Road to the WSOP: A Long Way from Alabama

I have been playing in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) almost since it began in 1970, and this year there was an excitement in the air I haven’t felt in years.

In 1973, I made my first trip to the WSOP. My good friend Ray Hall told me to call Jack Binion and tell him I was a poker player, and everything will be taken care of. 

Ray was right. Four of us drove out to Las Vegas from Alabama, and I have never missed a series since.

One of the more unusual things I remember was the year there was not enough room for the players to play at The Horseshoe. Eric Drache, the tournament director at the time, went around to the casinos downtown and asked if they would allow players to play the WSOP tournament in their poker rooms.

We were walking back and forth from the Four Queens, Fremont and Golden Nugget  with our tournament chips in hand. What a sight that was.

Chance to Be Champ

For the WSOP’s silver anniversary in 1994, the winner of the Main Event received $1 million and his weight in silver. Jack Binion was a poker marketing genius.

That year the Main Event drew 268 players, which is about how many people were in line in front of me to use the bathroom this year at the Rio 25 years later during the Big 50 tournament.

Back to 1994.

I made the final table of the Main Event that year and could not sleep the night before; I kept thinking, “Could I really win the big one and be part of poker history as a world champion?” I just had to find a way to take my low chip stack and bust the other five.

It was not meant to be. I finished in 6th place and won $50,000. But I was proud of my performance on poker’s biggest stage.

Not in Alabama Anymore

I had come a long way from the cotton fields of Alabama where we played in a tractor shed, and bologna sandwiches or crackers tasted so good. Now I was eating the free steak and shrimp Benny and Jack Binion had waiting for the poker players every night on our dinner break.

What a privilege it is to still be playing in the WSOP. I played in the Big 50, the largest live poker tournament in history. This $500 buy-in event had 28,371 entries creating a prize pool of $13,509,435.

The Saturday morning of the Big 50 there was a traffic jam on the freeway not for a sporting event or concert but for a poker tournament. I have never experienced anything like it.

The buzz on social media promoting the event and all the table talk in the poker rooms contributed to the record-shattering turn out. The city of Las Vegas is the big winner, and they owe a great deal of gratitude to Caesars for bringing this poker convention to town. 

The only suggestion I have concerns relaying information in real time. For example, during the Big 50 they opened up windows for quicker sign ups, but communicating this to players was not easy. My wife was escorted to a registration line 10 deep while hundreds waited in the main line. Some employees were saying sold out, and players were texting friends not to come while other employees were saying everyone will get in.

But none of that takes away from the phenomenal job WSOP Vice President Jack Effel and WSOP Operations Manager Tyler Pipal did putting on the biggest live poker tournament in the world. I predict this summer’s WSOP continues smashing records.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player most well-known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982.

He created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995 and Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002. He is currently working as a casino consultant.

Robert can be reached at for consulting and coaching. Find Robert on Facebook at and on Twitter @thechipburner.

The Best Poker Player I Ever Met, Part 2

Maverick Card Player magazine once ran a feature that claimed Charlie Esslinger was the best poker player who ever lived. Though he may not be a household name, to me there is no doubt he was the greatest poker player I ever met.

He was not only an exceptional poker player, but he was also a great game strategist. He studied poker and other card games before computers and strategy books became the norm. But more importantly, he understood human nature. He could make you a bet on what time a guy would order a drink or what time he would quit the game or even on how much he would lose.

When I would kill time before a game, I would play gin with Charlie. After about the fifth card we drew, Charlie would say, “Let’s bunch the hand (a term where you both surrender) because it’s draw. Robert, you can’t win.” He could play any gin rummy hand to a draw and name all the cards in your hand. He thought it was funny to see the look on your face when he could tell you nine of the ten gin cards you were holding.

This demonstrated how he was aware of everything. I asked Charlie to explain his seemingly random hand selection. His answer surprised me. He said that cards ran in patterns, so he would observe the board for hours to see how the cards ran and played accordingly. Who was I to question one who never lost?

You have to remember that in those days most games were limit, and No Limit was hard to find. I tried, like so many people, to give Charlie a free bankroll to play higher, but he always told me, “It’s not the money; it’s the game. It can’t get any better than these Golden Nugget players. Why would I change?”

Once Charlie was waiting on a seat and playing $2/$4 limit. I said, “Charlie, how can you play so small?” He replied, “I play as hard here as any game. If I can beat this game, I can beat any game.”

A mutual friend of ours, Ray Hall, once told me over breakfast that he was ending his friendship with Charlie. I asked him why. Ray said, “When we are driving to the games, Charlie tells me what a great player I am. In the game, if I was losing, Charlie was the first one to offer me money. On the ride back, he would tell me I was the best player and I just got unlucky. Every morning I would take to his apartment the thousand or two that I borrowed in the game the night before. It took me twenty years to realize he was the best player, and I was his huckleberry.”

In later years, Charlie became very concerned that his mind was leaving him–a mind that could play any game with a genius IQ. The most studious poker player I ever met was now in his sixties and didn’t feel at the top of his game. He said the doctor said he had early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. His mother had died from it. He watched her suffer and did not want to go through that.

One night at a poker game Charlie asked if someone would find him a pill he could take and never wake up. He said he would pay them $5,000 dollars. Players started wondering if Charlie was ok.

In a motel in Alabama where they were playing poker four nights a week, Charlie played one night wearing only his pajamas, which was very strange for a person who always dressed to the nines. Charlie had rented an apartment to be near the game in Athens, Alabama.

It’s said he left the poker game and went to his apartment. After not showing up to the game for a few days, which was unusual, a couple of his friends went to his apartment and found his body and a gun along with $900,000.

I will never forget what a gentleman gambler he was. He was the first to stand up and pull out a chair for a lady. He always tried to keep the game under control. If there was a dispute over $5, he would throw in a $5 chip to settle it.

He was master at money management. He knew what every player’s worth was, what he could extract from the game and when it was no good, it was time to quit.

I don’t want him to be remembered for how he died, but how he lived. If there ever was a modern-day maverick, Charlie Esslinger would be it. I was honored to know him.

National Suicide Prevention Lifefline

1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiards/casino marketing expert. Robert is most well known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995 and Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

He has over 30 years experience in casino marketing and player development. Find Robert on Facebook at and on Twitter @thechipburner. He can also be reached at for consulting and teaching.