It was back in 1970 when Lester Ben Binion, one of the chosen people to whom we may thank for poker as we have it today, decided it would be a good idea to organize a poker tournament for some of his closest friends and acquaintances and see who was the best of them. This first tournament was scheduled in such a way that it had a set start and finish time and the overall winner would be decided by secret ballot. It was, in fact, a series of cash games including games of five card stud, deuce to seven lowball, razz and seven card stud. When all was said and done, it was Johnny Moss who was elected the best overall player by his peers and the concept of World Series of Poker was born.
Born in 1907 in Texas, Moss spent most of his life gambling in one way or another. He started his trips into the world of gambling at a very early age, playing dominoes at the local parlor and later learning all the tricks there were from a local cheater called Blackie. He did work for a little while as a poker dealer, but he realized soon that gambling and work did not go too well together. As his poker game was improving, it was becoming increasingly harder to find anyone willing to play against him. Moss signed up for service in the US Navy during World War II and he continued playing while there as well, always finding some takers among the sailors he served with.
Upon returning to Texas, he found a way to join his two great loves: golf and poker, as he got into the country club where he would first beat rich oil guys out of their money on the golf course and later for some more money in the private poker games. In 1950, he got an invitation from Benny Binion to come to Las Vegas and help him with the casino business. Binion set up a now legendary game between Moss and “Nick the Greek” Dandalos. The game went on for three months, attracting great attention from observers and players alike, but according to the stories, “Nick the Greek,” who was the last person still in the game eventually stood up from his seat saying: “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
Binion got the attention he needed and it wasn’t until twenty years later that he called Moss again for the 1970 best players’ meeting – the event that would become known as the World Series of Poker. Players easily voted Moss the best player, but only after Benny asked them to choose the second best, as in the first round of voting every one of them apparently voted for themselves.
Next year, the players gathered again, but only this time they did not play cash games. Instead, the tournament format was introduced. Four preliminary tournaments with a buy-in of $1,000 and the Main Event at a $5,000 entry fee were played. Once again, it was Johnny Moss who seized the 1971 title of the best player. The Main Event had six entries and it was Walter “Puggy” Pearson who finished runner up to Moss.
Johnny Moss died in 1995.
In 1972, the structure of the WSOP was changed, but it retained the tournament format which still stands today. There was only one preliminary event and the Main Event, with the buy-in raised to $10,000. From that day until today, the Main Event of the World Series of Poker has had that same buyin! However, for this first $10k event, half of the buy-in for every player was fronted by Benny Binion. Twelve people initially applied to play the Main Event, but four of them were apparently dragged away by the allure of the side games. Eventually, eight players sat down to play, and in the end of the day, it was Amarillo “Slim” Preston who walked away with the title and $15,000 first prize, with Pearson finishing runner-up once again. Why was Slim’s award so small?
Apparently, when play got to three-handed, with Pearson and Doyle Brunson being the two other players, none of them wanted to claim the title because of tax reasons and because they were afraid they might not get much cash game action if announced as a poker champion – especially Brunson. Eventually, he left the tournament, walking away with the money his chips were worth, although the exact number is often disputed. According to Hendon Mob, it was $32,000.
“Puggy” and “Slim” then returned to the table, as Pearson once again wanted to win. Only after a while he agreed that he would give up on trying to win for publicity reasons and effectively gave the win to Preston, calling off his chips very light.
[Pearson] was trying [to win the tournament] right up to the last 30 minutes. That’s when it happened. They knew they couldn’t get any publicity out of it if Doyle [Brunson] won it. That’s not putting Doyle down – Doyle just wasn’t a talker in those days. And Puggy [Pearson] wouldn’t have been a good choice because about half the people he had screwed over the years were bound to say a few things. So I was the pick for winning it.
Amarillo “Slim” passed away in April of 2012
In 1973, we would finally see Walter “Puggy” Pearson walk away with the title. It was also the first time the WSOP found its way to television in a CBS documentary. Apart from the Main Event, seven preliminary events were held. On this occasion, 13 players entered the Main Event, paying $10,000 of their own money each and Puggy Pearson managed to win the entire thing for $130,000 (together with two more of the prelims) defeating Johnny Moss heads up.).
Pearson was born in 1929 in Tennessee. It was he who came up with the idea of playing poker in a freezout tournament format, the idea first officially introduced by Binion in 1971. Pearson was another one of several well-known gamblers always looking for action, whether at the poker table or on the golf course. One of the sayings connected to his names, states:
I’ll play any man from any land any game he can name from any amount I can count, provided I like it.
Introduced to the Poker Hall of Fame in 1987, Walter “Puggy” Pearson passed away in April of 2006.
The Main Event of 1974 saw sixteen runners and the return of Moss to the throne. His win brought him $160,000. There were five more preliminary events during the series, including a $10,000 Seven Card Stud Championship won by Jimmy Casella. This was also the last year that Five Card Stud appeared in the series.
In 1975, the series saw four prelim events and the Main Event. It was also the year that the first gold bracelet was awarded to the winner along with the cash prize. And the winner for that year was Brian “Sailor” Roberts. Competing against twenty other players, Roberts came out on top, cashing in for $210,000.
Roberts was a rounder who travelled the country together with Doyle and Slim, looking for juicy games. Apart from his poker success, he was well-known as a great contract bridge player. He earned his nickname “Sailor” because of his service in the US Navy during the Korean War.
He died in 1995.
The year 1976 was finally the year for the Godfather of Poker. Brunson, one of the best-known names in the poker community, waddled his way through the field of 22 players, finishing in first place and taking home $220,000. Apart from the Main Event title, Doyle also won a $5,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven Draw event, banking another $80,000. The entire series for the year comprised of seven prelim events apart from the big one.
Doyle’s poker biography is too big and overwhelming for this article; there is hardly anyone reading these lines who doesn’t know a story or three about Big Papa’s poker adventures. Apart from his success in the WSOP and other tournaments, he was also inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988.
Doyle managed to do a repeat performance the following year, as he won the Main Event title once again in 1977. This time, the field was bigger and it included a total of 34 players. Brunson’s take in the end was $340,000. He won another bracelet in one of the prelim events as well. All told, 1977 featured twelve preliminary events, including the first $100 7-Card Stud Ladies’ event, won by Jackie McDaniels.
Next came the WSOP of 1978 (naturally), and it featured ten prelims (including the ladies’ event) and the $10,000 Main Event. A record 42 players showed up to play and this was the first time the Main Event paid out anyone else except the winner (apart from the deal of 1972). This was the year of Robert Bobby Baldwin, who had some first place finishes in the prelim events of earlier WSOPs, but the Main Event title eluded him. The victory in 1978 brought him the bracelet and $210,000 to go with it. The runner up for the year was Crandell Addington, who took home $84,000.
Baldwin was born in 1950 in Oklahoma, meaning that at the time of his victory he was probably considered a “young gun” and was the youngest winner to date. He was introduced to the Poker Hall of Fame in 2005.
I will wrap up Part One with the WSOP of 1979. Eleven prelim events were played before the Main Event that gathered 54 players at the tables. One of the prelims was the first mixed-doubles tournament won by Starla Brodie and Doyle Brunson.
The person who walked away with the most coveted title in poker for that year, however, was Hal Fowler, winning $270,000, while Bobby Hoff was the runner-up, taking home $108,000. Fowler was born in 1927 and is widely considered the first amateur player to win the Main Event. His overall tournament winnings amounted to over $380,000 before he passed away at the age of 73 in November of 2000.
These are the first ten WSOP Main Event winners – people who may have won amounts which seem ridiculously small compared to present-day Main Event prize pools, but they are the ones who paved the way for poker as we know it and love it today. Future sequels of this article will continue presenting you the ME champions in preparation for this year’s World Series of Poker that is approaching quickly!