It’s like throwing a giant rock made of money into a pond filled with money. There’s an enormous splash of cash and a giant ripple effect. The World Series of Poker has an international reputation. People come from all over the globe to compete in the biggest poker game anywhere. Last year the Main Event had 5,619 entries, and the top prize was $7.5 million.
It is amazing when you consider that the original contest was born on a whim as a heads-up competition between two strangers. But oh, what a wild game that was! Ditto for the games that came after it. The WSOP has always attracted unusual characters, and delivered unusual situations.
BENNY’S FIRST BIG GAME
The story of the WSOP begins with its creator, gambling entrepreneur Benny Binion. Benny grew up in Texas in the early decades of the twentieth century. He bootlegged and ran illegal gambling operations, killed a few men (in selfdefense), did a stretch in Leavenworth in the 1950s, but still managed to become one of the most beloved and respected citizens of Las Vegas. His famed Horseshoe Casino was a model for the industry, not for its fancy trappings, but for the quality of its games, and the honesty of its proprietor. Benny’s motto was, “Good food cheap, good whiskey cheap, and a good gamble.”
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
In 1946, Benny packed up his family and left Texas, one step ahead of the law. As he put it, “My sheriff got beat in the election that year.” Benny wanted to make a new start in a place where gambling was legal, so he came to Las Vegas and bought into a downtown casino called Las Vegas Club.
Three years later, Nick “The Greek” Dandolos came into town looking for some poker action. The Greek was a renowned gambler with an enormous bankroll. He was smart, well educated, and charming, but also sometimes reckless and unpredictable. According to Benny, “He [Nick] was a kinky ol’ guy. He’d put a snake in your pocket and ask you for a match.”
Nick wanted to play “the biggest game that this world can offer.” Benny agreed to set it up. But there was one condition: It had to be open to the public. Benny wanted the publicity. Nick agreed. So Benny called a friend in Dallas, Johnny Moss.
Johnny was a rounder, probably the best poker player in the world at that time. He was at the end of a four-day poker session when the call came. Nevertheless, the rounder immediately packed his bags and got on a plane. This was his first trip to Las Vegas (which tells you a lot about the low status of Las Vegas in those early years).
When Johnny arrived, he didn’t bother unpacking. He simply went down to the casino, found Nick, shook his hand, and the two men began playing poker.
The game lasted for five months. Each session usually lasted four or five days, then the players would break for sleep. Johnny supposedly had an edge in stamina, since he was a relatively youthful 42, compared to Nick at 56. But Nick seemed to have more energy. Johnny would return from sleep breaks to find Nick playing craps. The Greek would tease him, “What are you going to do, Johnny; sleep your life away?”
The main game was 5-card No Limit Stud, $100 antes. But they also played 7-card Stud, 7-card Hi-lo, and Lowball. Nick and Johnny had bankrolls that stretched into the millions. Most of the action was heads-up, but other players were allowed to join the game from time to time. The minimum buy-in was $10,000. Nobody survived more than a few days against the Greek and Johnny. Each visitor’s buy-in was sucked into the money vortex as millions flowed back and forth.
People stood five and six deep to watch the action. The biggest single pot was approximately $500,000. Here is how it came down.
THE BIG HAND
The game was 5-card Stud. Brackets indicate the hole cards. The mixed-suit final board was:
Johnny:  6 9 2 3 Nick [X] 7 6 3 J
Keep in mind that Johnny told this story many times in the following years (most notably to authors A. Alvarez in The Biggest Game in Town and Anthony Holden in Big Deal). The Greek’s first upcard is an eight instead of a seven in some versions of Johnny’s story.
In any case, the Greek bet or raised his hand all the way. On the river, with $100,000 already in the pot and facing a $50,000 bet from the Greek, Johnny went all in with his last $200,000. He later recalled (speaking with a thick Texas drawl), “I cain’t put him on no jack in the hole, you know. He ain’t gonna pay all that money jus’ for the chance to outdraw me.”
Or would he?
After a long pause, the Greek called the raise and exposed his hole card. It was a jack. For most players that would have ended the game right there. But Johnny was a true rounder. He took a break, reloaded, and came back swinging. Where did he get the extra money? It always has been assumed that Benny at least partially bankrolled Johnny’s action, but the exact details of that arrangement have never been revealed.
In any case, Johnny thought, “If he [Nick] is gonna go chasin’ dreams like that, I know I’m gonna break him in the end.”
And that’s what he did. After five months, the Greek was down over $2 million (the equivalent of $17 million in 2006 dollars). Finally he rose from the table and uttered a phrase that has since been immortalized in poker lore. The Greek said, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
LET’S DO IT AGAIN!
Twenty-one years later, Benny decided to do it again, but this time he wanted to make it an annual event, and he wanted to include many more rounders and (eventually) many more regular players. His inspiration was the 1949 matchup and a 1969 Reno tournament called the Gaming Fraternity Convention. Benny and his son Jack put it all together and called it the World Series of Poker. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder (not to be confused with Nick) helped promote the event to the international press.
The first WSOP had six contestants. Johnny Moss won that one. And he won the second competition, too. Amarillo “Slim” Preston won the third.
Benny did a video interview the next year in which he said, “This poker game here gets us a lot of advertisement, this World Series of Poker. Last year it was in seven thousand newspapers… We had seven players last year, and this year we had thirteen. I look to have better than twenty next year. It’s even liable to get up to be fifty. Might get up to be more than that. [He pauses and seems to be staring into the future.] It will eventually.”
These days the WSOP (now owned by Harrah’s) has thousands of contestants, and it regularly mints millionaires.
Nick Dandolos died in 1966. The gentleman-gambler was near broke and playing $5-limit poker in those last years. Benny died in 1989, wealthy and a beloved legend in Las Vegas. Johnny Moss passed away in 1997. He was a successful player to the end, and in his later years people called him “The Grand Old Man.”
And of course, the WSOP continues to grow and develop. It is still “the biggest game that this world can offer.”