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'Tournament Players Weren’t Looked At As Poker Players'

Five Poker Pros Recall Their Earliest World Series Of Poker Memories

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What once started as a Texas gambling reunion eventually turned into what is now known as the biggest and most prestigious poker festival on earth, the World Series of Poker.

It all began 50 years ago in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Of the seven players who were present during the initial run, only Doyle Brunson is still with us and remaining active as a poker player, and he unofficially retired from WSOP tournaments last summer after making the final table of the $10,000 no-limit 2-7 lowball event.

Card Player tracked down five legends of the game to hear more about their unique early experiences at the annual summer series.

Barbara Enright, a pioneer for women poker players and still the only female to make it to the final table of the main event, first made the trip to Binion’s in the mid-80s.

Barbara Enright“My first time at the series was in 1986,” said Enright. “I had been playing cash in Gardena (Los Angeles) for about ten years. One day, somebody at my table asked me if I was going to play in the ladies tournament. I said, ‘What ladies tournament?’ And he said, ‘The ladies event at the World Series of Poker.’ That was the first I had heard of it. Obviously, it went well, because I won that ladies event, which back then was seven card stud.”

Enright, who has three WSOP bracelets overall and was the first woman to win an open event at the series, recalls an inviting environment in Vegas.

“It was more than 30 years ago, so it was a different time obviously, but I remember the players being pretty welcoming,” the 69-year-old said. “I never had too many problems with the guys, and most of them were really nice. The only thing that ever bothered me was the smoke. They didn’t have smoke-free poker rooms back then.”

Barry Greenstein currently sits in fifth place all-time with 104 WSOP cashes, yet ironically, he mostly ignored the bracelet events for much of his early years in Vegas, first making an appearance in 1990 or 1991, according to his best recollection.

“Tournaments were a small thing,” Greenstein explained. “Las Vegas didn’t have that great a reputation back then either. There was collusion, people had shares of each other, and the prize pools weren’t that big. Usually, the people in the tournaments were the players who couldn’t beat the cash games. Tournament players weren’t even looked at as poker players, to tell you the truth. They were as much poker players as actors on General Hospital are doctors.”

Barry GreensteinWith the poker boom following Chris Moneymaker’s main event win and the increasing popularity of the World Poker Tour, Greenstein was eventually forced to take tournaments more seriously. Although he did continue to focus on cash games for his income, insisting on donating his tournament earnings to charity. He has since won three bracelets, the first coming in the 2004 $5,000 no-limit 2-7 lowball event. The 64-year-old even managed to cash an astounding 13 times last summer.

“2004 was really the first time I started caring about the tournaments,” Greenstein admitted. “I was already playing in the Poker SuperStars Invitational, for my cash game play, and Mori Eskandani (Poker PROductions) told me that nobody knew who I was because I didn’t play tournaments. I used to just play the deuce and the main event. I just told him I would try to win a bracelet, and I did. The nice thing on that one was that I cross booked Doyle. So, I gave the prize to charity, and I got to put Doyle’s money in my pocket.”

Some, like British poker pro Barny Boatman, managed to find their way to Vegas before the boom. Boatman first made the trip in 1998, although he was more of a spectator than a player to start.

“I was aware of it, for sure. I had been playing poker around Europe, and I had the ambition to go, but I wouldn’t have gone had I not won my trip,” Boatman confessed. “There were a few players who were already making the trip every year, guys like Surinder Sunar and [Devilfish] Dave Ulliott. But I was just getting started. I ended up winning a package from my local casino that included just the flight and hotel at Binion’s. I went to Vegas, with very little money, and just played some small cash games while the main event was going on. I remember seeing the players sitting down to start the main event, and recognizing a guy I knew, Nick Cook. This guy, who I played with in London, was sitting there with the chips in front of him. And I remember thinking, ‘How does anybody find $10,000?’ You know? Like, ‘Who did he kill?’ That was a crazy amount of money at the time.”

Barny BoatmanA couple of years after his first outing, Boatman returned to the series, and scored a breakthrough cash by finishing 16th in the 2000 main event. The Late Night Poker regular now has 53 WSOP cashes to go along with two bracelets. After a long wait, he won his first in a 2013 $1,500 no-limit hold’em event. His second came at the 2015 WSOP Europe festival.

“It was kind of our own secret little world, but it was very exciting… all these characters that you heard about and then could meet in person,” the now 63-year-old Boatman said. “The Binions loved poker and they cared about poker players. I was staying in the tiniest room at Binion’s, with a view of a brick wall outside my window. The pool was basically a bathtub on the roof. So, the surroundings weren’t great, but we didn’t care. Most of us spent all of our time in the poker room anyway, and they took good care of us. We would hang out at the bar, and we might not leave downtown the entire series. It was rough around the edges, seedy, but it felt like ours. A secret that even the rest of Las Vegas didn’t really know about.”

Greg Raymer may have directly benefited from the poker boom, winning $5 million by taking down the 2004 main event, but he too got his feet wet at the series just before.

“2001 was my first trip to the series,” Raymer recalled. “I went to Binion’s and I think I played four of the early events. I had some familiarity with it, and I would follow along online as much as you could back then. I had also been to Binion’s before for B.A.R.G.E. (Rec.Gambling Convention), so I knew the facility. But playing for a bracelet, that was a brand-new thing for me. Back then, the biggest event outside of the main event was the opening limit hold’em event. I remember cashing in the Omaha eight-or-better tournament. That’s why a few years later when I won the main event and it listed my career earnings, instead of $5 million even, it was $5,005,000 and change. Just because of that one little cash.”

Greg RaymerWhile Boatman won a package to get to Vegas, Raymer got there by grinding his bankroll to a safe level. He was easily one of the best regulars at his home casino of Foxwoods, and would hold his own against the pros when they came through town for events.

“My bankroll was finally at the point where I could go to the series and play,” Raymer said. “I had made a deal with my wife back in 1996. She didn’t think I could win at poker, so she allowed me a $1,000 bankroll with the idea that I would stop playing if I lost it all. I was fortunate enough to not have to look back.”

It was the popularity of Raymer’s win, along with guys like Robert Varkonyi, Chris Moneymaker, and Joe Hachem, that sparked an interest in the game from players who weren’t even old enough to gamble. Poker’s all-time tournament earnings leader Justin Bonomo never got to play at Binion’s, but he was licking his chops to get in on the action even when he was a teenager.

“I came to Vegas when I was 19 and 20, and basically had to sit out the series because I was underage,” Bonomo said. “I would hang out, and play online poker. By [the time I turned 21], I was ready to just jump in. I played pretty much everything, and had some pretty good results right from the start.”

Bonomo’s first experience at the summer series came at the Rio in 2007, and highlighted some of the growing pains associated with the festival’s venue change and the increasing complexities of poker’s rising popularity. In the $2,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em event, Bonomo finished fourth for $156,040. It was one of four six-figure scores he had that year. He now has just shy of $45 million in career earnings.

Justin Bonomo“One crazy thing is that I made the final table of the $2,000 event, and my parents flew out to watch. That summer, they were sequestering the final tables, and my parents couldn’t actually watch me play,” Bonomo explained. “Because of that, they changed the rule and started allowing players to invite a few people into the final table area, but I remember those initial years at the Rio when they were still figuring it all out.”

The old guard of poker pros may have a sense of nostalgia for the downtown era of the series, when the players were treated to table-side buffets, regular steakhouse comps, and fancy leather jackets for everyone who made a final table, but the corporate feel and logistical problems associated with a bigger venue are more than made up for by the larger overall player pool. Last year’s WSOP saw 123,865 total players sit down on the felt to compete for a bracelet. That’s a far cry from the seven that were present year one.

“Here’s the thing,” Enright said. “We could complain about the rake and how much lower it used to be, but that won’t change anything. Clearly, the players will still play, even with the bigger juice. I bet they could run a $1,000 event with $1,000 in rake and it would still get a full table of players, just because people want the bracelet that bad.”

“I loved Binion’s and having the series there, but what we’re doing now… what’s going on at the Rio… that can’t fit in Binion’s,” explained Raymer. “I don’t think it would fit even if you got all of the downtown casinos involved. So, in that sense, it’s obviously great that we aren’t still there. Poker has evolved to the point where we have these huge fields, and that’s a good thing, even if we have to deal with mediocre food options and longer lines for the bathroom.”