Last week everyone in the poker world was remembering Chris Moneymaker’s historic WSOP Main Event championship on its 10th anniversary. It was poker’s version of the “short heard ‘round the world,” at least in terms of driving greater amateur participation in the game. But before the accountant from Tennessee toppled the game’s biggest names in the Main that spring, another 32 open events were played out at Binion’s Horseshoe. Their results showed that poker was still a game tied deeply to its roots, even as the generation of players who would achieve superstar status during the poker boom was already beginning to make its presence known.
From the very beginning, certain players seemed to have a home-court advantage at the WSOP. The early years were filled with the same names winning bracelets time after time. And even when the modest expansion of the 80s and the pre-boom spike in interest in the 90s came along, big success by newcomers was still rare compared to wins by familiar players. Though things were on the cusp of changing, in this regard the 2003 WSOP was very much in the same vein as its predecessors.
A full 28 percent of the open preliminary events at the 2003 WSOP were won by members of the most exclusive fraternity at the WSOP: past Main Event champions. Phil Hellmuth, the 1989 champ, won bracelets in the $2,500 Limit Hold’em and $3,000 No Limit Hold’em events. The man who won the two Main Events before him, Johnny Chan, also won two bracelets in 2003 – the $5,000 No Limit Hold’em and $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha. And 2001 champ Chris Ferguson won two of his own in the $2,000 Omaha Hi-Lo and $2,000 Half Hold’em/Half Stud and finished second in another event. Single bracelet wins by Doyle Brunson ($2,000 HORSE), Huck Seed ($5,000 Razz), and Carlos Mortensen ($5,000 Limit Hold’em) rounded out a very good year for former world champions.
Players with non-Main Event bracelets to their credit also did particularly well at the 2003 WSOP. Four-time bracelet winner Men “The Master” Nguyen added two to his total, finished second in two other events, and took 25th in the Main Event. Three-time winner Layne Flack won two events for the second consecutive year. Five-time winner Erik Seidel kept pace with Nguyen and moved ahead of Flack by winning one of his own. Not to be left out, John Juanda won two of his own. Former bracelet winners Daniel Negreanu, Mickey Appleman, Eddy Scharf, and O’Neil Longson also added to their career tallies at the WSOP in 2003.
In all, 20 of the 32 open events on the schedule that year were won by players who had already won at least one past WSOP event. Even one of the closed-field tournaments, the seniors event, was won by former bracelet winner Ron Rose. And the frequency of past winners remained high among the players who came close without actually grabbing gold. Final table appearances by the likes of T.J. Cloutier, Mike Sexton, Mel Judah, Steve Zolotow, Brent Carter, Thor Hansen, and Hans “Tuna” Lund confirmed that the old guard was still as strong as ever.
Aside from the players who had enjoyed success there in the past, the Series was still tied to its roots that year in other ways. It was still held at the Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, though the 2003 installment would later prove to be the penultimate WSOP in its original home. (It’s hard to overstate how much the environment at Binion’s embodied the history of the WSOP; though today the Rio is “home” for bracelet-aspiring players during the summer, in its early days it was a makeshift arrangement at best compared to the friendly confines .) The players who won events at the WSOP back then tended to be at least in their 30s, with whippersnappers like a then-28-year-old Daniel Negreanu giving the Series a shot of youth. And though they were still larger on average than the events from years past, the tournaments at the 2003 WSOP hadn’t yet exploded due to online satellites. Prior to the Main Event, the largest event on the schedule in 2003 was the $1,500 No Limit Hold’em event won by Amir Vahedi. It drew a field of 531 players, a number that would be considered a terrible disappointment for any $1,500 bracelet event today.
For all that linked the 2003 WSOP to its past, there were stirrings from the up-and-coming generation of players who would enjoy major success, both at the WSOP and elsewhere, during the poker boom. Both Negreanu and Juanda, who both now have five bracelets to their names, had only previously won one apiece before 2003. Phil Ivey, who had won three bracelets the previous year and another one back in 2000, made three final tables in three different games. Antonio Esfandiari’s final table appearance in the $2,000 No Limit Hold’em was the first WSOP cash of his career. Kathy Liebert made two final tables and finished second in the $1,500 Limit Hold’em event. Allen Cunningham was denied his third bracelet when he finished second in the $5,000 No-Limit 2-7 Draw.
The biggest change, of course, was that the Main Event was won by a player who earned his seat in the tournament through an online satellite. But that milestone moment came at the very end of the Series, and the full effect wasn’t apparent until the next year when attendance skyrocketed after a year of ESPN WSOP re-runs. To look back at what happened at the 2003 WSOP before Moneymaker is to gaze upon the poker world as it used to be: small tournaments, dominated by the old school, and with only vague hints of how different things would be within one year – or one decade.