The Story of the 1971 WSOP Main Event

In 1971, the best poker players in the world again gathered in Las Vegas to play in the second-ever World Series of Poker. Sin City hosted its first-ever WSOP Main Event, a freezeout tournament that would produce a world champion. In 1970, a player vote had handed the silver cup that signified the world champion’s success to Johnny Moss, also known as The Grand Old Man of Poker. In 1971, everything would be on the line at the poker felt in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Back to Binion’s Horseshoe

While several elements of the WSOP changed in 1971, one thing didn’t – the location. Between May 1st and 15th, players converged on Fremont Street once more to return to Binion’s Horseshoe. The first-ever World Series of Poker may only have been a moderate success, but Benny Binion and his son Jack were not put off by the results but rather inspired to make it even better the second time around. 

Taking the advice of poker journalist Ted Thackrey Junior and influential player ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston, Binion pivoted the cash games that had packed 10 days in 1970 to five tournaments instead during the first fortnight in May of 1971. Binion’s ‘freezeout’ structure meant exactly what it suggested; anyone who was busted was frozen out of that event and could not re-enter. 

Since their inception, freezeout events have been very popular, and while many WSOP events feature re-entries or rebuys back into the tournament action for an extended period at the start of play, the WSOP Main Event has always been a freezeout event, ever since it began in 1971.

Puggy Pearson Wins First-Ever WSOP Tournament

Ahead of the final, much anticipated WSOP Main Event, four preliminary events were held. Each of them had a $1,000 buy-in, significantly less than the $5,000 buy-in Main Event. The first-ever WSOP event took place in Limit 7-Card Stud and was won by Walter ‘Puggy’ Pearson, so nicknamed after a childhood accident. A former Navy man, Pearson, who won $10,000 for taking the title, was also famous for owning an RV emblazoned with the legend “I’ll play any man from any land any game he can name for any amount I can count, provided I like it.”

The second event saw Fiore ‘Jimmy’ Casella win the top prize of $10,000. Playing in Limit Razz, the event was won by the New Yorker, who was very much an outsider in a gambling pursuit dominated by Texans. Casella was known as a man who refused to back down from anyone’s challenge, no matter where they were from, and was a regular at the Flamingo, where he predominantly played Hi-Lo Split against the aforementioned Pearson, along with Johnny Moss and Chip Reese. Casella’s indomitable spirit was legendary, and fellow poker pro, Crandell Addington, said that Casella “…won a lot of money. He might have been the best Razz player around at the time.” He certainly was in 1971. 

After Bill Boyd won the Limit Five-Card Stud event for $10,000, the penultimate event of the 1971 WSOP took place. The $1,000-entry Limit A-to-5 Draw event saw a second WSOP title won by the only man who had taken home a trophy in 1970 – Johnny Moss. The Grand Old Man of Poker took home $10,000 for his troubles but was by no means satisfied with his efforts. He had his eyes firmly on the sole tournament left to be played – the inaugural WSOP Main Event tournament.

The Legend of Johnny Moss

Johnny Moss, grew up in Dallas, Texas and as a teenager, got his first job in a local saloon bar. Watching over games to look out for cheats, which were common at the time, Moss studied the game from his position and slowly learned the tactics behind the greatest card game on Earth.

As early as he could, Johnny Moss took to the road, becoming a ‘Rounder’, someone who traveled the United States looking for poker action wherever he could find it. His journeys took him back to Texas where he based himself in order to capture the ‘oil boom’ action from those arriving in The Lone Star State. 

Perhaps the most famous game involving Moss – certainly outside of the WSOP – was the heads-up cash game marathon that he played against the notorious Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandolos, the son of a wealthy ship-builder. Playing a five month long game against Nick the Greek, which was set up by Benny Binion in 1949, Moss won somewhere between $2 million and $4 million, which Nick forced to concede when he delivered infamous poker quote: “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”

The Grand Old Man Wins Again

The final tournament of the 1971 World Series of Poker was a six-man Main Event to remember. Each man paid $5,000 to play and it was a freezeout winner-take-all event, meaning the winner would receive $30,000, the equivalent of around $228,000 today. No Limit Texas Hold’em was the game and it caused quite a stir – players were used to rebuying in cash games all the time, and it felt alien to be playing a No Limit event (limit events were much more popular) where they couldn’t open their wallet to refill their chip stack. 

The first man to depart was a new name to fans to the game, but someone who would become integral in future years, Bryan ‘Sailor’ Roberts. His exit was followed by that of Puggy Pearson in fifth place, before Jimmy Casella fell in fourth place, short of his bid to make it two titles from the five events. 

Next to lose his stack was the man who would eventually be nicknamed The Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson. Brunson, who passed away in 2023, just missed out on the first final heads-up duel for the world championship but would be back later in the decade. Taking on Moss for the title of world champion was Jack ‘Treetop’ Straus, nicknamed for his extraordinary 6’6” height. Straus was a heads-up specialist but despite his fearsome reputation when a title was on the line, Moss did it again, the first time of only three players in poker history to win two WSOP Main Event Championships in consecutive years, albeit the first time was decided by vote rather than a poker tournament. 

The last word in 1971 went to Doyle Brunson, who despite busting in third place, believed the result was right, not only for that year, but 12 months earlier, too. 

“Moss won that [Main] Event… so it does show that in 1970, we voted for the right guy.”

1970 WSOP Main Event                                          1972 WSOP Main Event

About the Author: Paul Seaton has written about poker for over 10 years, interviewing some of the best players ever to play the game such as Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Over the years, Paul has reported live from tournaments such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the European Poker Tour. He has also written for other poker brands where he was Head of Media, as well as BLUFF magazine, where he was Editor.