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The History of Satellite Poker Tournaments


Satellite poker tournaments are so common today that many players probably don't realize the tradition of winning a satellite to make the main event of a large buy-in tournament like the World Series of Poker didn't happen down in Las Vegas until the event was 10 years old.

The WSOP started in 1971 at Binion's Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas, but the main event (then as today) was a $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold'em tournament that left most poker players unable to enter. The game was definitely for the big boys, but Eric Drache, the WSOP tournament director, though he could get more publicity for the tournament and more players for the main event if there was a cheap way for players to get into the tournament, and the only way to do that was to offer a preliminary tournament with a small buy-in that led to another tournament where the winner would get a buy-in for the main event.

Unfortunately, nobody was interested in hosting an event that was untried, and wasn't a money-generator. The Horseshoe didn't even have its own poker room at the time, so it was up to the Bingo Palace, a small casino past downtown (now the Palace Station)to give it a shot. Their poker room manager, Tom Bowling, thought it was a great idea, and he organized the first satellites. To convince the owners to run the tournament, the rules stipulated that there would be no entry fee, but if they got more than 100 entries the poker room would keep the extra buy-ins.

The First Satellite - 1980

The Bingo Palace poker room was small, but the concept for the satellite didn't take much room, but that wasn't the problem Tom Bowling faced. Once there were several dozen interested players signed up, how would they guarantee the whole prize? There was some suspense and frustration, but eventually, they did attract over 100 players, and it wasn't just low-limit players with a spare $100 that got in the fun, so did many well-known players.

The concept used at the Bingo Palace is now sometimes called a super satellite, because the player has to win two tournaments to get to the big tournament, not just one, but regardless of the name, that first year produced plenty of action and drama. When the second part of the satellite arrived, friends Art Young and Roy Ritner, who had flown down from Reno for the tournament, found themselves in the final three with Bob Ciaffone.

Young was hyper aggressive, raising nearly every hand, and found Ace-Queen suited on the button and raised once again. Ciaffone came-over-the-top, getting all-in with ace-deuce offsuit. Young called and the flop came with a Royal flush draw for Young, 10-J hearts and an offsuit deuce. The turn was an offsuit 9, the river an offsuit 5. Ciaffone won with deuces and used his now dominating stack of chips to knockout Ritner and win the $10,000 entry. Ciaffone didn't cash in that year's WSOP, but he took 3rd place in the main event in 1987, after losing a key hand with a million dollar pot to eventual winner Johnny Chan.

The Big Boom - 1983

Satellites hit the mainstream in 1983, when not one, but two players came from the Bingo Palace tournament and made the final table of the $10,000 main event. At that year's WSOP, the final three players remaining were legendary two-time champion Doyle Brunson and the two satellite winners, a couple of average Joes who usually played $10/$20 limit games. However, Rod Peate was a consistent, cagy, aggressive player, and McEvoy was an up and comer, having just won the $1,000 buy-in limit Hold'em tournament.

As it turned out, Brunson was the first to go of the three, and Peate and McEvoy fought a seven-hour long heads-up match before McEvoy finally got pocket queens to hold-up on an all-in pot to win the championship. The news that a satellite winner had taken the crown in 1983, especially against 3rd place finisher Doyle Brunson, was headline news in main-stream newspapers and magazines, and helped propel the new tournament style towards what it is today.

Rod Peate cashed in several later main events and won a championship bracelet by winning hte 1995 Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo tournament. McEvoy won two more championship bracelets, one for Razz in 1986, and one for limit Omaha in 1992. He has also written several books on poker, including The Championship Table which includes stories and a recap of the final table at each World Series of Poker's $10,000 main event.

The huge expansion of online poker has driven the number of entries in the main event of the WSOP from small numbers to amazing numbers. In 1983 there were 108 entries. In 1993 there were 220 entries. In 2003, the year Chris Moneymaker won a satellite that led to his championship bracelet the numbers had risen to 839, but with the expansion and the publicity from that win, the 2004 number reached 2,576. Those numbers peaked in 2006 at 8,773 when it is estimated over 3/4's of the players won satellites to gain entry.

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