This summer, a 16-year association between the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino and the World Series of Poker comes to a close. With poker’s biggest annual festival rumored to be heading to Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino Event Center starting in the summer of 2022, the curtain comes down on the Rio’s time as host of poker’s signature series of life-changing tournaments. The Rio has been what the WSOP has needed, exactly at the time it needed it.
For some, the lasting images of the World Series of Poker come from yesteryear, with legends of the game such as Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Stu Ungar, and Johnny Chan winning big at Binion’s. While Binion’s has a great history, the Rio is where poker’s boom led to the growth of the game and its cavernous corridors have provided us with some of the most memorable moments ever witnessed at the felt.
Many dramatic moments have followed in the Thunderdome, from Daniel Negreanu’s collapse after near-bubbling the final table to Phil Hellmuth’s record-breaking WSOP bracelet win in 2007 to Mark Newhouse’s celebrated reverse-curse on himself in WSOP the subsequent WSOP Main Event to his career-high score.
Just bought into the main event day 1c. Not fucking finishing 9th again
— mark newhouse (@mark_hizzle) July 7, 2014
Binion’s had the gloriously claustrophobic nature of a state-wide game only much bigger. They hosted the WSOP while it was predominantly an American-attended festival. Fans were four or five deep at the rail, so close to Johnny Chan during his victory against Erik Seidel that they could have reached out and helped him push his chips over the line.
The Rio, however, ushered in a new age of poker. During a time when poker enjoyed its years of growth and became more appealing to the mainstream, the rail increased and had to be moved back. Seating was erected in the Thunderdome, and in other rooms, with fans being kept at a modest distance.
Antonio Esfandiari’s victory in the $1 million-entry Big One for One Drop in 2012 remains a watershed moment in poker and it all took place in the Thunderdome. From Sam Trickett’s quad threes against Brian Rast to ‘The Magician’ winning the bracelet and being held aloft by his friends and family after he got the better of the Brit heads-up, the event lived in the glow of flashbulbs.
When thinking of the World Series of Poker at the Rio what comes to mind to this reporter is one hand in particular. In 2010, Jonathan Duhamel took down the WSOP Main Event to win $8.9 million when he dominated the final table. But in truth, Duhamel took the biggest step to victory when he won possibly the best hand the Rio has ever seen against Matt Affleck.
Affleck had pocket aces, Duhamel had pocket jacks and somehow, all the money went in on a turn that saw Affleck a 4:1 favorite. Duhamel needed his straight draw or a jack to come in on the river and when it did, Affleck’s subsequent reaction was heartbreaking and incredible in equal measure.
To the legendary commentary of Norman Chad and Lon McEachern, two men whose partnership has itself flourished at the Rio, a “thunderstruck” Affleck burst out of the Thunderdome and threw his water bottle against the wall. A few minutes later, Affleck returned to shake the hand of everyone at the table, ending in Duhamel himself. If the moment started awkwardly, it ended by transcending poker and showing the humanity that exists between poker players.
Sure the Rio has its flaws. Poker can be about stepping into a teeming mass of sweat and closeness, shoulder-to-shoulder with your best friend and your biggest enemy – who, in a poker tournament, can be exactly the same person. It can feel like a cauldron. The Rio is often the opposite – it’s a ‘cooler’. It’s famous for its ice-cold temperatures forcing players to wrap up warm once they walk out of the Vegas sunshine and into the building where the last 15 World Champions have been crowned. Players who don’t insulate or consume enough vitamins have complained of the ‘Rio Flu’ years before COVID came along.
In recent years, though, the WSOP Player of the Year has captivated fans for entire summers. With dozens of flags depicting former winners adorning every side of the two main cardrooms, each race has gathered its own momentum inside its echo chambers populated by thousands of poker players. From queues for the restroom and registration desk that snake through the labyrinthine pathways that criss-cross the Rio hallways to the stands of phone battery sellers and massage machines, there is no place like it.
The Rio will go down in poker history as the venue where poker grew up, where it became the beast that can now never be tamed. The World Series of Poker will move on in 2022, but the memories of poker’s time at the Rio will echo forever. How many more become eternal this Autumn remains as poker should, in the hands of the players who make the game what it is.