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Ten Years Later

by Nolan Dalla |  Published: Aug 01, 2013

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All glory is fleeting.

The World Series of Poker very nearly had its obituary written and it was close to being scribed in May 2003.

Aside from a select few, no one quite realized how dire the situation was at Binion’s Horseshoe when dozens of poker tables were pulled out of storage, dusted off, hauled upstairs, and locked into place inside the tournament room known as “Benny’s Bullpen,” an old bingo hall that had been converted into a makeshift arena for the richest and most prestigious gambling event on the planet.

Leaks to the local media made a bad situation much worse. Could the 2003 WSOP actually turn out as badly as the thing had gone the year before? Might this be the end road of a legend? Instead of the lead up to the series being one of the most anticipated times of the year for poker players, the atmosphere around “the Shoe” resembled a death watch.

Binion’s Horseshoe had been hit with millions of dollars in judgments. There was a $2 million debt owed to the Fremont Street Experience. The Horseshoe also ignored its obligation to pay contributions to the employees’ health insurance and pension funds, mandatory under a federal law called the Employees Retirement Income Security Act, which had to do with medical benefits plans. Then there were other creditors, too who were pretty much stuck at the end of a long line. Some of them tried to negotiate for pennies on the dollars and still couldn’t get paid.

A dire situation was made worse by the WSOP being housed in a building that was utterly crumbling under the pressures of its own neglect and mismanagement. One estimate showed it would take millions of dollars to rip out the old asbestos from the walls. The air conditioning unit was at least 25-years-old and dated back to the time the main tower was still part of The Mint. The overworked and exhausted water coils struggled desperately to pump cool air into a baking concrete building which broiled for months in the heat of 110-degree afternoons. Even the rooftop pool was closed down because it was too expensive to staff and maintain. Given all of its massive problems, the only solution seemed to be a wrecking ball and bankruptcy court.

Bankruptcy.

The “B” word frightened a lot of people. Especially poker players.

Given the lawsuits, judgments, and the distressing financial issues of the Horseshoe, would player buy-ins and cash deposits be safe? What if a federal marshal stormed in on the first day of the $10,000 main event championship with a court order and confiscated the estimated $10 million prize pool to pay off creditors? The WSOP wasn’t just sinking. Financially speaking, it had already hit the rocks. And pirates were swarming onto the deck.

There were other troubles, too — worse than mismanagement. Cheating allegations and scandals carried over from the previous year — such as too many chips in play at the end of some tournaments, disappearing large-denomination chips at the end of other tournaments, brought on by a lack of proper controls and outdated technology badly tainted the WSOP’s prestige.

Before the WSOP began that fateful year, George Fisher, the Horseshoe’s Director of Operations had been deeply involved in just about everything on property. It bears noting how important this man was to the WSOP as a great visionary. Fisher may have saved the WSOP as we know it. He saved the WSOP from total ruin. Allow me to explain how.

The Horseshoe poker office was slightly larger than a broom closet. It was nestled beneath a set of iron stairs leading up to the employee cafeteria. The office was comprised of two rooms the combined size of a Winnebago. The smaller room had an old desk crow-barred inside. You had to squeeze around the desk and press your ass against the walls to move around. Somehow, two people and a secretary worked side by side by side in this tiny space.

On the wall of that tiny office with the dimensions of a closet, hung a large white board blotted with black marker ink. Written in tiny letters which upon closer inspection filled the entire board were what Fisher called his “satellite stations.” He had come up with the brilliant idea to sign up bars, casinos, cardrooms, private companies, brothels — anyone who would partner with the WSOP and send a player to the main event.

In exchange, the locale was given the designated title of an official “WSOP Satellite Station.” The response to Fisher’s idea was enormous. He worked the phones and turned on the charm like the master salesman and marketer he was born to be. By early April, the white bulletin board was covered in ink — listing the dozens of locations around the world and number of players coming to play in the WSOP main event.

A few entries up on that white board attracted no special attention. They were online poker sites. One of the “WSOP Satellite Stations” was a relatively new site called “PokerStars.com.” It had been around for only about 18 months.

Looking back now, imagine how things might have been different had Fisher not come up with the crazy idea to reach out to “competitors.” How might the poker landscape be different today had PokerStars.com not accepted the invitation?

Another hero working behind the scenes was Dan Goldman. At the time Dan served as head of marketing for PokerStars.com. Fisher reached across the great divide that separated what at the time were bitter enemies — land-based cardrooms versus online poker sites — and extended his hand in partnership. On the other end of the spectrum, Goldman was there to shake it and create a bond that’s probably the most important alliance the game has ever seen.

Goldman isn’t properly credited for playing a vital role in the history of the game. Had Goldman not worked tirelessly to persuade Isai Scheinberg, owner of PokerStars.com, to partner with the WSOP and send players to Las Vegas that spring, the poker landscape might be very different today. Certainly, no one would have ever heard of Chris Moneymaker.

The 2003 WSOP began with the $500 buy-in Casino Employees event. We drew a big turnout. Then, without warning, the numbers began to decline. Badly. By the end of the first week, we were all in a panic.

The limit hold’em tourney, normally a huge opener for the WSOP every year, took a huge hit. Attendance dropped from 610 down to 422. Things went just as bad in the seven-card stud event which followed. Participation dropped from 253 to 177. Then, we all began to think this was the end when the Omaha Eight-or-better numbers surfaced. The event declined from 339 to 175, down almost half! The next few events weren’t much better. By the end of the first week, overall attendance was down a whopping 30 percent over the previous year, which had been equally a disappointment.

As I walked through a nearly empty poker room during the $5,000 buy-in deuce-to-seven lowball championship, trying to keep my head up while staring at rows of empty tables and vacant seats, everyone in the poker universe was raving about the Bellagio.
Excitement focused on a new poker attraction called the World Poker Tour, which had begun broadcast on the Travel Channel. We were a horse and buggy up against a race car. The WSOP seemed to represent the past. The WPT was the future.

Binion’s Horseshoe was in rapid decline and the WSOP seemed just about dead.

The term is “a perfect storm.”

It’s come to mean more than a weather reference. A perfect storm has to with everything lining up just right and creating ideal conditions for a colossal event.

That’s precisely what happened at the 2003 World Series of Poker.

We ended up with the perfect winner, with the perfect personality, with the perfect back story, with the perfect last name — all in front of the watchful eye of ESPN cameras recording the moment for tens of millions of viewers in prime time television during the slowest sports time of the year.

How perfect is that?

But no one could possibly have sensed this approaching storm of perfection on the night before the main event championship was to begin.

Staff was scurrying around doing our prep work for the series when I ran into the poker office for something. Problem was, I couldn’t get inside the door. The office was jammed with people signing up. There were poker players lined up out the door. Many were wearing black shirts and hats with the same logo. There were about 40 of them.

They were from an online site called PokerStars.com.

It’s almost inconceivable to contemplate this in the modern poker era when many of the most skilled players in the world are 23 years-old. But ten years ago, online poker players were openly ridiculed. They weren’t even thought of as “real” poker players. They were pretenders. Crusty live action poker players who had grown up at real poker tables with real dealers and cards and chips and money — players who had mastered their craft on the green felt over decades — had little regard for this new generation of players starting to come into the game. They were pretty much held in contempt. A common line was, spoken openly, “he’s an Internet player,” which had the taint of calling out the target as an idiot.

That was the prevailing attitude back in 2003. The real poker players — mostly players in their fifties and sixties — were presumed to enjoy enormous advantages over these untested newcomers. They didn’t stand a chance. And so, they were welcome. At least their entry fees boosting the prize pool were welcome.

The revolution that was about to come was even more pronounced since these new players were so easy to identify. PokerStars.com required all of their qualifiers to wear golf shirts and hats with the company logo. Some players protested and didn’t want to wear the gear, since showing up dressed that way pretty much identified the newbie as something less of a “real” poker player.

They were mocked, disrespected, and ridiculed. Sometimes right at the tables.

Perhaps all the angst was really self-doubt, a collective undercurrent of fear that the game was about to change in a very big way. And some people were about to get left behind. There might have been only 40 or so of them in 2003. But a year later, there were would ten times as many. A few years later, there would be 30 times as many. And the day would eventually come when poker websites had 100,000 players linked together at poker tables at once, while the very largest land-based cardroom in the world had perhaps three percent of that total number.

The storm that was coming was more of a typhoon. And the early raindrops were a three dozen or so, mostly young, completely anonymous, amateur poker players who were lined up early that night on the second floor at Binion’s Horseshoe preparing to buy-in to their first-ever WSOP main event.

One of those players dressed in the black golf shirt was a restaurant accountant from Nashville, Tennessee. He didn’t know anyone else. And no one knew him.

He was about to play the first live poker tournament of his life.

Of course, he didn’t stand a chance. ♠

Nolan Dalla served as Public Relations Director for Binion’s Horseshoe 2002-2004. He’s also been the Media Director for the World Series of Poker since 2002. These reflections are part of an extended series of articles written by Dalla which are posted at his personal website: www.nolandalla.com