Nevada History by John C. Evanoff is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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World Poker Championship Started in Reno

June, 2010
By John Evanoff

While thinking about my much anticipated upcoming participation in the World Series of Poker tournament casino employee event May 28th , I remembered that this whole poker tournament craze started in Reno in 1969 at the Holiday Hotel, the current site of the Siena Hotel Casino. Reno had always had a penchant for poker including when some of the city’s movers and shakers used to play during the days it was just growing up as a gambling town in the early 1940’s and through the 1960’s. Just about every larger casino had a poker room including the Cal Neva, Harrahs, Harold’s, the Mapes, the Riverside, the Primadonna, the Grand Hotel in an upstairs suite, the Overland Hotel for a short time and of course the Holiday Hotel. There were a few other places the big wigs of town could play including a special room in the Wingfield estate built just for poker and the Elks Lodge.

Anyway, in 1969, Tom Moore, part owner of the Holiday Hotel, and friend and confidant, Vic Vickrey had a spectacular dream to bring together the best poker players in the country for a one time, winner take all, play till you drop high-stakes cash game in which the winner would not only take all the money home, but would be revered as the best poker player in the world. Several dozen famous players were called from California, Texas and points east and they rushed to the Holiday Hotel to match themselves against each other for that lofty prize. Some of the notables who played those several days at the Holdiay were Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, Johnny Moss, Puggy Pearson, Jimmy the Greek Snyder, Rudy Minnesota Fats Wanderone and a fellow by the name of Benny Binion. Binion saw the opportunity to market the annual event at his casino, the Horseshoe, in Las Vegas the year after when Moore and Vickrey gave it up after only one year. Although the first championship never gets highlighted in the annals of Poker history, it turns out that without these two great casino marketers in the grand years of the Holiday Hotel, the World Series of Poker would probably never be what it is today.

Binion made some improvements by initiating a freeze-out as part of the rules to win the title and in 1972, Amarillo Slim took down the title. Slim was always a talker. Fast and free-wheeling, he talked his great win up to anyone that would listen including reporters and celebrities. It took no time at all for the award to gain a impressive publicity peak, eventually landing him on television talk shows, in movies and resulting in a best-selling book of his win and escapades. As a result of Slim’s likeability and publicity of the event, in 1973, CBS Sports televised the World Series and the rest was history. Different poker games were added and more prestige in the title of best all-around player of each game began to bring more and more media attention to the Horseshoe’s event, so much so that the horseshoe had to eventually buy the Mint Casino Hotel next door and enlarge.

In 1978 and 1979, Amarillo Slim came back to Reno to try his hand at building a more impressive tournament at the brand new Sahara Reno on Sierra Street. His idea was to start a floating tournament schedule across the country where Poker was played and a venue could allow a large field and audience. Sound familiar? The World Poker Tour is exactly that. The Sahara became the Reno Hilton in 1981, then the Flamingo Hilton Reno in 1989 and then closed under the Park Place Entertainment banner in 2001. In 2002, the casino was reopened as the Golden Phoenix. It now stands empty as a possible condominium project. The tournament Amarillo Slim put together took over the entire south end of the casino floor and I happened to be working there at the time as a pit boss. I was involved in parts of its production as a table games supervisor. More than fifty tables saw action during the tournament and incredible side action games took place between Slim and Hustler owner, Larry Flynt. Hundreds of thousands of dollars moved back and forth between the two and finally Larry had to fly home to Los Angeles to get more money. After several large valises stacked with hundred dollar bundles moved towards Slim, Flynt finally gave up until the next year when tens of thousands of dollars moved Flynt’s way. Every famous poker player from that time played at the Sahara in Slim’s tournament including Stu Ungar who was just beginning to be noticed as one of the best poker players in history. Unfortunately, the tournament went away and Reno went back to being just another small time poker venue until 2003 when the World Poker Tour began televising the World Poker Challenge tournament at the Reno Hilton which is now the Grand Sierra Resort.

All this time, Jack Binion took over for Benny Binion who had died and produced and ever grander World Series of Poker, until Jack died and Harrah’s bought the Horseshoe primarily to market the WSOP through its chain of casinos across the country and now the world.

During the last six years an explosion in Poker has taken place after an unknown online-poker player by the name of Chris Moneymaker made history in 2003 winning the World Series of Poker. He took home more than two and a half million dollars. Boomtown Casino brought Moneymaker to their poker room right after that to play against average poker players around Reno. At the time, I was working there as the Database Marketing Manager and helped put some of our good poker and table game customers into those tournament seats. The event was a success but no like-events were ever planned after that.

The prestige of the World Series of Poker gold bracelet and the unbelievable amounts in prize money sometimes totaling millions of dollars in each of the more than fifty events has created quite a stir throughout the world and now the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas is packed from May 27th till July 17th with eager poker players looking to win their share of the dream and massive crowds of onlookers watching the action. The final table of the final event is then scheduled for November and televised. Last year, more than ten thousand people come from all over the world to be part of the final table arena over the course of several days in the showroom at the Rio.

If “Texas” Tom Moore and Vic “The Man” Vickrey had only seen past the first year and kept their marketing dream alive, Reno might have been the Poker Capital of the World. But their vision has become only a footnote in history, much like Reno’s many original casinos.

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