The Story of the 1970 WSOP Main Event

The first-ever World Series of Poker’s ‘Main Event’ was very different from all those that have followed in the years since. Over half a century ago, the atmosphere was far from the sprawling mass of poker tables, over 100 bracelet events and other festival frolics that each year’s summer pilgrimage to Las Vegas now offers poker players. The first-ever WSOP Main Event comprised of two votes and a cash game that would change the fate of poker forever. 

A New Era of Poker

Until the 1970’s, poker was very much a gambling pursuit that existed on the fringes of society in America, and by extension, the world. One year earlier, in the summer of ’69 that Bryan Adams was still 16 years away from releasing as a single, Texan Tom Moore and gambling insider Vic Vickrey invited some of the best poker players in the world to Reno as they co-hosted a ‘Texas Gamblers Reunion’ at the Holiday Hotel & Casino.

A series of high-stakes cash games took place over the best part of a week, with players such as Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder, Doyle Brunson, ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston, Johnny Moss,, Puggy Pearson, Rudy ‘Minnesota Fats’ Wanderone, and a certain Benny Binion. This purely invitational event was won by Crandell Addington but more importantly, it gave Benny Binion an idea. He asked Moore and Vickrey if they would host the series the following year. They declined, saying it hadn’t made them any money. Binion asked if they would mind him doing the same in Las Vegas and they had no problem with it. 

The next year, Binion’s creation came to formative fruition at his casino in Las Vegas. Hosting his own ‘World Series of Poker’, cash games took place in variants such as Seven Card Stud, Five Card Stud, Razz, 2-7 Lowball Draw and, of course, Texas Hold’em, just as they had in Reno. The addition of Ace-five lowball meant around 10 days of action. At the end of the cash games, a vote was called to decide between the players who would be the first ‘world champion’. 

That was only the start of the drama.

Two Votes and a Grand Old Man

In 1970, the gathering of poker players was small. In fact, it was very similar to the ‘Texas Gamblers Reunion’ held the year before in Reno. The same cash games took place, albeit on a slightly larger scale, with less than 50 poker tables existing in the state of Nevada itself. Binion’s Horseshoe, the casino where the action took place, didn’t have a designated poker room.

Instead, after the cash games, the six men who would decide the first ever world champion met in an alcove on the property. It was May 1st at 128 East Fremont Street in Las Vegas and each man cast his vote. Benny Binion collated the votes, and it was a dead heat… because every man had voted for himself! 

A second vote had to be held where the provision was decried that no man could vote for himself to be declared world champion. This time, there was no such struggle to produce a winner. His peers were unanimous that ‘The Grand Old Man of Poker’, also known as Johnny Moss, was the World Series of Poker’s first-ever world champion. He was presented with a silver cup to commemorate the achievement.

Which Players Voted a Champion?

Between them, ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston, Sailor Roberts, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Crandell Addington, and Carl Cannon had decided that the other of their crew, Johnny Moss, was the world champion. This was six years before the notion of a WSOP bracelet was even invented and Moss earned nothing for victory (excepting any money he won in cash games). The cup, the title of “Best All-Around Player” and the respect of his peers, was Moss’ sole reward.

On the back of the 1970 ‘World Series of Poker’, Binion knew that for his fledgling festival to survive, it had to grow. More players were needed and the kind of prestige that would come with the title was reliant on attendees growing. The inaugural WSOP made it into the pages of the Los Angeles Times courtesy of a journalist called Ted Thackrey Junior. Thackrey suggested that the cash games themselves hadn’t been a thrill to write about for the newspaper but by making it a “contest”, Binion might have something on his hands. 

As Amarillo Slim listened on, he added his approval, stating that a ‘Winner Takes All’ freezeout tournament might be a good way of making the World Series of Poker more accessible to less hardened players. Benny Binion took it all in and was already starting to make plans for a tournament to take place in 1971. 

A year on from the first-ever World Series of Poker, the future of a growing industry and a card game everyone in the world could play, would be altered forever.

The History of the WSOP                                          1971 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.