The 2012 World Series of Poker gets underway in just a little over two weeks at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. However, another event happening in Vegas between now and then will be occupying the poker world's attention first, the finale of the World Poker Tour's Season X at the Bellagio. And while the $25,000 WPT Championship (May 19-26) and $100,000 Super High Roller (May 23-25) will serve as exciting preludes to the WSOP, the occasion also inspires a look back at a remarkable decade for the WPT. It seems hard to believe that nearly 10 years have passed since the World Poker Tour staged its very first event at the Bellagio, the Five Diamond Poker Classic won by "professional backgammon player" Gus Hansen. The five day event ran from May 27-June 1, 2002 and attracted 146 players, with Hansen taking away $556,460 for his win. It wouldn't be until March 2003 that the rest of the world would see what happened at that six-handed final table where Hansen outlasted Scotty Nguyen, Chris Bigler, Johnny "World" Hennigan, Freddy Deeb (referred to by his real name, "Kassem," on the show), and runner-up John Juanda. That landmark debut of the WPT show on the Travel Channel would introduce many of the elements still used by the show which has aired regularly ever since. Both "poker champion" Mike Sexton and "Hollywood home game sensation" Vince Van Patten (as they were introduced) provide commentary. The six players final table get profiled along the way. And the play is marked numerous interesting and exciting hands. If you've never seen the episode before, you can view it in its entirety over at the WPT website. Of course, the biggest and arguably important aspect of the new WPT show was the use of hole card cameras, which at the time was a novelty for most viewers. Previous WSOP broadcasts on ESPN and other networks had not employed hole card cameras, although the coverage of the 2002 WSOP Main Event final table did include what they called a "sneak peek" at hole cards (shown in an inset on screen). The recently-released documentary All In: The Poker Movie makes a lot of the WPT and especially the hole card camera, credit for which goes to patent holder and Poker Hall of Famer Henry Orenstein (who is interviewed in the film). Of course, outside of the U.S. the popular "Late Night Poker" show had used similar under-the-table cameras to show hole cards way back in 1999, as Jesse May and I discussed in an interview last spring. Still, the WPT captivated U.S. viewers with its game show-like production and successful packaging of people sitting around a table playing cards as a sporting event. That initial Season I featured tournaments played through April 2003, with its finale at the Bellagio starting the tradition of ending the season with a $25K buy-in "Championship" event. Alan Goehring won the first WPT Championship, earning a cool $1,011,886 for topping a field of 111. Hansen would win a second WPT event during Season I, the L.A. Poker Classic in February 2003, but would finish runner-up in that season's WPT Player of the Year race to another soon-to-be poker TV celebrity whose status in the poker world has changed markedly of late, Howard Lederer. Season I of the WPT featured 11 events, eight of which were played in the U.S., with another in Costa Rica, one in Paris, and one played aboard an ocean liner sailing from Florida to the Virgin Islands. Season II added a couple more events to the schedule, including one in Aruba, although most again were in the U.S. The tour continued to expand over the next four seasons, both in terms of the number of events -- Season III (15), Season IV (16), Season V (18), Season VI (18) -- and locations. Those four years saw stops added in the Bahamas, Niagra Falls, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Barcelona. The sixth season saw the WPT television show move from the Travel Channel to GSN (Game Show Network), a relationship that would last one year before the tour found a new home on the Fox Sports Network where it continues to reside. Season VII saw a scaling back of events to 13, with only the Barcelona and Niagra Falls stops taking the WPT outside of the U.S. However, Season VIII saw the tour bump back up to include 17 events with a number of international stops, including new ones in Italy, Slovakia, Cyprus, Morocco, and Romania. Season IX then included 19 events, with new events in London, Vienna, and Amnéville added. This year's Season X has a record 23 events total (including the upcoming Super High Roller), with Slovenia, Malta, Prague, and Ireland being added to the ever growing list of places visited by the tour. So much has changed in the poker world since the WPT's debut, with its influence having much to do with the game's growth in popularity over that period. The WSOP has, of course, expanded significantly as well over that period, and with the recent announcement of the WSOP Asia Pacific series (to take place in Australia in April 2013), comparisons will inevitably be made with the WPT as the preeminent global poker tour. (An historical side note... Once upon a time, back during the WPT's earliest days when the WSOP and the rest of the world had yet to learn of a Tennessee accountant named Chris Moneymaker, the WPT was actually looking at the possibility of purchasing the then-struggling WSOP. See my interview with WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla in which we talked a bit about those days.) Congratulations to the WPT for such a remarkable run, made more so when one considers the ever-changing nature of poker's status (including legally) both in the U.S. and globally during the past decade. For more on the history of the tour, check out the excellent, comprehensive chronicling of all ten seasons on the World Poker Tour website. Join Betfair Poker Now.
So much has changed in the poker world since the World Poker Tour's debut, with its influence having much to do with the game’s growth in popularity over that period. It has been a remarkable run for the WPT, made more so when one considers the ever-changing nature of poker’s status during the past decade.