Digging through the Dust: How the 2004 World Series of Poker Almost Didn’t Happen
The 2004 World Series of Poker almost didn’t happen.
In fact, it was a miracle the event took place at all. A few months after Chris Moneymaker’s victory ignited the poker boom, the casino was boarded up, padlocked by federal marshals, and later sold to Harrah’s Entertainment. The shuttered building sat dark and vacant during the entire winter of 2004. Yet somehow, by April 23rd the casino was re-opened for business again was ready to host the 35th annual WSOP. This is the story of how that remarkable poker series came to be, against the odds.
Binion’s Horseshoe was a total fuckhouse.
Sure, it was a great place to work when I was there. I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. But not everyone saw it that way.
By the time the doors were nailed shut and boarded over with plywood in January of 2004, more than 800 former employees were flushed out into the streets looking for work. That might not seem like a big deal. People lose jobs all the time. But the vast majority of former Horseshoe workers had been around for years, like barnacles attached to a sunken ship. They weren’t just part of the local scene — they were the scene. They’d given their lives to the Binion Family and that grand old building so embarrassingly out-of-touch with the times. Now here they were — mostly older people with retirement plans now stripped away — having to hustle to find a job.
Being somewhere over the rainbow in years made things difficult enough. But then there was the baggage each carried on their backs. One by one we gradually came to realize how deep-rooted our outlaw reputations were within the casino industry. We weren’t black sheep. We were child molesters. No one wanted anything to do with us.
Being a former Horseshoe employee was like wearing The Scarlet Letter. Most former employees who I kept in touch with had serious difficulty finding work. After so much rejection, the explanation became painfully obvious. Why else were so many good people with multiple years of casino experience not getting hired anywhere else — especially on The Las Vegas Strip which at the time was going through a boom period?
As phone calls went unreturned and rejection letters piled up, rather than tout one’s experience as a laid-off Horseshoe employee, some of my former associates began doing what was unthinkable. They left blank spaces on their resumes. If some nosy interviewer in personnel somewhere got curious and asked where they’d been working the past three years, the applicant might as well respond with “serving time.” It was pretty much the same thing. Being associated with the Horseshoe was like getting out of a prison and looking for work while out on parole.
But I was far luckier than most.
In fact, I was probably the luckiest former Horseshoe employee of all.
Call it the winter of WSOP discontent.
Downtown Las Vegas was already dying. And the downward spiral seemed irreversible.
This was long before any new high-rise condos had yet been built. Before the world-class symphony hall called The Smith Center opened. Before Fremont Street expanded. Before any major renovations to the casinos were done. Before the exciting youth-oriented culture of Zappo’s moved in. Downtown was a crime-ridden zone mostly of low-end tourists and bad smells headed towards becoming a ghost town.
When Harrah’s Entertainment announced they’d taken over the property, the news came as a huge relief to just about everyone — most of all Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.
The former mayor (and mob lawyer before that) was Downtown Las Vegas’s greatest champion and biggest cheerleader. Mayor Goodman rightfully deserves lots of credit for being the first visionary to make the dream possible. He helped organize a total renovation of the blighted urban zone that had once been the core center of the gambling universe. Now in the midst of his second term in office, the Horseshoe Casino, one of the most recognizable institutions of Fremont Street sat dark and empty. He and everyone else involved in the new downtown project realized that investment would be hard to come by as long as one of the most famous street blocks in the country looked like a deserted old tenement.
Indeed, Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) rode in with a white horse of new investment and enthusiasm. The company seemed like the perfect suitor. First, Harrah’s was in a major acquisition mode at the time. They were snatching up anything and everything gaming-related, well on their way to becoming the world’s largest casino company. Second, they had plenty of money to spend and resources to commit in order to refurbish the property. Third, Harrah’s was well-known as a stable company that didn’t get in over its head. Harrah’s properties largely catered largely to middle-class gamblers, apparently very good news for the World Series of Poker, which is the ultimate “Everyman” pursuit.
Not everything that was reported at the time was accurate. There were erroneous reports stating that one of the main reasons why Harrah’s wanted to buy Binion’s Horseshoe was to acquire rights to the tournament. This simply is not true. The WSOP pretty much came as an afterthought. For Harrah’s, it was like buying a building and then finding out it comes with an attached garage. The WSOP was the garage. It had little or nothing to do with Harrah’s making the deal.
Of course, no one could have foreseen what was to come. No one knew nor understood the real value of the annual tournament and the potential upside. No one could possibly predict how the tournament series would soon be worth far more than the building which still stands and now goes simply by the name “Binion’s” — even though it’s no longer owned by Harrah’s/Caesars, nor has anything at all to do with the Binion Family.
From its outward appearance, Binion’s Horseshoe may still be standing.
But the spirit is long gone. It departed long ago.
The phone rang in Howard Greenbaum’s office.
Greenbaum is a longtime Harrah’s Entertainment executive, who knows just about every facet of the casino business. He operates with what I’d call a consistent exactitude. Greenbaum was the first Harrah’s employee on the scene and remains very much involved in the WSOP to this day.
On the other end of the line was Tom Jenkin, another Harrah’s executive with deep roots. Jenkin was a remarkable success story. He started out in the casino business working as a busboy in one of the kitchens. Jenkin busted his ass for years and slowly climbed all the way up the corporate ladder to become the head of nearly a dozen casinos scattered throughout the Western United States.
Greenbaum and Jenkin, both self-made men who were book-wise and street smart, talked on the phone as old friends — as indeed they’d been for many years.
Jenkin told Greenbaum to head downtown to the Horseshoe, which was now under the lock and key possession of Harrah’s Entertainment. Greenbaum was instructed to make a personal on-site inspection. He was to determine if the dilapidated old relic was suitable for re-opening anytime soon. Moreover, Jenkin wanted to know if the property could possibly be up and running in time to host what was expected to be a record turnout of poker players, now just a couple of months away.
Even asking the question about whipping the Horseshoe into shape seemed absurd.
Harrah’s set its priorities making the 2004 WSOP not only a reality but a major success story. The work behind the scenes merits a standing ovation, and then some. It’s almost impossible to imagine how bad a shape the Horseshoe was in at the time. Planning the WSOP under normal conditions would be tough enough within such a short time span with new management, which had never run an event of that size before. Add a crumbling building on its last leg falling apart at the seams, and the challenges were compounded beyond what seemed doable.
That winter as directed, Greenbaum drove down to the Horseshoe for inspection. Admittedly, this was a place he hadn’t visited in years. He had no idea what to expect when he stepped inside.
Whatever nightmare scenario Greenbaum imagined when he entered that musty old building actually turned out to be worse. No one could have blamed Greenbaum and Harrah’s Entertainment had they simply announced the WSOP would be forced to skip a year or be postponed indefinitely. After all, none of the parts were in place to host a successful tournament. It would take several months, perhaps longer, to do it right. And Harrah’s could have embarrassed themselves badly by rushing things and trying to do what seemed impossible.
Canceling the 2004 WSOP was probably the wise decision. But that’s not the way Greenbaum and Jenkin saw things. They were up for challenges.
With Greenbaum’s new leadership of the WSOP, combined with another casino executive named Wade Faul — who soon became the new General Manager — the Horseshoe had two key players in place to turn the 2004 WSOP into a reality.
Now, all they had to do was perform some magic. That meant transforming a building one step away from demolition into an operating casino. That also meant hiring the right people to do much of the work.
The 2004 WSOP was just six weeks away.
What I remember was the filth.
The dust. The grime. The stench.
Desecration piled high. Neglect buried deep. Everything covered in volcanic-like ash. Rotting food encased inside unplugged refrigerators. Electrical wires hanging down from the ceiling. Gambling devices littering the casino floor.
Binion’s Horseshoe had become a dead zone.
The Horseshoe had been closed for months. Stepping inside again for the first time since I’d been fired by the previous owner Becky Binion-Behnen was like cracking open a tomb. One was fearful of peaking inside. What became of this graveyard of utter stillness, this final resting place of silent skeletons keeping all the tales buried forever that we shall never know?
My initial thought was — the building didn’t need a makeover. It needed a wrecking ball.
Yet, the Horseshoe was a place of wonderful memories, where our collective histories — poker history, gambling history, and Las Vegas history — had not only been bronzed but canonized as folklore.
Some of the old guard was brought back — including me. Matt Savage was re-hired to be the WSOP Tournament Director again, for the third straight year. Savage brought along his best people as floorstaff. Mike O’Malley was hired to be the head of administration. Meg Patrick was the Dealer Coordinator, probably the most thankless job on the entire staff. Harrah’s was even determined to re-open the poker room and brought in Michael Soto to run things. As for poker dealers, getting the most essential employees of all back on the payroll with the old management-dealer squabbles now behind us would certainly make things easier.
Harrah’s also used the services of a public relations agency, something I wasn’t used to. The agency people based out of Baltimore came into town to scope out the landscape. Initially, I didn’t care much for these outsiders being brought in, who seemed intent on making all the decisions even though none of them knew shit about poker. The leader of the insurrection was named Dave Curley, who as it turned out would be around the WSOP for the next several years. Curley and I had several knock-down-drag-out fights off and on for years. Of course, over time we became the best of friends, and remain so. Funny how that works sometimes. I like to think Curley just eventually came to see the world my way, which is now why we get along so well.
We held our first meeting inside a vacant Horseshoe, fittingly around an abandoned poker table. Like a conquering army showing off the spoils of war, there was an odd feeling about having so many new people on the scene now running things and making decisions. While junk was being wheeled out the side doors and new equipment was brought in, the atmosphere of the first few meetings seemed like a construction site. That’s the way the Horseshoe was for the next month, as the opening day of the WSOP approached.
And somehow, it all slowly came together. Sure, there were some problems. But each day the building looked a little bit more like a real casino. Each day a section was cleaned. Each day, fresh wires were installed. Each day, new tables were brought in. Each day, a few more people were added to the staff. Each day, we got closer and closer to the grand re-opening. Each day brought us closer to the 2004 WSOP, which was now going to happen, no matter what.
Perhaps the word “miracle” is overused. Well, so be it.
That the 2004 WSOP happened at all was a miracle.
That year, the WSOP lasted 31 days, making it the longest tournament series in history.
Virtually every gold bracelet event set a new record for attendance and prize money. The Main Event, which the year before had been the biggest ever, tripled in size.
By the time Greg “Fossilman” Raymer was crowned the new world poker champion, it became obvious to everyone that the WSOP had outgrown its childhood home. An event of its enormous size and magnitude needed someplace that was substantially newer and bigger. The old Horseshoe couldn’t keep up with the times.
Although great memories would be left behind, a new era was about to begin.
For more details, read my three-part feature on the closing of Binion’s Horseshoe here: