I was sitting in an online small stakes mixed game the other night, and after leaving a modest winner, I turned off my PC and went on to another activity. It was only then that I realized just how much history there was behind my even being able to do that in the first place. After all, before I could play in that game, the poker room had to blossom into a huge room with a large player base so that it could spread so many different games. Before that, there had to be an early-2000’s poker boom. Before that, there had to be a market for online poker in the first place. And before that, poker had to find its way off of the dusty roads of Texas, out of the back-rooms of saloons across the West, and onto the mainstream gaming floors of casinos in Las Vegas and other places across the United States. In short, your present place as a poker player has an incredible amount of ‘family history’ behind it. A history that we are going to look at together in order to know our roots, to understand better where we have come from and where we might be going.
Poker, when played as a uniquely American game, seems to be a pretty appropriate fit. Nowadays it is played all over the world, but its American roots seem to match what Americans value most — competition, fair rewards based on better performance, the ability to earn as much as you are able based on merit, and so on. Any variant of poker that you will play awards the pot to the best hand only (or splits it between the High and Low hands in some cases). Its fair that way — no prizes for second, just the way we like it in the United States. Come in 2nd in most places, and you get a silver medal. But in poker, like the Super Bowl and every other quintessential American title match, 2nd place gets the same as everyone else who didn’t win — nothing. (Obviously in Tournaments you get cash for second, this is meant in terms of individual pots.)
The next time you fire up your HUD and 24 tables of whatever limit you choose, understand that the fundamentals of your game were written not in computer code, but in backrooms and bars across the land. If you look at the player lists from the first editions of the World Series of Poker (basically the entire decade of the 1970’s) you will find the names of road gamblers who had to carry knives, guns, and piles of cash to keep from getting robbed or caught in what they were doing. Their chosen profession was frowned upon to the point where players like Doyle Brunson himself would tell his children and family not to tell the truth about “what daddy did for a living.” Road Gambler wasn’t a box that you could check off under “Past Employment Experience” when looking for a job, but in all honesty that only added to the mystique of it all the more. Men like Johnny Moss and ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston would barely recognize the game today. Even though Preston still plays in some events, the game that he plays now has eschewed the shadows for the spotlight. The small circle of Texans who brought the game to Nevada’s glitziest desert have given way to a worldwide influx of poker players that know the game in a completely different way.
When poker first came to Las Vegas by way of the tiniest towns and smokiest rooms that Texas had to offer, the casinos resisted it simply because tables took up lots of space, and the potential revenue that could be generated seemed small. After all, in poker unlike other floor games, the house does not gamble, it simply collects a portion of the pot as a rake, or charges seat rental for the privilege of sitting down at a given table. Slowly but surely, Poker made its way onto the floor, when casino executives decided that it could stay alongside of other new experiments, such as the in-house Race & Sports Books. If you’ve played live poker in a reputable casino at any time, thank men like Benny & Jack Binion, or Sam Rosenthal — men who saw the vision for the game that the Texans imported to one day hold an unassailable spot on the landscape of the Las Vegas gaming scene.
Those men were right, and so it was that in 1970 the Binions and their Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas hosted the finest players in a battle of the best, the inaugural World Series of Poker. The players voted for the winner (freeze outs weren’t invented yet), and they unanimously voted on Johnny Moss as winner among those in the group. It would be several years yet before the WSOP would evolve into a larger event, and ultimately into the world’s preeminent poker festival that we know it as today. In Part 2 of this 3-part series, we will take a look at the rise of the modern tournament format, as well as players who made their mark on the game because of tournaments and the fame that they offered. Until then, Good Luck at the Tables!