Poker tournaments are the most popular game format played in live and online casinos all around the world. However, a few stand above the rest; prestigious poker tournaments where professionals and brave amateurs duke it out for their shot at glory and millions of dollars in prize money.
BIGGEST LIVE POKER TOURNAMENTS IN THE WORLDOnline poker is still relatively new on the scene, but the last ten years has seen a massive surge in its popularity. While online poker has proven a force to be reckoned with, live poker tournaments still offer the biggest games by far. All these tournaments attract huge numbers of players or offer record-setting payouts in the millions. And in some cases, both.
WORLD SERIES OF POKER (WSOP)
The World Series of Poker is one of the largest and most prestigious poker tournaments in the world. The WSOP circuit consists of over one hundred individual tournaments, each with a different buy-in and format. Mainly held at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, each winner receives a coveted WSOP bracelet and a large prize for their efforts. The series finale is always the famous Main Event; a Texas Hold‘em tournament with a 10,000-dollar buy-in and some of the most luxurious prizes in the game.
Every player starts with the same amount of chips, and over the course of a few days, people are eliminated from the game until only one person is left. The ultimate winner is crowned the world poker champion. Nearly every well-known professional has participated in the WSOP, from Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar to Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey.
HISTORY OF THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER
The WSOP got off to a shaky start back in 1970 when a small group of poker players gathered at Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. Binion had been organizing games for years, but after seeing a similar tournament the previous year, he decided to try his hand at creating one of his own. The event attracted no public attention, little press coverage, and nobody outside of Las Vegas knew or cared about the outcome. The first champion, Johnny Moss, was voted in rather than winning at the tables.
The following year Binion knew he needed to up the stakes if his tourney was ever going to reach loftier heights. He made it a winner-takes-all, freeze-out with a $5000 buy-in. Once again, very few players participated and Johnny Moss took out the top spot, this time by defeating the other players.
By 1972, the tournament that would become the WSOP was still relatively unknown and had failed to make a significant impact, but that was about to change. Thomas Austin Preston Jr, known as Amarillo Slim, won the top prize that year, and news of the victory quickly spread beyond Nevada's borders. Preston was considered an underdog, with no real chance of winning, and his defiance in the face of the odds brought much needed publicity to the tournament for the first time. This would become a running theme in future years, with several of the winners pulling off upset victories against far more qualified opponents.
In 1973, CBS Sports televised the WSOP for the first time, and the tournament schedule also expanded to include four preliminary events, a lower-stakes No Limit Hold‘em event, Razz, Seven Card Stud and Deuce to Seven Draw. Johnny Moss won his third championship in 1974, setting the record for most wins in the main event that is still held to this day, along with fellow player Stu Ungar.
The next few years saw the game begin to pick up momentum and edge closer to becoming a juggernaut in the poker world. Legendary poker player Doyle Brunson won back-to-back titles with his famous 10-2 hand in 1976 and 1977. The game format saw another change in 1978 when the Main Event's prize money was divided up for the first time, with the top five receiving a cash payout. It was also the first year a woman entered, breaking into a world dominated by all-male players.
1979 marked the first time an amateur player won, when Hal Fowler knocked off the game's best players and won the crown. His triumph would inspire a whole new generation of players to enter and try to make their fortunes. Stu Ungar burst onto the scene the next year and won two in a row, generating more publicity for the growing event.
In 1981 NBC Sports dispatched a film crew to cover the WSOP, meaning it was watched in millions of homes for the first time. The following year, the format was expanded to eleven preliminary events and a Ladies World Championship. Around this time, tournament Director, Eric Drache, decided to introduce the concept of satellite tournaments, smaller scale games that offered a ticket into the Main Event as the prize. The idea was to give more amateur players the chance to compete at the WSOP. It was a gamble, but one that would ultimately pay off with more publicity and keen players ready to step up and play.
By 1987, the original venue, Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, wasn't big enough to house all the players, so adjacent locations were enlisted to manage the overflow. The series’ original creator, Benny Binion, died not long after. His son, Jack—together with poker veterans Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland—took over the tournament. Under their guidance, the game saw considerable improvements to the structure and atmosphere. An international player won the Main Event for the first time in 1990, and only a year later, the prize pool had become so large; the winner received over $1 million for the first time.
It wasn't all smooth sailing though, after a split in the Binion family saw Jack excluded from the WSOP operations, many of the top players boycotted the tournament. Disputes with dealers and players quickly followed, and the WSOP began recording its lowest attendance since the game started. The creation of the rival World Poker Tour (WPT) in 2002 was thought to be the final nail in the coffin for the WSOP. Many assumed the tournament’s best days were long gone and expected it to fade away into obscurity. There is a genuine thought that it would have, if it weren't for a young accountant, rather aptly named, Chris Moneymaker.
Moneymaker would be a key instigator in breathing new life into the ailing tournament. After winning a ticket to the Main Event through a satellite tournament, he defied all expectations and made the final table. There were few who believed Moneymaker could win the whole tournament, but that’s exactly what he did—toppling legions of professionals and pocketing $2.5 million. It wasn't the first time an amateur had won the Main Event, but this was the first time all the action was broadcast live on television. The story of a young accountant winning entry through a satellite tournament and winning the Main Event captured the public's imagination. Like Hal Fowler before him, Moneymaker's win inspired a whole new generation of poker players to learn the game, helping kick off the Poker Boom of the early 2000s.
The WSOP and poker in general entered a golden age following Moneymaker's victory. In 2004, Harrah's Entertainment acquired the rights to the World Series of Poker and moved the game to the RIO All-Suites Casino and Hotel. Player numbers and prize pools skyrocketed, and amateur player, Greg Raymer, won $5 million the same year Harrah's Entertainment took over. The following year, Main Event winner Joe Hachem took home $7.5 million—the largest prize in WSOP history.
By 2006, the WSOP consisted of 45 tournaments, with gold bracelets for winners and over $100 million in prize money. The game also expanded beyond Las Vegas for the first time to a dozen venues throughout the US, creating the national circuit. Advertisers and big corporations suddenly took note and offers for sponsorship rolled in, catapulting the WSOP to new heights. An international and online circuit started not long after and saw the tournament spread far beyond the borders of the United States.
Since its humble beginnings in a small poker room in Las Vegas, the World Series of Poker has become a worldwide phenomenon with over 100 tournaments held every year and tens of millions in prize money. The 2020 live event was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it's hoped that 2021 will see the return of the biggest tournament series in the world.
THE BIG ONE FOR ONE DROP
The Big One for One Drop is an invitation-only, multi-day No Limit Texas Hold‘em tournament hosted at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) once a year. The buy-in has ranged from $111,111 up to $1 million, and the prizes have been some of the largest payouts in poker history. The founder also ensures a percentage of the prize pool is donated to the One Drop Foundation, an initiative focused on providing permanent safe water to people in crisis areas. To date, the Big One for One Drop tournaments have raised almost $16 million for the One Drop Foundation.
HISTORY OF THE BIG ONE FOR ONE DROP
Canadian entrepreneur Guy Laliberté created the Big One for One Drop event in 2012 as a No-Limit Hold‘em event hosted at the World Series of Poker. He also started the non-profit One Drop Foundation at the same time. Antonio Esfandiari, took out the first event, cashing a record-setting $18,346,673 and beating 48 other entrants. At the time, this was the single largest payout in poker history.
The following year, a smaller event called the Big One for One Drop High Roller Event was held with a buy-in of $111,111. 2014 saw the return of the $1 million Big One for One Drop event. In a field of 42 entrants, Daniel Colman bested Daniel Negreanu for the $15,306,668 first-place prize, but controversy quickly ensued when Colman stormed out after an interview. Later, Coleman said he promptly exited the tournament area because of the adrenaline and excitement from what could have been the most significant moment of his poker career. Olivier Busquet, who served as Colman's mentor and backer, said Colman doesn't like to do interviews and that he said in one interview the focus should be on the charity. His opponent, Daniel Negreanu had this to say about it. "The focus should be on the charity, otherwise it's just a bunch of rich guys playing for obscene amounts of money. Poker is his (Colman's) job and he's here to work. If he doesn't want to do interviews, I respect it completely."
In 2015 and 2016, two smaller Big One for One Drop events occurred back-to-back, offering hundreds of thousands in prize money. At the end of 2016, another $1 million event was held in Monte-Carlo. Called the One Drop Extravaganza, it was only open to recreational players, barring all professionals from participating. Future poker professional Elton Tsang made a name for himself by beating Anatoly Gurtovoy in the Main Event for $12,248,912. Pretty sweet for a ‘recreational’ player!
A smaller event took place in 2017, with a buy-in of $111,111, but the following year, the $1 million format returned at the World Series of Poker. 27 players took part for the chance to win a share of the $24,840,000 prize pool. It would be American Justin Bonomo who would go home $10 million richer. Like many poker tournaments, Big One for One Drop was unable to take place during COVID-19 restrictions, and while the contest is still on hiatus, it is expected to return in 2021.
WORLD POKER TOUR (WPT)
Like the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour is one of the most famous poker series, with games taking place in multiple countries at different times of the year. Televised internationally, the WPT gaming and entertainment brand runs international poker tournaments and an associated television series, broadcasting all the action right up until the final table.
Every tournament has a Main Event which attracts the highest number of players. The most prominent of the World Poker Tour Events is the Main Tour, where the winners are awarded a membership in the WPT Champions Club and have their name engraved on the WPT Champions Cup.
HISTORY OF THE WORLD POKER TOUR (WPT)
Founded by attorney and television producer Steven Lipscomb, the first World Poker Tour ran in the US from late 2002 until April 2003, with the finale at the Bellagio Casino and Hotel. Lipscomb’s idea was to create a high-stakes tournament that could broadcast the final table and show the cards on the table, the players’ hole cards and have professional commentators explain everything that was happening at the tables. His ultimate goal was to show all the action, so viewers could see everything that happened and experience world-class poker from the comfort of their homes.
The WPT expanded the following year, broadcasting the second season in over 150 countries around the world. Spurred on by the popular commentary team of Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten and the long list of famous players, the show became the most watched poker-based TV series in the world. The next few seasons took place in the middle of the poker boom, and the WPT saw unprecedented growth. A few spin-off series were created, but they failed to garner as much attention as the original.
In 2007, the WPT hit a new high, with millions of dollars in the prize pools, the game had firmly secured its spot as the second biggest tournament series behind the World Series of Poker. The financial crisis saw numbers and prize pools lower slightly, but the series managed to maintain strong attendance and viewership despite the tough times. 2008 was a big year for the WPT, a ladies’ division was created, and online tournaments were offered for the first time when the subscription-based site ClubWPT went live. Players could sign up for free games and win prizes of up to $100,000 each month. There was no fee to play, therefore US-based players were legally allowed to join, which allowed the WPT to tap into a market that had been closed off due to laws around online gaming.
In late 2009, the WPT was acquired by PartyGaming for $12.3 million, and changes were made to expand the series into a worldwide format, rather than a US-based series. More events were added to the schedule, along with smaller regional tournaments with smaller buy-ins for amateur players. PartyGaming merged with Bwin a few years later to form bwin.party Digital Entertainment.
By December 2014, the World Poker Tour had allied with Ourgame, agreeing to license products and services in over a dozen countries throughout Asia. A year later, the WPT was sold to Ourgame International Holdings Ltd for a price of $35 million in cash. Only a few years later, the WPT was hosting events in 20 different countries and 35 casinos.
2019 saw the WPT change hands again, with the Black Ridge Acquisition Corp acquiring the brand, which will be merged into a new entity called Allied Esports Entertainment. Since its inception, the World Poker Tour has seen considerable growth in both popularity and player numbers, and while COVID-19 has seen many of the standard operations postponed, the WPT is still one of the biggest poker tournament series in the world.
TRITON POKER SERIES
The Triton Poker Series is another huge poker franchise that organizes games around the world. Unlike its competitors, Triton brands itself as a super-high-roller event exclusively for the rich and famous, or anyone with enough cash to cover the face-melting buy-ins. The game of choice is No Limit Hold’em.
HISTORY OF TRITON POKER
Founded by Malaysian businessman and amateur poker player—Richard Yong—the first Triton Poker Series event took place in 2016 at the Solaire Resort and Casino in Paranaque City, Manila, Philippines. At a buy-in of $200,000, only 52 entries were recorded at the inaugural event, which was eventually won by the young German poker professional Fedor Holz. Three more events were held in the Philippines in the same year and were successful enough for the series to continue past its first year.
In 2017, three events were held in Macau, Manila, and Budva. The following year, short-deck tournaments were added for the first time, and another event was announced in Jeju Island, South Korea. 2019 would be the biggest year of the poker series’ short life, with the Triton Million, held in London. 54 four players paid over $1 million for the chance to win part of the $66 million prize pool and take part in the world’s largest poker buy-in tournament.
When the day was done, Aaron Zang had won the title and $16,775,820. However, after a deal during the final table, it would be the man who won second place, Bryn Kenney, who cashed out the largest single payout in the history of poker tournaments with his $20,563,324 prize. Aside from the staggering amounts won by the players, $2.7 million was also donated to charity. This would prove to be a grand finale for Triton Poker, with most of the 2020 events cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
BIGGEST POKER TOURNAMENTS AROUND THE USThe World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour are two of the most significant worldwide promotions, and while they do have operations in the United States, they are still targeted toward poker pros. There are two main poker tours based in the US, and while professionals are always welcome, the creators have geared their tournaments at amateur players.
HEARTLAND POKER TOUR (HPT)
In 2005, the HPT established itself as one of the biggest locally based poker tours in the United States. The syndicated poker TV show airs 52 weeks a year on hundreds of channels across the US and is also available to view in multiple countries around the world. As of 2020, nine seasons and over 230 episodes have gone to air.
Created by friends Greg Lang and Todd Anderson, the HPT has the tagline of "Real People, Unreal Money," reflecting its status as an affordable poker tournament for regular poker players rather than multi-millionaire professionals. Buy-ins range from only a few hundred dollars to a maximum of $1500 for the main event. Like the World Series of Poker, the HPT also runs satellite tournaments to allow players to earn their way into larger stakes games.
MID STATES POKER TOUR (MSPT)
The MSPT began life as the Minnesota State Poker Tour in 2009, but after crossing several borders, it was rebranded into the Mid States Poker Tour in 2011. Aimed at amateur and regional players, the tour offers more than 30 tournaments a year. The buy-ins are controlled with a cap set at $1100; no event exceeds the cap, even the main event.
The regional events have an even lower cap set at $360. The majority of the stops are in the Midwest; but the tour is slowly creeping into other states such as South Dakota, Nevada, and Colorado. Satellites tournaments are offered at each location to allow players to play their way into the main events, rather than pay.
BIGGEST ONLINE POKER TOURNAMENTS AROUND THE WORLDOnline poker is still relatively new on the scene with only a handful of notable online high-stakes tournaments. Still in its early days, the game format is starting to gain serious traction.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP OF ONLINE POKER (WCOOP)
Currently the top online poker series in the world—the World Championship of Online Poker—was founded in 2002 by PokerStars. Created to be an online equivalent to the World Series of Poker, the tournament is held annually and attracts both amateurs and professionals. The first main event held in 2002 was a No Limit Hold‘em event with a buy-in of $1050 and a total prize pool of $238,000.
Initially, only nine events were offered at the WCOOP, but as of 2018, the number has increased to 186. Games have three stake levels—low, medium, and high—but the game formats are all the same. The WCOOP also offers nearly every form of poker, from the always popular Texas Hold‘em to BADUGI.
THE SUNDAY MILLIONS
The Sunday Millions has the distinct honor of being the world's largest weekly online poker tournament with a guaranteed $1 million prize pool. Every Sunday thousands of players log on for their chance at glory and the top prize, which regularly hits well into the hundreds of thousands. The buy-in was $215 but has since changed to $109; there are also satellite games played during the week offering tickets into the game as the prize. The competition attracts a strong field of amateurs and even the occasional professional. More than five million players have participated throughout the Sunday Millions history, and over $750 million has been given out in prizes.
Started in 2006, the first Sunday Millions tournament saw a player under the screen name 'aaaaaaaa' take out the top prize of $173,843, beating 5,893 other players. The largest tournament to date was held in 2020, marking the Sunday Millions' 14th Anniversary. The prize pool exploded to $18.6 million, fueled by the record-breaking 93,016 entries. The previous record was set in 2011 with 62,116 entries and a $12,432,200 prize pool.
A player from Brazil with the screen name ‘AAAArthur’ won the 14th-anniversary tournament; however, the final four players decided to make a deal and share the $3.67 million in prize money available to them. After the deal was struck, "AAAArthur" took down the other finalists, eventually taking out the championship with a full house, twos over jacks.
‘AAAArthur’ won $1,192,802, runner up ‘CrAzY_sTeFaN’ took home $921,328, and the remainder was divided up between ‘Salonteskis’ and ‘Caroline2963’. Despite the size of the prize pool, this was only the third-largest online tournament in history. Two $20 million games hosted by another online site in 2018 and 2019 currently hold the record, but they also had far larger buy-ins at $5,300 and $10,300.
TOP THREE POKER TOURNAMENT WINS OF ALL TIMEPoker tournaments are a special event, the atmosphere and the sheer number of people involved are a one-of-a-kind experience all serious poker players dream about. There is also the prize money, which can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions. In a modern high-stakes poker game, it's not unheard of for a finish in first place to net over a million dollars, but there have been three in the last few years that have set records for the largest payouts in the history of the game.
3. AARON ZANG WINS $16,775,820 AT THE TRITON MILLION EVENT
Macao-based poker player Aaron Zang may have won the record-setting Triton Million event in 2019, but due to a deal he made during the final table, his total winnings turned out to be only the second largest payout. The deal was struck when the tournament came to the final two. Zang's opponent, Bryn Kenney, had a 5 to 1 chip lead and at the time everyone thought the game was all but over. However, in one of the biggest comebacks in recent memory, Zang clawed his way back and defeated Kenny to win the Triton Million event and $16,775,820.
2. ANTONIO ESFANDIARI WINS $18.35 MILLION AT THE 2012 BIG ONE FOR ONE DROP
In 2012, 48 players entered the Big One for One Drop for the chance to win a share of the $42.67 million prize pool. Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari ended up banking most of it when he won a record-setting $18.35 million in prize money. This record stood until 2019 when the Triton Million event made history.
1. BRYN KENNEY WINS $20,563,324 AT THE TRITON MILLION EVENT
54 players entered the world's largest poker buy-in tournament in 2019, but Bryn Kenney cashed out the largest single sum. The $1 million buy-in was enough to propel the Triton Million event to hold the record for the largest poker tournament prize pool outside the World Series of Poker Main Event, and the sixth-largest overall. This still stands as the highest single payout in the poker tournament history.