The World Series of Poker officially launched in 1970. It’s the pinnacle of where to play poker in Las Vegas for most poker enthusiasts.

For me, though, it began in 1988. I was there to write a story for GQ about a crooked rare book dealer named John “Austin Squatty” Jenkins.

Soon after I interviewed the guy and wrote about him, his warehouse got burned to the ground via arson, and he wound up dead in the Colorado River near Austin, Texas.

Fittingly, perhaps, my story was killed off before his body turned cold.

Binion’s, Stuey Unger and the WSOP

More importantly, my reporting on the story on Squatty introduced me to a fascinating world that would provide no small amount of article fodder over the years. Back then, the soon-to-be storied tournament occurred throughout Binion’s Horseshoe, a cool, family-owned casino with a roguish, Wild West edge.

It was the first time I had seen the larger-than-life Stu Unger commandeering a table – though I had no idea who he was. In my notebook, I described him as “the Mick Jagger of poker.

” Stuey “The Kid” Unger wound up setting a record by winning three World Series Main Events. He also qualified as the first champion not to defend his crown one season after winning.

I was in Vegas to write about him that year, in 1998, but he was holed up in his Binion’s Horseshoe hotel room. He had transformed into the Howard Hughes of poker, sequestered, and taking no visitors. He was strung out on cocaine and stiffing his benefactor, Billy Baxter.

Baxter had put up $10,000 for Unger to enter the tournament. Unger had blown his share of the previous year’s one million dollar first-prize money, squandering it on drugs, sports betting, hookers. Strip poker games were tame by Stuey’s standards!

Ungar blew off my requests to interview him. 

However, through sheer hard-headed tenaciousness, I caught up with him soon afterwards. We chatted over a buffet lunch at the weathered Arizona Charlie’s casino, way off the Strip. Months later, he was found dead in the fleabag Oasis Motel, overdosed on a mix of drugs, with his pockets all but empty.

As the late Mike Sexton told me then, “Stuey’s little heart just gave out on him.”

But Ungar’s tale is far from the most outrageous one from the World Series of Poker.

Murder for Hire and the Drug Trafficking Gambler

One year, the WSOP was the site for the planning of a Texas murder (and Austin Squatty had nothing to do with it). Becky Binion Behnen, daughter of Horseshoe patriarch Benny Binion, related this story to me.

The marijuana trafficker Jimmy Chagra was awaiting sentencing from a judge known as “Maximum” John Wood. Chagra also happened to be playing in the World Series of Poker.

Chagra was not a man to trifle with. In fact, he inspired the psychotic character played by Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.” In the 1979 World Series, Chagra found himself sitting alongside a roughneck named Charles Harrelson. Charles happened to be the father of the actor Woody Harrelson.

Charlie Harrelson said to Chagra, ‘How much would you give to see that SOB dead?’” Becky told me, referring to Maximum John. “Chagra told him, ‘I’d give a million dollars to the see the SOB dead.’

Charlie went to Texas – no Texas Hold’em cheat sheet required - killed him, returned, and told Chagra that he wanted his money.”

Did he get it? “Of course,” said Becky. “The man had just killed a federal judge. What would he do to Chagra? Jimmy gave him the money in a Pampers box.”

On another occasion, a dead body was found in a Horseshoe room during the WSOP. The rumour was somehow swept under the rug…

Fisty-Cuffs in the Middle of Play!

Binion’s Horseshoe may have also played down a fistfight that broke out in the middle of play. Erik Seidel, who suffered a tragic second-place finish against Johnny Chan in ’88 when I was at the WSOP with Squatty, recounted this tale.

But don’t feel sorry for Seidel. He went on to become one of the winningest, most fearsome tournament players in the game!

 “The World Series was the Wild West,” Seidel recounted, recalling a poker player from Texas with a very attractive girlfriend. “While the Texan was playing, a guy watching the game began hitting on her. The Texan jumped up from the table, punched the guy out and just went back to playing.”

It was as if nothing untoward had happened. And, recognising the cowboy justice, Seidel continued, “I’m sure the guy who got beaten up was never allowed back in the Horseshoe. Anything went, and poker players felt very protected.”

Down and Dirty Deal for the TITLE!

While winning the Series is prestigious now, that was not always the case. In 1972, Doyle Brunson, who would eventually become known as the Godfather of Poker, and another player threw the World Series Main Event.

Long before the tournament gained mainstream traction, it came down to the following three players –

  • Doyle Brunson
  • Walter Clyde “Puggy” Pearson
  • Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston

In the middle of play, they stopped and discreetly chopped the proceeds -- according to chip stacks. They secretly agreed that they would throw the Series to Slim. In a book I co-authored, “Aces and Kings,” Brunson said he had no interest in the notoriety of what ranked as the world’s highest profile poker tournament. 

“I didn’t want to embarrass my family,” Brunson said. “The common, working guy looked down on gamblers.”

But even now, with the game attracting millions of eyeballs via online streaming, everything is not as crystal clear. At last year’s World Series of Poker, a clutch of well-known pros publicly accused another player of marking cards.

The allegations remain unproven.

The player denied the accusation and lawyered up.

The WSOP Juggernaut Keeps on Rolling…

Despite charges of nefarious doings, a history of dead bodies and backroom dealings, nothing will stop the juggernaut known as the World Series of Poker.

Come May 28, this year’s string of tournaments will kick off in the recently renamed Horseshoe Las Vegas, owned by Caesars Entertainment and previously called Bally’s.

Cards will be in the air, and all eyes will be on the richest gambling competition in the world. 

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City. He has written extensively on gambling for publications such as Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. He is the author of four books including Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players.