Putting the ‘World’ in the World Series of Poker

How what once was a niche event became a global phenomenon

Event 29 Day 01

Since the first tournament at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1970, the World Series of Poker has evolved from a nearly familial get-together of a few of the country’s top poker players to a global brand. And all it took was single transaction and relocation.

When Harrah’s Entertainment—now Caesars Entertainment—bought Binion’s Horseshoe in January 2004, it also acquired the World Series of Poker. Harrah’s more or less sold the Downtown hotel-casino to West Virginia-based MTR Gaming three months later, retaining the rights to the Horseshoe name and the World Series of Poker. That April, Harrah’s held the WSOP at the newly renamed Binion’s, which, in both name and neon, had lost its Horseshoe. The following year, the competition shifted to the Rio. The move was straight out of the Las Vegas playbook, sacrificing a tie with tradition for future growth.

And the World Series did grow. In 2003, its last year under Binion ownership, about 7,500 entrants competed for almost $22 million in prize money. The following year, the first under Harrah’s stewardship, the player pool and total prize money doubled.

But the big uptick started with the move to the Rio. In 2005, more than 32,000 entrants vied for more than $100 million. Since then, the growth has been steady, even through the recession. Last year, nearly 80,000 players competed for almost $200 million in prizes, ranging from $85,000 for the Casino Employees No Limit Hold ’em event to more than $18 million for the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop event.

The WSOP’s most significant growth, however, has occurred beyond Las Vegas. This year, the six-week competition spans three Rio ballrooms and will attract participants from more than 100 countries. But players no longer need to travel to Las Vegas to win a WSOP bracelet. Since 2005, circuit events have been staged in casinos around the United States, and in 2007 the tournament expanded overseas with the inaugural World Series of Poker Europe in London. Today, a World Series of Poker Asia Pacific pushes the brand’s reach even farther.

This year, 11 of the 76 bracelets will be earned outside of the early-summer tournament, a sign of how the World Series of Poker has shifted from annual event to brand.

The nature of the participants has changed, too. The series originated as a semi-closed gathering of the world’s top professional poker players. The first non-pro didn’t win the main event until 1979, when Hal Fowler bested 53 other players to take home the bracelet. That year also saw the first woman, Barbara Freer, enter the main event.

By the end of the 1980s, less than 200 players were anteing up $10,000 to compete in the main event, making the World Series of Poker a relatively niche showcase.

Today, Caesars sells the tournament as an egalitarian shot at greatness—anyone with $500 and faith in their poker skills can compete for a bracelet. Indeed, few recent main-event champions entered the tournament as household names.

To most of us, $10,000 is a heart-stoppingly large amount of money to risk on a poker game. But, in a city where that buys a middling nightclub luxury package, it’s not unreasonable to stake it with a 10 percent chance to break even, and a 1-in-6,000 (or so) chance of winning $10 million.

With legal online poker now gaining traction in the United States, it’s difficult to imagine where the next decade will take the World Series of Poker—will we see the first bracelet awarded in an online event? That’s a leap, to be sure—but not as big as the one from Fremont Street to West Flamingo.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

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