These 8 Men Started the World Series of Poker
The World Series of Poker has a storied history. After all, 2019 marks the 50th meeting of the greatest poker players in the world.
But how did it all start? What prompted this meeting of great poker players? Who was the person responsible for creating this epic annual event?
The World Series of Poker was born out of another event which, among other names, is commonly known as the Texas Gamblers Convention. The first one was in 1968 and was not very successful. The next year, the convention was given a poker theme and was quite successful.
Details of the convention are scarce, but some information does exist regarding the event. The 1969 convention was held at the Holiday Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada. It was conceived the previous year by both casino owner Tom Moore and his advisor Vic Vickery.
Moore conceived the 1968 event as one where the invitees would like to play craps and blackjack, along with some poker.
He was wrong about craps and blackjack but hit the nail on the head with poker. The next year, he made sure it was a poker theme.
The event was attended by gamblers all over the country. The attendees included:
- “Amarillo Slim” Preston
- Aubrey Day
- Benny Binion
- Bill Davis
- Bill Douglas
- Billy Nichols
- Brian “Sailor” Roberts
- Charles Harrelson (father of actor Woody Harrelson)
- Crandell Addington
- Doyle Brunson
- Dusty Griswald
- Felton “Corky” McCorquodale
- George Barnes
- Jack Binion
- Jack Strauss
- James “Long Goody” Roy
- Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder
- Jimmy Casella
- Johnny Joseph
- Johnny Moss
- Marshall “Squirrel” Carpenter
- Nate Raymond
- Puggy Pearson
- Rudy “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone
Despite the heavy hitters of the gambling world attending, Tom Moore saw the event after two years as unsuccessful.
However, an attendee and fellow casino owner, Benny Binion, saw potential in the event. Binion offered to buy the rights to the event. However, Moore said he could run it without any payment.
Binion moved the event to his downtown Las Vegas Binion’s Horseshoe Casino and rechristened it “the World Series of Poker.”
The 1970 World Series of Poker
Binion had a vision for the event. Unlike the Texas Gamblers Convention, Binion wanted a world championship-type competition. And he wanted to promote it in his casino.
He chose to invite the seven best poker players in the world to the event. Those invited were:
- Doyle Brunson
- Puggy Pearson
- Johnny Moss
- “Amarillo Slim” Preston
- Bryan “Sailor” Roberts
- Crandell Addington
- Carl Cannon
At the time, the Horseshoe didn’t have a dedicated poker room. Binion saw the event as an investment in the future and cordoned off his valuable gambling floor space to erect a temporary poker room for the event.
Over a 9-day period in mid-May 1970, the players faced off in games of the following:
- 5-card stud
- 6-card draw
- Ace-to-5 lowball
- 7-card stud (high only and hi-lo)
- No-limit Texas hold’em
1 – Benny Binion
Benny Binion grew up in Pilot Grove, Texas. He was the son of a horse trader and frequently traveled with his father on his business trips. On these trips, young Benny learned how to gamble, which was common in his father’s industry as a pastime.
Benny never had a formal education. He was ill during his childhood, and his parents saw fit to keep him out of school. As he grew, he overcame his illnesses, which were credited to the outdoor life that he was living as his father’s traveling companion.
At the age of 23, Binion started his first numbers game business. Within eight years, he had expanded to dice games that were hosted at a network of Dallas-area hotels. By the end of 1936 with the protection of Dallas politicians, Binion controlled the gambling industry in Dallas.
After World War II, elements of the Chicago mafia had started making moves into Dallas, and Binion’s political protection was ousted from the government during elections during that time. Binion packed up and fled to Las Vegas.
In 1951, Binion purchased the El Dorado Club and the Apache Hotel. He rechristened them as Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.
Binion’s Horseshoe became extremely popular in a short amount of time. The primary reason for this was that he set table limits higher than his competitors. For example, his craps table limit was set at $500. Until that time, most of his competitors set theirs at $50.
Benny Binion also recreated the Las Vegas casino experience. Some of his changes included:
- Allowing any size bet as long as it was not higher than the player’s initial bet
- Changing the floor coverings in the casino from traditional sawdust to carpeting
- First to provide limo service from the airport to the casino and back
- First to offer free drinks to players
- First to offer comps to all players (instead of just high rollers)
Other features that attracted players included the following:
- $2 late-night steak special
- 100 times odds bets on craps
In 1953, Benny Binion lost his gambling license and was sentenced to five years in federal prison for tax evasion. During this time, he sold the majority share in the casino to an oilman from Louisiana to cover legal fees. His family regained control 11 years later. However, Benny was not allowed to be the official owner due to his conviction and prior criminal history.
He officially became director of public relations while his sons Jack and Ted became the owners.
He was the organizer of the World Series of Poker. He invited all the players and even blocked off a section of the casino floor to allow the players some privacy while playing.
While not much was recorded about the event, we know that it was a cash game and that the winner was voted on by the other players.
Binion said in 1973 that he envisioned 50 players in the WSOP someday. The 2018 WSOP had 7,874 entrants, and that was far from the largest group.
The WSOP stayed in the Binion family hands until 2004 when it was purchased by Harrah’s Entertainment.
Benny Binion died on Christmas Day, 1989, of heart failure. He was 85 years old. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame the next year.
2 – Doyle Brunson
Perhaps the most enduring player of the World Series of Poker is Doyle Brunson. Brunson was in the first WSOP in 1970 and retired at the 49th WSOP in 2018. He’s played in the Main Event of every WSOP since the first event.
Brunson, like Binion, was born in Texas. He started playing poker after a knee injury ended his hopes of playing professional basketball.
In the 1950s, Brunson started playing 5-card stud, which he used to pay for college expenses. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1954 and, in 1955, earned a master’s degree in administrative education.
After college, he took a job as a salesman, and on his first day on the job, he was invited to a game of 7-card stud. He earned a month’s salary in that game and soon left the job to play poker professionally.
Brunson teamed up with another poker player, Dwayne Hamilton, and they started traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma to play poker. These games were run by crime syndicates in those areas as gambling was not legal in these states.
Eventually, he teamed up with Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts as Hamilton returned home to Fort Worth.
After six years of traveling, Slim, Roberts, and Brunson had amassed over six figures in winnings (the exact amount isn’t known). The three decided to go to Las Vegas to try their luck, and they lost almost all of it. The partnership ended amicably.
Brunson then settled in Las Vegas.
Brunson became a popular figure in casinos in the city. Along with playing in every WSOP since its inception, he became the author of a book called Super/System, which is considered the handbook on how to play poker. He gave the inside scoop on how players like him played and won. Years later, he said that the advice and insight offered in the book cost him a lot of money at the tables.
Over his career, Brunson has won ten WSOP bracelets.
- 1976 – $5,000 2 to 7 Draw
- 1976 – $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em World Championship
- 1977 – $1,000 7-Card Stud Split
- 1977 – $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em World Championship
- 1978 – $5,000 7-Card Stud
- 1979 – $600 Mixed Doubles (with Starla Brodie)
- 1991 – $2,500 No Limit Texas Hold’Em
- 1998 – $1,500 7-Card Razz
- 2003 – $2,000 H.O.R.S.E.
- 2005 – $5,000 No Limit Shorthanded Texas Hold’Em (six players per table)
Brunson has won over $3 million in his WSOP tournament play. His live tournament winnings total over $6 million.
In 1988, Brunson was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
Brunson was also the first man to win the World Series of Poker Championships and the World Poker Tour Championships.
3 – Puggy Pearson
The originator of the “freeze out” tournament, Walter “Puggy” Pearson left Tennessee at 17 to join the Navy in 1946. It was during his service that he learned his gambling skills.
Pearson dropped out of school at the age of 10. A few years later, he suffered an accident that left his nose disfigured and made it look like that of a pug dog.
Puggy not only appeared in the 1970 World Series of Poker, but he also won the Limit 7-card stud event the next year.
He found the most success in the tournament in 1973, winning three events. He became the first person to win three events in the same year — a feat that only four other people have done in the history of the tournament.
His career wins in the WSOP are:
- 1971 – Limit 7-Card Stud
- 1973 – $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em World Championship
- 1973 – $1,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em
- 1973 – $4,000 Limit 7-Card Stud
In 1987, Pearson was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
In 2006, he succumbed to heart disease at the age of 77.
4 – “Amarillo Slim” Preston
Born in Johnson, Arkansas, Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston was raised in Turkey, Texas, and then Amarillo, Texas, after his parents divorced.
Preston, along with Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts, toured the country in the 1960s, playing poker and gambling on other activities. The three pooled their winnings, which was reported to be over six figures, in an effort to go to Las Vegas and break the bank.
This effort failed as the three lost almost all the money they had won touring. After the loss, the three split up the team but remained friends and competitors.
1970 saw Slim and his old partners compete against each other in the first World Series of Poker. It was not the last time that the three would face each other either, as they’d all be in several of the subsequent tournaments.
Preston won the 1972 WSOP championship and became a celebrity because of it. He appeared on shows such as the Mike Douglas Show and the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. He also appeared in the 1974 film California Split as a poker player.
He won four WSOP bracelets in his career. These were:
- 1972 – $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em World Championship
- 1974 – $1,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em
- 1985 – $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha
- 1990 – $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha
He also charted 11 WSOP money finishes.
Between 1979 and 1991, Slim hosted the second most prestigious poker tournament (next to the WSOP) called Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker.
Amarillo Slim authored three books during his career. They were:
- Amarillo Slim’s Play Poker to Win (1973)
- Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People (2003)
- All In: An E-Guide to No Limit Texas Hold’Em (2007)
Preston was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1992.
He died of complications from colon cancer in 2012 at the age of 83. His lifetime tournament earnings totaled almost $700,000.
5 – Sailor Roberts
Bryan “Sailor” Roberts was the third person on the three-man team of Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson.
Roberts was born and raised in San Angelo, Texas. In high school, he worked as a golf caddy. One of the activities the caddies did to pass time while waiting for golfers was to shoot craps. This is where Roberts started his love affair with gambling.
Robert’s skills grew during his four-year stint in the Navy. He gained his nickname “Sailor” from his time in service. He expanded his gambling expertise to include poker during his hitch.
After the Korean War, Roberts returned to Texas and wound up connecting with Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson. Brunson and Roberts became business partners, splitting winnings and running a bookmaking enterprise.
Slim, Brunson, and Roberts traveled around the South looking for big games. The three of them pooled winnings from six years of travel and headed to Las Vegas to try and win big. Unfortunately, they lost almost all their money, a sum over six figures.
Roberts played in several WSOP events. He won the World Championships in 1975. He also won another bracelet in 1974 in $5,000 no-limit 2-7 draw.
Roberts died in 1995 at the age of 64 from cirrhosis of the liver as a result of hepatitis.
He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2012.
6 – “Dandy” Crandell Addington
Crandall Addington was another poker player from Texas. He traveled the Texas poker circuit in the 1960s and became known for his skilled playing.
Gambling for Dandy was a hobby of sorts. He was a self-made millionaire and had little need for the money. He saw it as a way to personally challenge himself as well as a way to relax.
Addington had degrees in economics and accounting, and at the time had founded several businesses related to oil exploration and chemical manufacturing.
His win at the 1969 Texas Gamblers Convention led him to be invited to the first World Series of Poker. He appeared in the finals of every WSOP from 1972 through 1979. Those seven consecutive appearances remain a record to this day.
Except for an appearance at the 2005 WSOP where he didn’t make the finals, Addington hasn’t appeared in tournaments since 1990.
He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2005.
7 – Carl Cannon
Carl Cannon is one of the lesser known characters of the first WSOP. He had the reputation of one of the best poker players in the world prior to the 1970s.
He played in several WSOP tournaments after the original. His best finish after the original meeting was 9th place overall in 1982.
Cannon is the only member of the original seven invitees to the 1970 WSOP not to have been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame as of 2018.
8 – Johnny Moss
Known as the “Grand Old Man of Poker,” Johnny Moss was the winner of the 1970 World Series of Poker. The winner was actually voted on that year. It was said to take two ballots. The first ballot, everyone voted for themselves. On the second ballot, Binion asked players to vote for the “second best” player, and Moss won and was awarded a silver cup (bracelets appeared several years later).
Moss grew up in Dallas, and along with most of the other players in the 1970 WSOP, he played poker in the Texas circuit.
As a boy, he was taught how to gamble, and local gamblers taught him how to cheat. He used this information to get a job watching over games at a local saloon to prevent cheating.
Moss gained his fame from a head-to-head poker marathon played against Nick the Greek. The marathon lasted five months, and Moss won between $2 million and $4 million during the game.
For years, it was said that this was the inspiration for the WSOP, but Benny Binion eventually made clear that the Texas Gamblers Reunion was the inspiration.
Moss played in every WSOP from 1970 through 1995. He had 25 money finishes in his years of playing. His lifetime WSOP winnings were $834,422.
His tournament wins were:
- 1970 – World Series of Poker World Championship
- 1971 – Limit Ace to 5 Draw
- 1971 – $5,000 No Limit Texas Hold’Em World Championship
- 1974 – $10,000 Texas Hold’Em World Championship
- 1975 – $1,000 Seven Card Stud
- 1976 – $500 Seven Card Stud
- 1979 – $5,000 Seven Card Stud
- 1981 – $1,000 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo
- 1988 – $1,500 Ace to Five Draw
He holds the record for the oldest bracelet winner from his 1988 win at the age of 81.
He was inducted into the charter class of the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979.
He died in 1995 at the age of 88.
Lots of legends and stories exist about the first World Series of Poker. We know the seven participants that played. We know that Benny Binion organized it. But as for what exactly happened over that week and a half, no one can be really sure.
We know that Johnny Moss is the storied winner of the tournament, but how he became the winner is up for debate. The story of the voting may or may not be true. If it is true, the story of a necessary second vote for “the second-best player” may not be.
What we do know is that the eight men involved created a legacy that started with seven guys around a card table and grew into a mega-event with 78 games, 7,874 participants, and over $74 million in prize money decades years later.
And it shows signs of growing bigger in the years to come.