10 great events in WSOP history, pt 1: the World Series of Poker is born

In the first of a 10-part series, the Paul Phua Poker School looks at how the world’s biggest poker tournament began

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) has witnessed extraordinary dramas and created huge stars. In a 10-part mini-series, the Paul Phua Poker School picks 10 key events from the WSOP’s rich history, from Phil Hellmuth becoming world champion aged 24 to internet poker coming of age. We start with the humble origins of the WSOP, and how “the Grand Old Man of Poker” earned his name.

1970: the very first World Series of Poker

When you see the palatial ballrooms of the Rio casino in Las Vegas filled with hundreds of poker tables, and hear the constant clatter of chips filling the air, it’s hard to picture the World Series of Poker’s humble beginnings back in 1970. In those days, Binion’s Horseshoe Casino didn’t even have a poker room. But its publicity-savvy owner, Jack Binion, scented an opportunity when he saw the top poker players of the age gathered at a Texas Gamblers’ Reunion in 1969.
The next year, he invited them to play at Binion’s. Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson was there, along with Jack “Treetop” Straus, “Amarillo Slim” Preston, “Titanic” Thompson and “Puggy” Pearson. But there was no tournament, just several days of mixed cash games, after which they were all invited to choose the best all-round player. Legend has it that each man voted for himself! So Binion then asked them to vote for whoever they thought was second only to themselves: Johnny Moss was crowned champion.

Who was Johnny Moss?

Born in 1907, Johnny Moss had been gambling since he was a boy, and as a teenager was hired by a saloon in his hometown of Dallas, Texas to spot anyone trying to cheat. His legendary five-month heads-up poker marathon against Nick the Greek in 1949 – legendary, in that Moss told the story, but it has not been fully substantiated – was thrillingly documented in Al Alvarez’s classic book The Biggest Game in Town. It was no surprise that Johnny Moss could command the respect of his peers.

1971: the first World Series of Poker tournament

In 1971, after a Los Angeles Times reporter told Jack Binion that he needed more of a competition if he wanted press coverage, the World Series of Poker took on the format we would recognise today: a freezeout tournament. Seven players paid the $5,000 buy-in. Though the individual hands have not been documented, it is known that after two days Johnny Moss won fair and square.
“It does show we voted for the right guy,” said Doyle Brunson later.

The Grand Old Man of Poker

Earning the nickname “The Grand Old Man of Poker”, Moss played at every WSOP until the year of his death in 1995, aged 88, winning nine bracelets in all. In one of his final interviews, at a poker table in Binion’s that year, he said: “I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old. I guess I know what I’m doing by now.”

Who was Johnny Moss? Key facts

  • Born in 1907, Johnny Moss learned to gamble as a boy
  • Beat Nick the Greek for a rumoured $2m in a five-month heads-up poker marathon
  • Nicknamed “the Grand Old Man of Poker”
  • First World Series of Poker champion, and winner of nine WSOP bracelets

Come back tomorrow to read part 2 in our 10 part series on the World Series of Poker. Tomorrow we will revealing how the “Doyle Brunson hand” got its name.