Las Vegas Sun

April 24, 2019

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Revisiting the place that put poker on the map


Steve Marcus

An exterior view of Binion’s in Downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011.

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Poker player Phil Hellmuth competes during day 2c of the World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio Wednesday, July 12, 2017.

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In this 1974 photo, left, Johnny Moss, Becky Binion and Puggy Pearson partake of some of the action at the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horshoe casino downtown Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

While thousands of people packed the Rio for the 49th edition of the World Series of Poker, some of the game’s biggest stars reflected on the place where it all started with just a single table at a downtown Las Vegas gambling hall.

Today, the spot where Johnny Moss won the inaugural event in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe — now Binion’s Gambling Hall — is an office for casino hosts.

“To sit there and think it started as a single game in the spot there between the two bathrooms and expanded to what it is, it’s phenomenal,” said Tim Lager, general manager of Binion’s.

Poker star Phil Hellmuth, who played in his first World Series of Poker at the old Horseshoe in 1988, said one of his favorite memories is going up against fellow poker Hall of Famer Johnny Chan.

Hellmuth moved all in with pocket 10s and was called by Chan, the returning champ, who had pocket jacks. Hellmuth lost the hand and Chan went on to beat Erik Seidel heads up for his second straight championship, a moment immortalized in the 1998 movie “Rounders.”

“Afterwards, one of my friends was shouting at me, ‘How could you do that? You’re never going to have an opportunity to win this again,” Hellmuth recalled. “I shouted back, ‘I’m going to have a chance to win this every year of my life.’ ”

Hellmuth was right. He had his own Hollywood ending the following year, beating Chan heads up for the championship and taking home the top prize of $755,000.

Since those early days, the prize pool and number of players competing has ballooned. This year, 7,874 players are competing for part of a $74 million prize pool, with the winner taking $8.8 million. The buy-in for the Main Event is $10,000.

Over the years, the old Horseshoe has also changed hands several times.

Benny Binion opened the casino in 1951, and it remained in his family until 2004, when Harrah’s Entertainment — now Caesars Entertainment — bought it and the World Series of Poker. Harrah’s promptly sold the property to MTR Gaming Group, but retained the World Series of Poker and Horseshoe brands. Today, the property is owned by TLC Casino Enterprises, owner of the downtown Four Queens.

Hellmuth remembers the tournaments at the Horseshoe having a special feel to them. “It was more of a brotherhood back then,” Hellmuth said. “I remember there was always some magic, some specialness to the Main Event.”

Daniel Negreanu, another inductee of the Poker Hall of Fame, also reminisced about the more intimate nature of the tournament at the Horseshoe.

“The Binion’s Horseshoe days were special, because it was a lot different than the big corporate shindig that it is now,” Negreanu said. “Everybody knew everybody. Today, you sit down at the tournament with 6,000 people and you’re lucky to know somebody even close to your table.”

Despite last hosting a final table in 2005, Binion’s today still pays homage to its past and the role it has played in the poker world. Framed pictures hang on the walls in the poker room of each World Series champion and the players in the Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame banquets at Binion’s honor the best of the best of the game, including those who made their name at the casino.

Today, the poker room at Binion’s sees mainly small-stakes games. But every so often, someone who played the World Series at the Horseshoe stops by.

“We have people who played in it years and years ago now bringing their kids in who turned 21 and are now playing poker to see where they started,” he said. “So that’s another special way we stay connected. Those kinds of memories can’t be bought.”