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A Conversation With Poker Hall Of Famer Jack Binion

Listen To Former President Of Binion’s Horseshoe On The Bernard Lee Poker Show

by Bernard Lee |  Published: Aug 11, 2021

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Binion With Doyle Brunson and Mike SextonIn June of 2019, I wrote an oral history column for ESPN.com, reminiscing about the 30th anniversary of then-24-year-old Phil Hellmuth’s epic victory over Johnny Chan in the 1989 World Series of Poker main event. Hellmuth not only became the youngest main event champion at the time, but also prevented Johnny Chan from winning his third WSOP main event title in a row. (22-year-old Peter Eastgate broke this age record in 2008, and then 21-year-old Joe Cada claimed the honors the next year.)

I interviewed several poker personalities who were present on that fateful night that the legend of the “Poker Brat” was born. The interviewees included Chris Marlowe, who was a commentator during the 1989 WSOP main event broadcast and is the current announcer of the Denver Nuggets, Lyle Berman, who finished in fifth place, Don Zewin, who finished in third place, Mike Sexton, Johnny Chan, and of course, the man himself, Phil Hellmuth.

It was an incredible lineup of poker luminaries, but I also really wanted to speak with Jack Binion, Poker Hall of Famer and former President of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. I called Mike Sexton, and knowing it was a longshot, I asked if he could help set up an interview. Mike said that he would ask Jack but made no promises. Much to my surprise, Mike called me back 30 minutes later and told me that Jack had some time right now and I needed to call him ASAP!

After getting over the initial shock and awe of speaking with such an important figure in poker history, I explained to Jack the idea for my column, asking if he would be able to discuss that fateful day. Not only did Jack kindly discuss Hellmuth and the 1989 main event, but he also agreed to participate in a full interview for my radio podcast. (My show, The Bernard Lee Poker Show, celebrated its 14th anniversary in May.)

I want to thank Jack for being so gracious and spending the time with me. Additionally, I am forever grateful to the late Mike Sexton for helping set up the interview.
Originally, I planned on releasing the interview during the 2019 WSOP, but after some delays and unforeseen circumstances, I never aired it. I thought 2020 would be the year, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans as well.

With poker back in full swing, there’s no reason to wait any longer. In fact, you can listen to the conversation yourself at the bottom of this article, as well as on iTunes, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. Highlights from the interview appear below.

On The Origin Of The WSOP

“We (Binion’s Horseshoe Casino) were going to open a poker room. We wanted to kick it off and so we had been to Reno, where they had what was called the Gambler’s Convention, but it was just a poker game. In fact, that’s where I met Doyle Brunson, my best friend.”

Binion With Johnny Moss Credit: Gaming.UNLV.edu“So, the next year, let’s try this out… So, we put it together. Everybody could show up, but it was almost all invites because we didn’t get any publicity out of it. Nobody had ever heard of anything like this anyway. The idea of having a poker tournament or freezeout just didn’t cross our mind.”

“So the first time, we’ll just ask and see who people feel like is the best by voting. I just went around and asked everybody, and they agreed (on Johnny Moss). A year or two later, Amarillo Slim came up with the idea of a freezeout. Freezeouts weren’t real popular, and we decided on a multiple freezeout format.”

On The Explosion Of Poker’s Popularity

“Tell you what really helped poker…The (hole card) camera and the internet poker phenomenon made all the difference in the world. There was so much demand, they couldn’t believe all the people who wanted to sign up. That’s what really made poker an overnight phenomenon.”

“The internet made a lot of difference in the popularity of poker because everyone started playing online. It was easy. They didn’t have to go find a game. It was right there.”

On The $10,000 WSOP Main Event Buy-In

“If you really think about it, everything is 10 times higher today than back in 1972. So, a guy buys-in for $10,000 (back in 1972), that’s like $100,000 today.”

On Amarillo (Slim) Preston

“Slim was really the perfect guy for it. He was an extrovert and was corny. And it worked like a charm. The name Amarillo Slim was the perfect guy to win.”

On Doyle Brunson

“At the time, Doyle was the best player. Doyle was the only guy that I ever saw that could sit down and break up a poker game because they didn’t want to face him.”

“(Also), you have a long-life playing poker, but most poker players start slipping when they hit 60. Being 60 is like a guy who is 36 or 37 playing [professional] basketball. As you get older, you are not as alert and your mind doesn’t work as quick. This is why Doyle is so incredible, because he is like a guy who is 50 years old playing in the NBA. He doesn’t play like he once did, but he is so good, he can still play (against the young players of today).”

On Stu Ungar

“There’s never been anybody who dominated a game like Stuey did with Gin. Stuey was so much ahead of everyone else… it’s just amazing. He was just so good. Gin is not as popular now as it once was. Years ago, you went to any country club or anywhere, the whole room was playing Gin. Stuey just dominated it. Here’s what he could do. In seven discards, he could tell almost exactly what your hand was.”

Binion With Phil Hellmuth In 1989 Credit: WSOPOn Eric Drache

“I think Eric has the best personality of anyone I have ever met in my life. He’s so likable. Eric used to joke, and it’s the truth… he would say that he was the seventh best Stud player in the world. Unfortunately, he said that he played with the six best players in the world.”

On Johnny Chan

“Johnny Chan even today is a great, great poker player. He’s not recognized as much as he should be. The last (several) years, he has been playing over in Macau. There is no telling how much money he has made. Johnny is a very good poker player and is in the very, very top echelon of poker players ever.”

On Phil Hellmuth

“What was unbelievable is Phil was just a college kid at the time. Nobody expected (this young guy) winning the tournament. Of all the people that poker has changed their lives, it really changed the direction of Phil’s life.” ♠

Bernard LeeSince finishing 13th in the 2005 WSOP Main Event, Bernard Lee has cashed in over 100 tournaments, earning nearly $2.5 million while capturing 10 titles, including two WSOP Circuit rings. Lee is considered “The Voice of New England Poker” and is a staple of the poker media as a columnist for ESPN, Card Player, Metrowest Daily News, and his radio program, The Bernard Lee Poker Show. Listen every Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. on terrestrial radio in Boston on the Money Matter Radio Network (102.9 FM, 1120 AM) or download episodes via podcast. Email him at BernardLeePoker@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube at Bernard Lee Poker. Visit BernardLeePoker.com for the latest news and information.