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The WSOP Main Event: A Historical Look At Poker’s Greatest Tournament

Nearly $1.1 Billion In Prize Money Has Been Awarded Over 51 Years

by Erik Fast |  Published: Oct 20, 2021

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The World Series of Poker $10,000 no-limit hold’em main event is the greatest poker tournament in the history of the game. That’s hardly a bold proclamation to make, because what other tournament in poker has so clearly separated itself from the rest that it is commonly just referred to as the main event?

When Mike McDermott triumphs at the end of the cult classic movie Rounders, beating his nemesis Teddy KGB to regain his bankroll, guess which tournament he had his heart set on playing? No surprise here. It’s the one that has attracted 115,501 players over the last 51 years, with an astounding $1,090,462,626 in prize money awarded along the way.

Perhaps even more incredible, more than $1 billion of that total, or almost 94 percent, has been paid out since 2004. That year, of course, was the first main event of the poker boom that was in large part kickstarted by online satellite qualifier Chris Moneymaker’s win in 2003. The Tennessee accountant with the too-good-to-be-true surname turned an $86 longshot into $2.5 million and a championship gold bracelet, putting a spotlight on the poker world and its colorful characters in the process.

Humble Beginnings

The participants of the very first WSOP had no way of knowing just how big of a global phenomenon the event would ultimately become. In fact, the first WSOP resembled more of a single-table cash game than a tournament series.

According to poker historian Nolan Dalla, Binion’s Horseshoe didn’t even have a poker room at the time. In 1970, a handful of players simply got together and played cash games over the span of a few days. When the game broke up, the competitors took a vote and elected Johnny Moss the first-ever WSOP champion.

“Originally, all this was just a good way of getting poker players to Las Vegas. That was the original intent of it, and it sure looks like it accomplished that goal,” 10-time WSOP bracelet winner Doyle Brunson told Card Player in 2018.

Brunson said that he and the other high stakes players of the era could have never dreamed of the scale of future series. “I remember Benny Binion once said, ‘You know, one day we may have over a hundred people in this event.’”

In 1971 the first WSOP tournaments were held, with five events comprising the schedule. The centerpiece was a $5,000 buy-in main event, which drew six entrants and was won by Moss for his second of three career main event titles.

The buy-in was increased to $10,000 in 1972, which is the price point the main event has maintained for 49 straight years. Of course, because of inflation, $10,000 is worth a lot less today than back then. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, playing the main event in the early 1970s would be the equivalent to a roughly $66,000 buy-in today.

Pioneers of the game such as Amarillo Slim, ‘Puggy’ Pearson, and Doyle Brunson further cemented their status as such with main event wins in the early years, while the tournament still featured a winner-take-all format. After Brunson secured back-to-back titles in 1976 and 1977, the event began paying out other top finishers as well.

Steady Growth Through The 80’s And 90’s

The main event saw year-over-year growth for 20 straight years from 1971-1991. Binion’s vision of a field of more than 100 players came true in 1982, the year that ‘Treetop’ Jack Straus mounted a comeback from a single 500 chip that was lodged under his napkin to win the main event championship. (Strauss is the reason why every short stack is now given a chip-and-a-chair pep talk before their inevitable elimination.)

The ‘80s played host to a number of interesting storylines, including Tom McEvoy becoming the first player to win the main event after winning his seat in the tournament via a satellite. (Almost 20 years later, McEvoy achieved another milestone by convincing then-owner Becky Binion Behnen to make the event smoke-free.)

Another highlight of the decade was the total domination of the main event by Johnny Chan. Chan beat out a field of 152 entries to take down the 1987 main event, earning $625,000 and his second gold bracelet. Chan returned a year later and topped an even larger field of 167 entries, defeating fellow Hall of Famer Erik Seidel to secure the title and another $700,000.

Incredibly, Chan nearly went back-to-back-to-back, but his hat trick was spoiled in 1989 when a 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth beat him heads-up to become the youngest-ever world champion (for the time being).

The 1991 WSOP tournament was the first to ever draw more than 200 players, with Brad Daugherty also being distinguished as the first champion to earn a $1 million payday. The top prize remained at a million dollars for the rest of the decade.

Stu Ungar joined Johnny Moss as a three-time main event champion in 1997, overcoming a 312-entry field to secure the largest tournament payday of his career. Unfortunately he passed away shortly after due to complications from his years of substance abuse.

The Moneymaker Effect

The new millennium kicked off with a bang as the field surpassed 500 entries for the first time. The strong turnout saw Chris Ferguson earn $1.5 million as the champion when he defeated TJ Cloutier heads-up. That was Cloutier’s second time finishing as the runner-up, 15 years after he placed second to Bill Smith in 1985.

The 2003 main event was truly the turning point for the series, and poker overall. The growing popularity of online poker brought with it an influx of satellite winners playing in the big dance for the first time. The field surged to over 800 entries, resulting in a record $2.5 million top prize.

Chris Moneymaker wasn’t the first amateur to win, but he perfectly embodied the ‘anyone can win’ spirit of the WSOP, overcoming the pros to make life-changing money. It also helped that his win came in a year when ESPN dramatically upped their televised coverage.

It was a perfect storm for a massive spike in popularity for poker. As a result, 2004 saw the single biggest year-over-year growth in the history of the main event, with a 207 percent increase to 2,576 entries from the 839 made the previous year. Card Player columnist Greg Raymer became the first poker player to ever cash for $5 million in a single event.

The main event had blown past the 1,000-player mark and didn’t have a field with less than 5,000 players until 2020, when a global pandemic disrupted the normal operation of the series.

Raymer’s record payout didn’t remain on top for long, though. The main event field more than doubled the following year yet again, when Australia’s Joe Hachem beat out 5,619 entries to earn $7.5 million.

The boom had spread internationally, with a competitive online poker market and increased media coverage of the game driving record numbers throughout the years that followed. The climax came in 2006, when the main event field grew to a record high of 8,773 entries. The top 12 finishers that year all earned more than the main event champion did during the ‘90s, with eventual champion Jamie Gold taking home a staggering top prize of $12 million.

The ‘November Nine’ Experiment And Beyond

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 went into effect after Gold’s win. The legislation led to a downturn in the number of online satellite players at the series. The main event had been on a year-over-year growth streak since 1992, but that ended in 2007.

The WSOP had moved from Binion’s Horseshoe to the Rio All-Suites Casino and Hotel in 2005, after Harrah’s Entertainment acquired the rights to the series the previous year. Just a few years into its new venue, the WSOP also decided to try a new approach to scheduling the main event in order to better engage the television audience at home.

The new ‘November Nine’ format would see the final table of the main event set in the summer, with television cameras filming along the way as the sea of thousands of players was narrowed to just nine contenders. Those final nine would then take a break for several months while weekly episodes were released on TV. The final nine would then play down to the winner on a live broadcast.

The new format debuted in 2008, with Peter Eastgate winning $9,152,416 and setting a (short-lived) record as the youngest main event champion at 22 years old. Joe Cada broke that record the following year, nabbing the first of his four gold bracelets as a 21-year-old.

The ‘November Nine’ fittingly lasted nine years. While the delayed final table approach did allow for television viewers to get up to speed in time for the final table, the format did have a few notable drawbacks. Detractors said that the halt in play disrupted the flow for competitors. The layoff of several months also allowed less skilled players to hire some of poker’s top players to coach them and help close the gap on their tougher opponents. There were also concerns about what should happen if a player was injured, passed away, or was otherwise made unable to play during the multi-month wait.

Those concerns were left by the wayside when the main event returned to a more standard format in 2017. From that year through 2019, the main event saw an increase in average turnout to over 7,800 entries. The 2019 main event drew the second-largest field in the storied history of the tournament, with 8,569 entries building a prize pool of more than $80.5 million. Hossein Ensan took down the title and $10 million, tying him with 2014 champ Martin Jacobson for the second-most main event earnings of any player.

While there was a $10,000 buy-in main event held in 2020, it was far from traditional. The live poker world was only beginning to return after being shut down for most of the year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. A unique hybrid online and live version of the main event was announced.

45-year-old Argentinian Damian Salas began as one of 674 entries in the ‘International Tournament,’ which played out online until a final table was set. The last nine congregated at King’s Casino in Rozvadov, home of the WSOP Europe in recent years.

Salas survived that final table, earning $1,550,969 and setting up a heads-up showdown for the title with the eventual winner of the US-facing ‘Domestic Tournament,’ Justin Hebert. The American had defeated a field of 705 entries to earn $1,553,256. He and Salas clashed in a final heads-up battle for the championship bracelet and an additional $1 million in added prize money, with Salas ultimately coming out on top.

The main event is back to its normal format for 2021, with a live and in-person WSOP taking place at the Rio this fall. The main event will kick off with four starting flights to choose from between Nov. 4-7. The field will first fully combine on day 3 (Nov. 10). Play will continue until the final table of nine is set on Nov. 14. The final table will then get underway on Tuesday, Nov. 16, with this year’s main event champion to be decided on Wednesday, Nov. 17. Who will be the next player to hoist the championship gold bracelet after securing a multi-million dollar payday? It could be you.

Who Will Win The 2021 WSOP Main Event?

The 2021 WSOP is running through Nov. 23, with a total of 88 bracelets to be awarded at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino and another 11 online bracelet events taking place during the fall.

In late August, WSOP organizers announced that participants must show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result of this requirement, the 52nd annual WSOP will be compliant with NV Emergency Directive 050 signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, which allows events that require proof of vaccination to disregard the current indoor mask mandate. As a result, masks will not be required at the tables during the series.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly, and it is made with no agenda beyond protecting player eligibility and the operations of a unique televised gaming event,” said WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart in the press release. “The nature of poker is to be in close proximity with your opponents for extended periods of time and a seat at the World Series of Poker is a commitment for both our company and the participants. We want players to be excited for their return to the WSOP, while offering the greatest level of protection and limiting complications during the tournament this fall.”

While there will be a few key differences in 2021, a lot about the series will be ‘back to normal,’ which in the case of the WSOP means gold bracelets on the line and millions upon millions of dollars being paid out every day over the course of more than a month and a half of tournament action.

“Make no mistake, the 2021 WSOP will be the real deal and we’re preparing for a full house. Throughout the storied history of the WSOP, this year will be particularly memorable and we’re preparing for a poker reunion all players can celebrate,” said Stewart. “We’re beyond thrilled to offer a complete schedule of can’t-miss events including all our flagships and the variety players deserve.”

How To Watch The 2021 WSOP

After 19 years of being broadcast on ESPN, the series announced that CBS Sports will be the new television partner for the WSOP starting in 2021. A multi-year agreement was reached between the network and PokerGO beginning with this year’s series. CBS is set to broadcast 16 pre-produced and edited episodes of the 2021 WSOP main event.

In addition to television coverage, poker fans can also catch in-depth coverage of 25 events on PokerGO this year, with 37 days of live stream broadcasts planned for this fall. Offerings include the main event and other marquee tournaments like the $25,000 no-limit hold’em high roller, the $50,000 Poker Players Championship, and the $250,000 Super High Roller. With everything from high-stakes no-limit hold’em to mixed games on the schedule, there will be something for every poker fan to watch.

PokerGO is available directly through your internet browser at PokerGO.com, and you can stream PokerGO on any web or mobile browser. In addition to watching on PokerGO.com, viewers can also download PokerGO to their iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, Android device, Roku, and Amazon FireTV. Through PokerGO.com and these devices, 2021 WSOP broadcasts can be streamed live or watched on demand.

And as a special thank you to our loyal readers, Card Player fans can get a special discount on a PokerGO subscription. Just use the code CARDPLAYER, and you’ll get $20 off an annual plan.

PokerGO Main Event Broadcast Schedule

Date Day
Thursday, Nov. 4 Day 1A
Friday, Nov. 5 Day 1B
Saturday, Nov. 6 Day 1C
Sunday, Nov. 7 Day 1D
Monday, Nov. 8 Day 2AB
Tuesday, Nov. 9 Day 2CD
Wednesday, Nov. 10 Day 3
Thursday, Nov. 11 Day 4
Friday, Nov. 12 Day 5
Saturday, Nov. 13 Day 6
Sunday, Nov. 14 Day 7
Tuesday, Nov. 16 Final Table Part 1
Wednesday, Nov. 17 Final Table Part 2