The 46th Annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) wrapped up Nov. 10 with Joe McKeehan outlasting 6,420 players in the $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold ’em Main Event to win $7.7 million. The WSOP has become a major sporting event for companies including Harrah’s, which purchased the rights to the event in 2004, and ESPN, which has produced and broadcast the WSOP since 2003. Yet, it would be barely recognizable to Benny Binion, who brought the World Series to his Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas in 1970. In comparison to today, in 1971, when the WSOP adopted the tournament format, only six players entered and Johnny Moss took home the entire $30,000 prize pool.
As film and television scholar, I am interested in the ways that institutions, particularly ones related to sports and leisure culture, have used media to shape the discourses around a particular sport or event. From the outset, the Binions believed that promoting the WSOP on television and in the press was crucial to the success of the tournament. Television was considered to be so important that most of the production costs of the annual World Series broadcasts before 2003 (which aired on CBS, ESPN, or Discovery Channel) were paid for by Binion’s Horseshoe casino.
The World Series can tell us a great deal about how the history of poker and the development of Las Vegas after World War II has been remembered and shared. The media coverage of the WSOP served as a site for the production of different forms of nostalgia, constructing idealized versions of both poker’s and Binion’s past. Even before Benny started the World Series, he was already something of a Las Vegas legend. He had arrived from Dallas in 1947 with a lengthy rap sheet after having been accused or convicted of various crimes including illegal gambling, bootlegging, and even two murders. After the Horseshoe was founded in 1951, it quickly became one of the most profitable casinos in Las Vegas. Slowly, Binion was able to shed this “gangster” image in favor of an increasingly romanticized public persona, which framed him as a patriarchal cowboy who indelibly shaped Las Vegas and poker in the U.S.
The Binion’s Horseshoe Collection in UNLV Special Collections reveals the historical, social, and economic contexts that informed the representation of gambling. Most notably, it shows how the WSOP was defined by and defined Benny Binion’s public persona. For instance, over the years Binion was given an increasingly central place in the development of poker in Las Vegas. Events which credited him alone with the creation of the WSOP (such as setting up the legendary no-limit game between Johnny Moss and Nick “the Greek” Dandalos) were emphasized in promotions and television coverage of the WSOP at the expense of others (including the proliferation of casino-sponsored sporting events in the 1950s). I hope that this project will help scholars better understand how nostalgia has been used in the context of sports media and offer insight into how popular attitudes towards poker changed throughout the 20th century.