2019 WSOP Big 50 Destroys Live Tournament Records

I am going to begin this piece with an immediate, long-winded tangent before getting to my point. In 2005, I was just starting my career in the poker world, the only writer/editor of a fledgling poker news site (not this one). The owner of the site wanted to get our name out there, so he immediately threw me into the fire and sent me to cover the World Series of Poker live at the Rio in Las Vegas, the first year it was held at that venue. Through our company’s connections and my incredible talent, I drew the attention of Canadian Poker Player magazine, which asked me to write a monthly article for the periodical. The very first thing they wanted me to do was simply write about the WSOP, so I focused essentially on the basics of my experience as a WSOP first-timer. It’s an ok article – I was very green so the insights are exceedingly basic and amateurish – but the title is incredibly lame: “WSOP 2005 – This Thing is HUGE!”

I mean, really?*

I dug this out of my closet just for you, my three readers.

I was awestruck by how vast the Amazon room was, how never-ending the sea of poker players appeared, how the din of chip shuffling merged into a relaxing white noise. If only I could have seen the future; an article title that read as so horribly basic at the time is now just quaint when we see what happened this week with the Big 50 at the WSOP, the newly-crowned largest live poker tournament of all time.

The 2005 WSOP Main Event was definitely a sight to behold, even for long-time poker veterans. It was by far the largest Main Event ever at 5,619 players, more than doubling the field of the previous year, which was 2,576. And 2003, the Chris Moneymaker WSOP that, combined with online poker, launched the poker boom, had a Main Event field of just 839 players. I was right to be amazed, even if my article read like something out of my local community newsletter.

Big 50 to 2005 Main Event: “Oh, How Cute.”

But holy shit, the Big 50. This tournament was a special one for this year, the 50th anniversary of the World Series of Poker. The buy-in was just $500, hilariously low by WSOP standards, and players were permitted one re-buy in each of the four starting flights if they so desired. On top of that, everybody’s first buy-in was rake free, there was a $5 million guaranteed prize pool, and the winner was guaranteed at least $1 million. Everyone knew it was going to draw a crowd and draw a crowd it did.

Day 1A attracted 6,095 entries, more than the entire 2005 Main Event about which I wrote (though, to be fair, $500 is a far cry from a $10,000 buy-in). Day 1B saw 5,972 more entries, allowing the guarantee to be eclipsed just halfway through the starting flights. 7,183 more entries were tallied on Day 1C and Day 1D was the greatest of all with 9,121 entries.

All told, the Big 50 boasted 28,371 entries and a $13,509,435 prize pool. 4,258 players are making the money (min-cash is $750) and the winner will bank $1,147,449. It handily eclipsed the previous live tournament record, owned by the WSOP Colossus in 2015 at 22,374 entries.

Poker tables had to be setup anywhere in the Rio that could accommodate them, like hallways and even an empty bowling alley, giving some players an unusual experience for the first time at the World Series of Poker. Some of the scheduling had to be reconfigured in order for WSOP officials and staff to juggle the starting flights, the overlapping Day 2s, and other events that were taking place at the same time. I do not envy them; it was difficult enough for me to navigate my way through the festivities a decade and a half ago and I was just walking around, jotting down notes and taking the occasional photo.

WSOP Vice President and tournament director extraordinaire Jack Effel told PokerNews that it was quite the task, but they were up for it.

“I will tell you, the logistics of trying to run an event of this magnitude is you don’t quite know what you don’t know until you do it, right?” he said.

“At the World Series of Poker, you got a lot of challenges, you got a lot of things to deal with, but I want everyone to know that we’re thinking about the problems in front of us, we’re thinking about the problems that happened before us, and we’re thinking about the problems that are going to happen ahead of us,” he added.

As I am writing this, the Big 50 is in Day 4 and just 52 players remain. All players still alive in the tournament have won at least $22,383, but much larger prizes await.

*What I am most proud of, actually, is that I also served as the photographer for my site and the magazine often used my pictures. For this issue, my photo of Doyle Brunson winning a bracelet made the cover. The following year, he was signing autographs in the Doyle’s Room lounge at the WSOP, so I brought for him to sign. He hadn’t seen it before (it’s one hell of a niche magazine, after all), flipped through the issue, and told me he was impressed. The signed copy is one of my prized poker possessions.


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