The Big Show

The good ol’ days

However, the WSOP didn’t always used to be such a well-oiled machine staged in a building the size of an aircraft hanger. From 1970 to 2004, Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Vegas was the regular rendezvous for poker aristocracy and enthusiasts every summer. ‘I loved that place more than I’ll ever love a huge convention centre,’ reminisces British poker pro, writer and TV celeb Victoria Coren. ‘The best things about playing at Binions were the history of the place and the “villagey” nature of Fremont Street, with everyone staying in hotels along one small street and bumping into everyone you knew within the same few yards.’
Yet by the beginning of this century, Binion’s was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and exhibiting a shabby, worn out appearance. It had become a relic of a bygone era. Dalla, who attended his first WSOP in 1985, says that although Binion’s couldn’t match rival casinos for the ostentatiousness of dazzling waterfalls and caged tigers, the property was steeped in history. ‘We had tradition, and the history of gambling was literally written on the craps tables and poker tables of Binion’s Horseshoe. You can’t fake that.’ Holidaymakers would deliberately venture down from the Strip just to catch a glimpse inside the casino and see the gallery of beaming Main Event winners plastered on the walls. Suddenly, this Vegas casino was doubling as a tourist attraction.
But Binion’s began to struggle to accommodate the players for poker’s marquee tournament. In 2003, Main Event participants swelled to 839 compared with 632 the previous year. Wobbly poker tables and folding chairs were hastily arranged, some in the hallways, to cope with the influx. Dealers were plucked from the gaming floor and the tournament kicked off with 11-handed tables, which hardly befitted a $10,000 buy-in tournament.
Some, though, share Coren’s nostalgia for the rawness of Binion’s. Dalla uses this analogy to illustrate his point: ‘If you had the chance to see the Rolling Stones in a nightclub with 200 people or with 100,000 people in a stadium, which would you choose? In the intimate environment it’s chaotic, the music doesn’t sound perfect [but] I’d like to see them in a raw element.’ By the time the WSOP migrated to the Rio in 2005, Main Event numbers had rocketed to 5,619. The game was exploding in popularity and the demographic was changing, with weatherbeaten faces beneath ten-gallon hats being superseded by plucky Scandinavian wunderkinds.
Dalla says today’s WSOP is vastly more organised, more comfortable and doesn’t include the perpetual ‘blue cloud of death’ that used to emanate from cigarettes and cigars. He’s also quick to praise those working behind the scenes at the Rio who keep the show on the road. ‘The people who vacuum the carpets, clean the bathrooms and sweep the parking lot – no one ever knows their names, but without them it’s going to be a pretty awful place.’ Above all, though, he says respect should go to the hordes of players who miss out on a coveted bracelet, or perhaps end up leaving out of pocket, but return year after year for a shot at poker fame and fortune. ‘That’s not something that you can buy or manufacture,’ Dalla asserts. ‘That loyalty, that desire, chasing the dream. Those players are our heroes.’

Poker playing monkeys

WSOP media director Nolan Dalla has had some strange requests in his time, but none more crazy than this
Anything and everything can land in Dalla’s in-tray, such as the time a gambling website wanted to stump up the $10,000 buy-in to enter a chimpanzee in the Main Event. The bonkers publicity stunt would have involved holding up pieces of banana, and whichever slice the primate grabbed determined whether he was calling, raising or mucking his hand. ‘You can imagine the excitement when the chimp is raising and his hand is probably dog sh♠t,’ says Dalla with a deep guffaw. ‘The chimp could have knocked a few people out and it could have been extraordinarily exciting.’ Unfortunately, the suggestion was nixed when it was confirmed that Nevada gambling rules prohibit animals from playing. 

WSOP: a numbers game

1,600 – members of staff are employed for the six-week event
525,000 – poker chips used each year
1970 –  first year the WSOP was staged
136,000 – square-footage of the Rio assigned for tournaments
28 – carats of white diamonds adorn the Main Event bracelet
100 – cash game tables operate around the clock
3 – bracelets won by British players in 2013
92 – the age of this year’s oldest Main Event competitor

Pin It

Comments are closed.