An old hand visits poker's new world

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The last time Gene Fisher entered the World Series of Poker he finished third. That was 1973.

"Then I had a little IRS problem, as a result of the visibility," Fisher says in his long, deliberate Texas drawl. "I decided not to play in it again."

It wasn't that Fisher stopped playing poker (or golf). That's how the now 71-year-old El Paso, Texas, native has made his living since 1962, when at 29 he left a job with ADT Security to become a professional gambler.

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But the World Series of Poker seemed like too much hassle for too little reward. He did fine relegating himself to smaller professional tournaments from Los Angeles to Tunica, Miss., to Atlantic City. Not to mention golf and poker games at all points in between.

Then he was watching ESPN two years ago and saw the World Series. A new broadcast style allowed the viewers to see the hands as they were played. Fisher's sport was blowing up.

"It is unbelievable what happened to this tournament," Fisher said over the weekend from Las Vegas, where the old cowboy is back to give the World Series another shot.

"I got more interested in playing because it is just paying so much money. [All] because a lot of people saw it on TV."

Fisher is your old-school road gambler. Long and lanky, with white hair and a white mustache, he'll sit down at the table wearing cowboy boots, a white cowboy hat, blue jeans and a long sleeve Western shirt ("it's what I am comfortable in," he says). He is all Texan.

If he showed up at your Tuesday night game, you'd start thinking about heading home to watch "Law and Order" with your wife.

His return to Vegas is one of the great stories of this World Series, which is being staged at the renovated Binion's Horseshoe downtown this week (ESPN's broadcast is set for June). With the popularity of Texas hold 'em booming due to television exposure and Internet games, the event has drawn a record number of participants.

Last year 800 qualified players were willing to pay the $10,000 entry fee. This year 2,570 entered.

Fisher and every other pro in the world know there aren't 2,570 great players. Most are average players there for the experience or with a dream of shocking the world, the way 27-year-old Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker did last year when he won the whole thing.

For the most part, though, it's blood in the water. And when so many who can't play come to town, those who can are never far behind.

"That's a lot of dead money," Fisher says. "There are people entered who cannot win."

Last year the total pool was about $8 million and Moneymaker took home $2.5 million. This year's pool will approach $26 million. The winner will get $5 million. Just making the final table (nine players) will pay $500,000.

"You can't pass on this game now," Fisher says.

Which was exactly how Fisher's old friend, the late, legendary Benny Binion, envisioned it would be someday.

Binion started running casinos in the Dallas area in 1930s. It was a tough time for a tough business, and only a tough guy was going to thrive. Binion did, although he had to kill at least two men – a bootlegger in 1931 and a rival numbers operator in 1936 – to make it. In 1946 he gave up on Texas and headed (pre-Bugsy Siegel) to Vegas where he set up the Westerner Hotel and Casino and later the Horseshoe.

In 1949 Binion sponsored the first major poker competition, a five-month contest between Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Dondolos and Johnny Moss. Moss won the contest and $2 million. But the event didn't take off.

Some historians credit Tom Morehead, owner of the Riverside Casino in Reno, Nev., for starting the World Series of Poker in the late 1960s, but that event had limited impact. Binion began staging his WSOP at the Horseshoe in Vegas in 1970. Seven players entered and Moss won again.

Binion is famous for two things. First, he was the first casino operator to offer no-limit betting, which attracted high rollers to his place.

Second, he was a trailblazing promoter who would do just about anything to draw attention to his casino. Binion often wore a flamboyant buffalo fur coat. His was the first casino to be carpeted (everything used to be sawdust), provide limousine rides for high rollers from the airport and free drinks for slot players.

One of his most famous promotions was displaying $1 million in a glass case in the casino's lobby, drawing tourists interested in being photographed in front of that much money.

The WSOP played into both of Binion's passions. Poker never has been a focal point for casinos because it takes up a lot of floor space in relation to its take (for years the Horseshoe didn't even offer the game). But Binion saw the WSOP as a publicity machine.

"This poker game here gets us a lot of advertising," Binion told historian Mary Ellen Glass in 1973. "Last year it was in 7,000 newspapers."

Fisher says Binion was a true showman but maintained an ability to relate to all people – sort of the Donald Trump of his day. At his 80th birthday party, which Fisher attended, Willie Nelson performed. He always remembered to provide Las Vegas cab drivers free turkeys at Thanksgiving as a personal thank-you gift for delivering gamblers to his casino.

Although Binion, who died in 1989, wouldn't recognize the WSOP now, Fisher says he probably dreamed it. "Benny had some imagination," he says.

The reasons for poker's growth are obvious: television and the Internet. Computer games and online tournaments allow players who may lack confidence, or money, to play anonymously from their homes.

Then came ESPN and an innovative way to broadcast the event. The network films the event live, including shots of each player's hand. Then, after the contest is over, producers cut out the many dull games. Announcers watch the tape and provide commentary like it is live.

The approach has made a contest that is extremely boring to watch live (you have no idea who is bluffing, blowing it or playing it safe because you can't see the player's hands) exciting. No-limit hold 'em now is all over television.

"What made it big was [ESPN] showing people's hands," Fisher says. "Maybe a player makes a dumb play and at home a guy can say, 'I could have done better.'"

A whole bunch of those guys – stockbrokers, truck drivers, fans of the movie "Rounders," whomever – entered qualifying tournaments around the world (and online, as Moneymaker did a year ago) and then showed up in Vegas this week with ten large.

With the old Texas road gamblers in hot pursuit.

Fisher grew up the son of an oil worker, which meant as a child he moved from small oil town to small oil town in Texas and Oklahoma about every six months. "I rarely attended the same school two years in a row," he says. It was then, perhaps, always trying to fit in as the new kid, that he learned how to read people, hide emotions and concentrate on the things he could control.

He first played poker as a student at the University of Texas, earning spending money by hustling frat-house games. By 1962, the husband and father of three knew he could make more money gambling than working for a living.

In addition to poker, Fisher is a scratch golfer who thrives in big-stakes, high-pressure matches, often facing rich Texas oilmen with more money than game.

He counts El Paso native Lee Trevino as a close friend. In Trevino's 1982 autobiography "They Call Me Super Mex," he wrote that if he had to choose one person in the world to hit a 6-foot putt it would be Fisher.

Through the years he's been just about everywhere, seen just about everything. He says his biggest one-day take in poker was $200,000. He once took $125,000 in a single golf match. But there have been long stretches of bad luck, too.

"There are always ups and downs," he says. "It seems you either have too much or too little money."

Fisher has no grand illusions about walking into the WSOP and winning. Even with the dead money, there are too many good professional players these days.

Also, luck remains the key element.

"The guys you saw at the final table last year, none of them might get to the final 600 this year," he says. "That is the nature of the game. What is the right play one hand might not be the right play the next hand. The ratio of luck to skill is greater in no-limit poker than maybe any other pursuit.

"Your average player can't beat Tiger Woods in golf. But in a poker hand anybody can beat the world champ.

"That's the allure of the game. That's why we have so many entries."

So many entries, so much dead money, a purse so large that the old card sharks like Fisher no longer can help themselves.

He is back on the Strip, back at Binion's Horseshoe, back in the World Series, years after swearing off the event. It's now too big to ignore.

His old friend Benny Binion would, no doubt, approve.

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