Few poker stories are as controversial as the 1972 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.

This was a year that could have seen the WSOP destroy its credibility. If things had gone differently, it's possible that another major tournament series would be the gold standard in poker achievement. For sure, this was a pivotal moment could have negatively affected the course of competitive tournament poker.

Amarillo Slim

Let's Return to the 70s for a Moment

The 2024 WSOP is going to be one of the largest ever,, but around 50 years ago, the series went through a rough patch.

The WSOP of 1972 wasn't the colossal event we know today. Picture it more as a gathering of the world's most formidable poker minds, in a much smaller, more intimate setting. Far more cozy than the halls filled with poker tables from one end to the other, as it is now.

That year, the WSOP Main Event was poised to host 12 players, yet only eight made it to the tables. The players who didn't enter the 1972 Main Event were lured away to lucrative cash games, or at least that's the rumor.

Can you imagine a World Series of Poker with eight entries? In 2023, there were over 10,000 entries into the No-Limit Holdem Main Event. About 1,500 were in the money.

In an effort to boost participation and draw public attention, the buy-in was hiked up to $10,000. The Main Event has kept that entry fee to this day. Benny Binion, the event's visionary overseer, covered half of each player's buy-in, aiming to catapult the WSOP into the public eye.

Benny Binion

Among the competitors were poker legends:

  • Johnny Moss
  • Doyle Brunson
  • Walter "Puggy" Pearson
  • Jack Straus
  • Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston Jr.
  • Crandell Addington
  • Roger Van Ausdall
  • Jimmy Casella

The early lead was taken by Johnny Moss, but he was soon outplayed by Doyle. As the game progressed, Amarillo Slim found himself with a short stack, yet he made an incredible comeback, setting the stage for a finale that no one could have predicted.

So far, everything was going smoothly. It would have been quite a sight to see. Players and onlookers crowed around a single table, with no clue about the hole cards until showdowns. Sunglasses? Sure, but there weren't any branded hoodies from your favorite poker site.

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Feeling the Pressure from the Press

The tournament took an unexpected turn when the media descended upon the players.

Doyle Brunson, who had lived much of his life as a poker outlaw, was particularly uncomfortable with the sudden spotlight. It seemed that he wasn't certain about the tax liabilities and didn't want to be under the microscope.

Brunson and peers

Whether or not he was actually guilty of anything is not certain, but it appears that Doyle didn't want to test this. Concerned about the implications for his family and his future in poker, he sought a way out. Brunson convened with Binion, Pearson, and Slim, expressing his desire not to win due to ‌unwanted publicity. Puggy Pearson also opted out, sharing Brunson's sentiments, but Slim was more of a showman and he seized the opportunity to claim victory.

"[Puggy Pearson] was trying right up to the last 30 minutes. That's when it happened. They knew they couldn't get any publicity out of it if Doyle won it. That's not putting Doyle down – Doyle just wasn't a talker in those days. And Puggy wouldn't have been a good choice because about half the people he had screwed over the years were bound to say a few things. So I was the pick for winning it." – Amarillo Slim

What followed was a clandestine agreement that would be unthinkable in today's WSOP – or any tournament for that matter.

It is here where things get a bit questionable. Brunson and Pearson agreed to let Slim win, in exchange for a share of the prize money equivalent to their chip counts. This is technically like an ICM chop – except that you'd never agree to "let" another player win, under any circumstances. However, Slim's theatrics drew some contempt, leading to a moment where Brunson intentionally defeated him in a hand just because of the antics.

Pearson also stepped out of line and momentarily went for the win, but Binion talked him into playing softer against Slim.

Puggy Pearson

Jack Binion, witnessing the arrangement unwind on the felt, had to step in. He convened a meeting in the Horseshoe's Sombrero Room, urging a return to fair play. Brunson, again cited his discomfort with the publicity, and he was allowed to withdraw. His early departure was attributed to a "stomach ache."

Among poker celebrities, it is difficult to find a person who does not have their own story about Doyle.

Read

The Final Hand of the 1972 WSOP Main Event

In the last moments of the 1972 Main Event, Puggy Pearson was heads-up against Amarillo Slim.

Pearson had and apparently opened the action. Slim called with .

Both players held quite strong hands and saw a flop of , promoting Slim's hand and demoting Pearson's.

Strategy was a little less nuanced back then, and both players were all in on this flop, starting with Slim.

The runout didn't help Pearson's underpair. The final board showed .

Slim won $15,000, according to Hendon Mob, meaning that he tripled his $5,000 investment. Remember, Binion ‌paid half of each player's $10,000 entry fee.

Even though he finished second this year, Pearson would go on to win next year at the 1973 WSOP Main Event. He took home a far bigger prize that year too; $130,000 in the Main Event, plus about $50,000 in preliminary events (Holdem and 7-Card Stud).

What Happened After the 1972 WSOP?

For his part, Slim apparently says that the initiative wasn't his and the decision wasn't within his control. Doyle withdrew, which was probably the correct move in this spot. He can't be implicated in anything for standing up and publicly backing out of the event.

Still, this episode left a mark on the WSOP, notably being the only year a gold bracelet wasn't awarded to the winner. Yet, the aftermath of the 1972 Main Event had a silver lining.

Amarillo Slim's victory and subsequent media appearances, including on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show," catapulted poker into the mainstream, setting the stage for the WSOP's exponential growth. In fact, he went on the show 10 times, building poker's audience with each appearance. He also had a cameo in California Split, a gambling comedy released in 1974.

In the 1970s, competitive poker was still in its infancy, but it's still surprising that the players didn't just chop the winnings. Then again, chopping the winnings from a WSOP Main Event, when there were only eight entries?

That would be almost as strange as colluding to let Slim win the tournament.

On the PokerNews podcast, the heir to the legendary family, Jack Binion, looked back on how his father created the World Series of Poker, and shared some vivid stories about the winners of the World Series Main Event.

Read

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