Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reporting on the 1979 WSOP

Gambling Times, October 1979 issueWhen in Vegas this summer, I made a point of stopping by the Gamblers Book Shop. I’d been there before when I had met the shop’s friendly and knowledgeable proprietor, Howard Schwartz. I enjoyed chatting with him again this time. By the way, let me once again recommend Howard’s podcast which he records right there in the bookstore. Lots of terrific interviews among the two dozen or so shows he’s done thus far. If you haven’t heard the show already, the three-part episode he did during the WSOP is a great place to start.

While there I picked up a couple of books as well as some back issues of Gambling Times from the late 70s and early 80s. The issues I chose all included coverage of the World Series of Poker. As I was there covering the WSOP myself, I was curious to look back on how the Series had been reported on back in its relative infancy, before the “boom.”

The first issue of Gambling Times was produced back in 1977. In these early issues, only a handful of the 100 or so pages would concern poker, with much more attention being given to sports betting, blackjack, backgammon, gambling theory, and other features. To give you an idea of how the WSOP was covered, let me summarize the six-page article in the October 1979 issue by John Hill titled “Highlights of the World Series of Poker.”

'Highlights from the World Series of Poker' by John HillThe first third of the article gives a quick rundown of how the “soft-spoken amateur Hal Fowler” managed to upset all expectations to become the first non-professional to win the WSOP Main Event. Fowler took the 10th annual WSOP title after defeating Bobby Hoff in a five-hour heads-up battle.

The article picks up the action with five players remaining, and describes in a cursory fashion the hands with which Fowler managed to knock out Johnny Moss (in 5th), Sam Moon (in 4th), and George Huber (in 3rd). We then get a four-paragraph overview of the heads-up battle, which includes descriptions of exactly two hands. The first is one in which Fowler bluffs Hoff off of a medium-sized pot and shows deuce-six offsuit. The second is the final hand in which Fowler cracks Hoff’s aces after turning a gutshot straight, thereby claiming the bracelet.

Hill then shares some reactions to Fowler’s victory, including an interesting one from Junior Whited: “That’s going to prove to people that anyone can come in here and win half a million dollars. It’s not all Texas anymore.” Indeed, while the “Fowler Effect” wasn’t nearly as wide-reaching as what we’d see in 2003, there was a tremendous symbolic significance to the amateur having broken through.

The rest of the article relates various other happenings of note from the four-week-long Series. There’s the story of a Social Security administrator named J.J. Whalen who had won an entry into the Main Event after having been one of 300 who’d ordered an advance copy of Doyle Brunson’s How I Won A Million Dollars Playing Poker (later renamed Super/System). For those who had bought advance copies, a drawing was held, and Whalen had won an all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas and an ME entry. His wife, Elsie, is quoted saying she didn’t know her husband had spent $100 on the book. “I don’t think I would have stood for it if I had known,” she said. Whalen was knocked out of the tourney on the first day.

Jimmy ChagraThere’s a discussion of the side games, including a reference to Jimmy Chagra (pictured at left) winnning approximately $4 million playing blackjack and craps during the WSOP. Chagra, a large-scale drug trafficker, has a place in poker history as a frequent donator to the big games during the 70s. (EDIT [added 7/28/08]: The morning after this post, Chagra succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 63.)

Of course, Hill doesn’t mention any of Chagra’s other, nefarious activities in the article. Nor does he say anything about the drug-taking of Bobby Hoff and Hal Fowler during the WSOP Main Event, recounted in detail in Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table. (One wonders if there were an early version of Dr. Pauly hanging out at Binion’s that spring taking notes on such matters.)

There’s an interesting, brief reference to Stu Ungar being there and not being able to get anyone to play gin rummy with him. (Ungar, of course, would win the WSOP Main Event the next two years running.) It is curious to see how Ungar’s presence -- and prowess -- was already being openly acknowledged in 1979. As Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson write about in One of a Kind, Ungar had only come out west the year before

There’s also discussion of CBS’s coverage of the event. This was the period in WSOP history when CBS was filming the Main Event for its CBS Sports Spectacular. According to Hill, there had been “several incidents… the year before between newsmen and the CBS crew jockeying for position in the cramped space of the tournament area.” Even though the Main Event had only started with 54 entrants (just six tables), every inch of space there in Binion’s was taken up with the crew and their equipment, “hordes of spectators, relatives of players, well-wishers, and newspersons.” Apparently the year before “one overzealous camera assistant incurred the wrath of virtually all the newsmen and relatives of players sitting inside the ropes by bodily shoving people out of the vicinity of the camera he was tending.” According to Jerry Adler, producer of the 1979 coverage, measures had been taken to avoid such unpleasantness this time around.

That passage certainly made me think of this year’s Series, where we PokerNews folks and others covering the action were often sharing space with the ESPN guys, especially as play wound down to the last few tables of the Main Event. Unlike what happened thirty years before, in 2008 those of us covering the WSOP all seemed to coexist quite amicably. (In fact, toward the end one of the ESPN guys made a point to come over and compliment the PokerNews crew on how smoothly the entire operation had run.)

Kenny Rogers singing 'The Gambler' at the 1979 WSOPThe article winds up with some references to various celebrities who made appearances at the 1979 WSOP. Gabe Kaplan played his second Main Event. Lily Tomlin stopped by. And Kenny Rogers came around to sing his new hit song, “The Gambler.”

An interesting article. Also interesting to contrast not only how huge the WSOP has become since the late 1970s, but how the nature and scope of its coverage has changed, too. Would be very cool to go back in time and see full-fledged, wall-to-wall reporting of these old WSOP Main Events. Further details of that Fowler-Hoff heads up battle would be fascinating to read through as well.

Then again, having all of those details would probably demythologize the WSOP’s history in detrimental ways. And frankly, even in today’s world of (relatively) comprehensive WSOP coverage, there’s always going to be much, much more that is left untold.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I sometimes find myself looking back at past WSOP years and wondering what it would have been like to be there back then.

Picking up some gambling magazine back then was probably the only way you'd get any info on Poker. Today, with the internet, there is always someone writing about Poker somewhere. You can find so many different writing styles.

Perhaps in 30 or so years someone will be reading this.

If you are reading this and the year is 2038, look me up ;-)

7/24/2008 11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*Fantastic* post. If I knew that the Gambler's Bookstore had old copies of poker mags on sale, I'd have stopped by and picked up a bunch for myself!

I'm trying to piece together the early history of the WSOP, and it's no easy task. (Particularly that first decade in the 1970s.) But you've given me hope that I might be able to get my hands on some old magazine articles that will shed some light on the early days.

Excellent writing as always!

7/25/2008 12:48 AM  
Blogger Editor said...

Glad to see a reprise of my coverage of the "78" WSOP. Those were heady days of the game and provided grist for many a mill. Prior to Fowler's win the tournament had been dominated by Texans,like Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, Johnny Moss (The Grand Old Man Of Poker," and "treetop" Jack Strauss. I recall characters like Ken Smith,dressed in tails and Top Hat rising from his seat, doffing his lid and yelling "WHAT A PLAYER" each time he won a hand.
Jimmy Chagra was affable and friendly but one it would be best to put large distances between. Shortly after the series he was arrested for the murder of the Judge of his impending drug trial. Stu Unger was perhaps the most uncanny (or perhaps canny) poker player I'd ever seen. He seemed to have an almost impossible knack of reading his competitors minds (and hands). He rented my condo at the Jockey club for about a year before he died. A nice kid but done in by his habits; a sad loss for poker.
Those old days are gone forever as poker becomes more commercialized and gigantic, but it's wonderful and nostalgice to see Doyle Brunson still in there kicking ass!

John Hill

12/25/2008 4:12 PM  

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