. „It’s you and your brain against everybody else. The deck doesn’t know who you are.“