Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres –Julius Caesar (“Gaul is a whole divided into three parts")
Poker players, like Gaul, are divided into three groups:
- Those who have never been to the World Series of Poker.
- Those who have been to the WSOP since it moved to the Rio.
- Those who were at the WSOP when it was at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas.
I have the great fortune to be in the third, smallest group. Let’s go for a trip down memory lane…
In 1994, the WSOP was held during May, before the worst of the Vegas heat started. My poker buddies Ken, Roy, and I flew into Las Vegas from San Jose on SWA flight 777 – the folks at Southwest had a keen sense of humor. When it’s Thursday evening and you’re headed for Las Vegas, that’s the longest hour and fifteen minutes of your life. We caught a cab to downtown and headed into Binion’s.
Now, we gotta talk about Binion’s. Let’s say you’re in group #2 and have been to the WSOP at the Rio. I quickly grant that the Amazon Room and the adjacent ballrooms are something that every poker player should see. White globe lights to the distant horizon, and more poker tables than you knew existed in Las Vegas.
But, oh, Binion’s. A dark, smoky place that said, “We are here to gamble. Please leave your duo magic acts and women in Carmen Miranda headdress at home.” The doors opened right onto Fremont Street and some of the tables were a short putt from the outdoors. The black and white pictures you see of the old days – there wasn’t much more color when you were actually there.
We threw our bags in the room and ran down to the “poker room”, which, during the WSOP, was about half the casino. Our first mission was to simply take it all in. Like the modern WSOP, everybody that was anybody in poker was there, but in those days, “everybody that was anybody” fit into an area the size of the current WSOP Café. In that pre-http:// time, everything we knew about the heroes of poker came from books and the far too infrequent copies of Card Player magazine that showed up at our local poker rooms. But we quickly recognized Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim. Stu Ungar actually bumped into me as he bolted from one place to another.
Soon enough, the urge to play poker, not just watch and rub elbows with poker legends, took over. We went to the podium to sign up for the $1500 limit hold’em event that was starting that evening.
Don’t be ridiculous – of course we didn’t do that. We’d have no more done that than we’d have jumped into the $500-$1000 mixed game that was going in the corner, where Howard Lederer had all the chips.
We went into the satellite area, where for $40 or $60 you could play a one-table satellite. Back then, there were no silly $500 lammers that you had to use or try to sell – they gave you cash on the barrelhead.
I need to stop here and reset your thinking. In 1994, the cash games in U.S. poker rooms were almost all limit hold’em. The ones that weren’t LHE (mostly in the northeast) were 7-card stud. There was essentially no cash no-limit hold’em. So in our world, no-limit hold’em was an exotic, rare, and alluring beast.
Those satellites, every last one of them, were no-limit hold’em.
I wish I could remember her name. We just called her the satellite lady, and if you played one-table satellites at Binion’s, you knew her. She ran that podium for more hours each day than I could believe. I don’t remember if she had a microphone or not – it may not have been necessary. She’d announce a $45 one-table satellite, and the first ten people to the table got a seat. It was pure musical chairs scrum, but mostly good-natured and I always managed to get a seat sooner or later – the satellites kicked off with the regularity of a busy bus station.
I don’t remember any of my satellites in particular – I mostly busted out, but won or chopped enough to tread water or make a few dollars. But by gum, I was playing no-limit hold’em. At Binion’s. During the World Series of Poker. And the hours flew by.
I said I didn’t remember any of my satellites, and that’s true. But there’s one I do remember… I had spotted my friend Ken and saw that he’d gotten down to four players in a ten-person satellite. Then he won a monster pot, busting a guy, and they were down to three. That’s when I recognized one of Ken’s opponents.
Of course, this was before televised poker made him a household name. Hell, it was before Rounders made him a household name as Mike McDermott narrated his final hand against Johnny Chan in the 1988 WSOP. But he was still an instantly recognizable end-boss to any poker keener – and I knew that Ken knew who he was.
I don’t remember who busted the third guy – I just remember him busting, and it was down to Ken and Erik. Erik looked at Ken and, in his inimitable gracious and gentle manner, said, “You wanna just chop it even?” Ken probably had 3/4 of the chips in play.
And Ken, bless him, said, “No way. We’re playing to a winner. Deal the cards.”
Don’t be ridiculous. Ken immediately said, “Sure.” And I exhaled. Seidel would use some of that money to buy into the $5,000 limit hold’em event, and win it. Ken and I used his share to celebrate the fact that he had survived an encounter with Erik Seidel.
Stick around… I’ll be back with more reminiscing from those glorious smoke-filled days.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.