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 robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting and coaching. Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner.

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Before the Poker Boom: Poker in the 90s

Trump

In the 80s poker had become primarily a west coast phenomenon, but thanks to poker pioneers like Steve Wynn, Jack Binion, Lyle Berman, George Hardie and even Donald Trump, poker would expand across the United States in the 90s.

I became casino marketing director of the Bicycle Casino in 1991. Knowing I was from Alabama, the Bicycle Casino’s founder George Hardie sent me to Tunica, Mississippi, to scout the area for a large poker casino he had planned to develop there.

As I looked out at the cotton fields and the raging Mississippi river, I remember looking forward to running a poker room in the south; it would be going back home for me. I had hosted many games in that area for years and finally would have a chance to offer the players a legal and safe environment to play where they would not have to worry about law enforcement or hijackers.

Hardie had options on land around Robinson and the Tunica area, which would later be sold to Lyle Berman. Berman is one of the best Omaha players in the world. He would visit the Bicycle Casino to play in the Diamond Jim Brady tournaments and became good friends with Hardie. Hardie had an ambition to build the largest poker room in the world in Mississippi and purchased a piece of property called Buck Lake around Tunica.

Hardie had lobbied to have the nearest casino to Memphis, Tennessee. He would later sell that property to Berman, who built the Grand Casino in Tunica in 1996, which helped establish poker in Mississippi. Jack Binion also purchased land to build the Horseshoe casino, which opened the previous year. Poker had finally arrived in the south.

Ken Lambert Jr., Regional Director of Operations for the Heartland Poker Tour, recalls opening day of Jack Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Tunica where he was director of poker operations, “We finally opened in February of 1995 to long lines of excited players. The lines extended hundreds of feet. It was a cold day, but to warm as many of the guests as he could, Jack emptied out his gift shop and began handing out any type of cold apparel that was on hand.”

Lambert continues, “I had 10 poker tables opened and ready to go as players rushed to the room to be the first to play a hand in Tunica at Jack Binion’s Horseshoe. Not long after opening, the poker room expanded to 12 tables and the rest was history. We had the biggest players in the world come play. The new dealers were dealing games they had only heard about, $4,000/$8,000 limit Hold’em and the Pot-Limit Omaha had a $75,000 max bet.”

When poker exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt like Forrest Gump. I was lucky enough to see landmark events in poker history firsthand and even established a record myself. I became the first player to have four consecutive cashes in the WSOP Main Event in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994. My highest finish was 6th in 1994. Ronnie Bardah set a new record in 2014 with five consecutive cashes in the Main Event.

On the east coast, poker was also having its own boom. In Nolan Dalla’s article “The Early Years of the Atlantic City Poker Scene,” Dalla says, “The epicenter of the East Coast poker universe instantly became the Trump Taj Mahal, which opened the sparkling 50-table room in the Summer of 1993.”

Poker Hall of Famer Jack McClelland was hired by Donald Trump in 1996 as poker tournament director to establish a major poker tournament on the east coast. Trump created the United States Poker Championship tournament, which was a prestigious stop on the professional poker circuit for years and was televised on ESPN. McClelland says Trump was a no-nonsense, get-it-done right kind of guy. He really enjoyed working for him.

I remember going to the opening of most of these new poker rooms. Poker now had a showcase across the United States. This developed thousands of new poker players. Poker had arrived as a must-have amenity in casinos to reach out to a new demographic of gamblers.

The 90s was a great decade for me personally as I found success both in casino boardrooms and on the felt. In part 2, I will discuss the poker boom in Las Vegas. Steve Wynn, with the help of Bobby Baldwin as his president, opened Bellagio, which would be a game changer in the history of poker.

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 the Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995. He also helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

Robert has over 30 years’ experience in casino marketing and player development. He can be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and coaching. Follow Robert on Twitter @thechipburner.

Before the Poker Boom: Poker in the 90s

Trump

In the 80s poker had become primarily a west coast phenomenon, but thanks to poker pioneers like Steve Wynn, Jack Binion, Lyle Berman, George Hardie and even Donald Trump, poker would expand across the United States in the 90s.

I became casino marketing director of the Bicycle Casino in 1991. Knowing I was from Alabama, the Bicycle Casino’s founder George Hardie sent me to Tunica, Mississippi, to scout the area for a large poker casino he had planned to develop there.

As I looked out at the cotton fields and the raging Mississippi river, I remember looking forward to running a poker room in the south; it would be going back home for me. I had hosted many games in that area for years and finally would have a chance to offer the players a legal and safe environment to play where they would not have to worry about law enforcement or hijackers.

Hardie had options on land around Robinson and the Tunica area, which would later be sold to Lyle Berman. Berman is one of the best Omaha players in the world. He would visit the Bicycle Casino to play in the Diamond Jim Brady tournaments and became good friends with Hardie. Hardie had an ambition to build the largest poker room in the world in Mississippi and purchased a piece of property called Buck Lake around Tunica.

Hardie had lobbied to have the nearest casino to Memphis, Tennessee. He would later sell that property to Berman, who built the Grand Casino in Tunica in 1996, which helped establish poker in Mississippi. Jack Binion also purchased land to build the Horseshoe casino, which opened the previous year. Poker had finally arrived in the south.

Ken Lambert Jr., Regional Director of Operations for the Heartland Poker Tour, recalls opening day of Jack Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Tunica where he was director of poker operations, “We finally opened in February of 1995 to long lines of excited players. The lines extended hundreds of feet. It was a cold day, but to warm as many of the guests as he could, Jack emptied out his gift shop and began handing out any type of cold apparel that was on hand.”

Lambert continues, “I had 10 poker tables opened and ready to go as players rushed to the room to be the first to play a hand in Tunica at Jack Binion’s Horseshoe. Not long after opening, the poker room expanded to 12 tables and the rest was history. We had the biggest players in the world come play. The new dealers were dealing games they had only heard about, $4,000/$8,000 limit Hold’em and the Pot-Limit Omaha had a $75,000 max bet.”

When the poker explosion happened in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt like Forrest Gump. I was lucky enough to see landmark events in poker history firsthand and even established a record myself. I became the first player to have four consecutive cashes in the WSOP Main Event in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994. My highest finish was 6th in 1994. Ronnie Bardah set a new record in 2014 with five consecutive cashes in the Main Event.

On the east coast, poker was also having its own boom. In Nolan Dalla’s article “The Early Years of the Atlantic City Poker Scene,” Dalla says, “The epicenter of the East Coast poker universe instantly became the Trump Taj Mahal, which opened the sparkling 50-table room in the Summer of 1993.”

Poker Hall of Famer Jack McClelland was hired by Donald Trump in 1996 as poker tournament director to establish a major poker tournament on the east coast. Trump created the United States Poker Championship tournament, which was a prestigious stop on the professional poker circuit for years and was televised on ESPN. McClelland recalls Trump as a no-nonsense, get-it-done-right kind of guy. He really enjoyed working for him.

I remember going to the opening of most of these new poker rooms in the south and on the east coast. Poker now had a showcase across the United States. This developed thousands of new poker players. Poker had arrived as a must-have amenity in casinos to reach out to a new demographic of gamblers.

The 90s was a great decade for me personally, as I found success both in casino boardrooms and on the felt. In part 2, I will discuss the poker boom in Las Vegas. Steve Wynn, with the help of Bobby Baldwin as his president, opened Bellagio, which would be a game changer in the history of poker.

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 the Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995. He also helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

Robert has over 30 years’ experience in casino marketing and player development. He can be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and coaching. Follow Robert on Twitter @thechipburner.

Before Poker Was Cool, Part 1: Jack Binion and Steve Wynn

Binions-Nugget

Before Chris Moneymaker and what we know as the modern age of poker, there were several gentlemen who elevated the game before poker was cool. It’s debatable who did the most for poker, but it’s undeniable that it’s close. I was lucky enough to have a personal relationship with four of these legends, and I actually worked for two. My connection with these four men helped shape my career, and I will always be indebted to all of them.

Jack Binion, while president of the Horseshoe Casino, showcased poker twice a year and made it his main marketing tool with the Poker Hall of Fame and the World Series of Poker. He hired Poker Hall of Famer Eric Drache. Drache, in turn, worked with Jack McClellan as his tournament director. Together these three grew poker every year and made the WSOP the premier poker tournament in the world.

In the early days, I found myself short of money. I told my friend Ray Hall I wanted to play a tournament, but I was broke. He said, “Go see Jack Binion, tell him you’re a poker player, and you’re broke.” I thought this was unusual, but what did I have to lose? I went to Jack and explained my situation. He replied, “Go to the cage and tell them I said to give you $2,500.” He took a poker player at his word and gave him a bankroll, no questions asked. That’s how it was in those days. We were like a big family.

When he was trying to grow the WSOP to a hundred players in 1982, there were only 96 players signed up. I had not won a satellite to get in the Main Event that year. Another friend of mine said Jack Binion wants to get it to 100. Tell him you’re not in. I went to Jack, and he said he would put me in the tournament. There were 4 of us he put in to reach his goal. This is a man who put his money where mouth is. How could you not love a guy like this? I like to call these the Golden Days, and it was all because of Jack Binion who continued his father Benny’s legacy.

Jack hired PR firms to promote the WSOP, had professional photographers document it and provided free rooms and food for poker players for years. He surrounded himself with his closest friends who happened to be poker players. His love of the game and the people who played it changed poker forever.

Steve Wynn needs no introduction. I went to work for Steve around 1977 as a poker host at the Golden Nugget. He had just put in the most beautiful poker room in Las Vegas. Before that, card rooms were just an afterthought in most casinos. The two major poker rooms in the late 70’s were the Stardust and the Golden Nugget. The Golden Nugget had a better reputation for poker than the Stardust for two reasons: one was Bill Boyd, a legend in the poker industry, who was the poker room manager at the Golden Nugget and two, the Stardust had an underworld reputation.

In the early 80’s the Stardust expanded poker and hired a tournament director named Bob Thompson who created the Stairway to the Stars and gave Steve a run for the money. Not to be outdone, Steve created the Grand Prix of Poker. This friendly competition caused Steve to create one of the best poker tournaments in the world at the time.

Not only did Steve have to outshine the Stardust, he had to outdo his friend Jack Binion. He decided to give away prizes for the best all-around players. One year he gave away a large boat. The next year he gave away a Corvette.

Steve was the first one to bring poker and Hollywood together. He brought glamor to the game. Like Jack, he surrounded himself with poker players. His president at the time was Bobby Baldwin. Steve did something else no one else had ever done before or since–he put on a fashion show for the wives that was second to none. He spared no cost on the production.

But there is one thing I will never forget. Before the main event of the Grand Prix, he turned off all the lights in the casino. Giant screens came down from the ceiling, and he showed video highlights from the series. Steve is a showman, and he continued this tradition at the Mirage when he put poker dead center in the casino and made it a showplace.

Binion and Wynn had taken poker to the next level. Everyone has been playing catch up ever since. In Part 2 I will write about George Hardie and Lyle Berman who added their own flair to the game.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and casino and billiard 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 Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002, and he also created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino both in 1995.

In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development and has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM. He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digital Games developing mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group.

Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. Robert Turner can also be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and teaching.

Lessons I Learned at the Poker Table–Part 2

Homer Simpson Poker

In my last article, I discussed the life lessons I learned at the poker table. You can read it at http://www.gamingtoday.com/columnist along with my previous columns. Because I have been playing poker nearly 50 years, I have a few more stories to share.

You meet some of the best people at the poker table. However, you cannot judge a player by the persona he projects at the table. Many players are completely different away from the table. One great example is Phil Hellmuth. His image at the table in no way reflects Phil off the table. He is a caring, sincere gentleman and a devoted family man. He is nothing like the man at the table. Of course, there are some bad actors, and what you see at the table is what you get in real life, but that’s rare. Poker is filled many wonderful characters.

But poker can also put you in dangerous situations, and one extreme example almost cost me my life. I was playing in a friend’s game in Guntersville, Alabama in a beautiful city located on a lake. The idyllic setting is in stark contrast to what happened next. I had played poker all day in a small hotel suite and quit around 9 p.m. to play gin on the bed next to the door. A few moments later, there was a knock at the door that caught everyone’s attention. It sounded like someone was tapping metal on the door. The gentleman running the game asked, “Who is it?” The man identified himself as Johnny. The door didn’t have a peephole, so the host of the game opened the door a crack.

As he did so, the person tried to push the door open. My friend pushed back, but a shotgun barrel came through the door near my shoulder and fired. It was so close I could smell the gunpowder. As everyone dove to the floor, the suspect ran off. Someone hollered, “Is anyone hurt?” One of the players was shot in the arm and permanently lost the use of his arm.

After this close call, I kept asking myself, “Why, with a young daughter at home, did I put myself in this situation?” In Alabama poker players feared three things: the police, cheats and hijackers. I determined right then I would move to a place where poker was played in a structured, safe atmosphere, so I went out to California. It was the best decision I ever made.

On a lighter note, the money you make in poker can sometimes seem like play money. This story puts it back in perspective. In one of my regular games a player named TJ normally lost every day. He owned a construction company that generated a lot of money. On this particular day, he won a huge pot around $20,000. In those days when you stepped away from the table, you took your money with you.

TJ folded up the wad of $100 bills and said he was going to the bathroom. We kept playing and about 20 minutes later we noticed he hadn’t come back. I went looking for him and couldn’t find him. He actually slipped out the door and left.

About an hour went by, and we heard someone honking a horn outside. I looked out the window, and there was TJ in a brand-new yellow Cadillac. He said, “Get Ray Hall out here.” Ray was the one he beat out of the money. He said, “How do you like this new Cadillac you bought me, Ray? Would you like to go for a ride?” Ray didn’t mind losing to TJ because he usually won it back. But not this time.

Every day from then on he would say to Ray, “Look at this car you bought me.” And every day he would lose, but we never forgot the day he locked up his winnings.

The Cadillac story illustrates how quickly fortunes can change in poker. This next story shows how actual fortunes are won and lost. James Roy, one of the best No Limit players nicknamed Shany, was a good friend of Jack Binion’s and travelled with another player nicknamed Chicken Man. James would often tell the story that Chicken Man’s daddy left him a saw mill and he turned it into a toothpick. James continued, “I only used to have a toothpick, now I have a saw mill.” That story shows how dramatic the swings at the poker table can be.

Like I said in my first article, you can learn from whoever or whatever is in front of you in poker and in life. I have many other stories to tell. Share your stories with me at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and 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 Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002, and he also created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino both in 1995.

In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development and has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM. He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digital Games developing mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group.

Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. Robert Turner can also be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and teaching.