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LAS VEGAS -- Harrah's Entertainment is moving all in with the World Series of Poker.
As the 2005 competition winds to a close and the new world champion is crowned sometime this evening, or possibly very early Saturday, Harrah's is looking toward the 2006 tournament, expanding opportunities to increase awareness of the World Series brand.
"It's a tremendous name, and with poker's popularity continuing to grow, we want to introduce the brand a larger audience," said Gary Thompson, director of the World Series of Poker for Harrah's.
After considering a move to a Harrah's-owned Strip resort, such as Caesars Palace, Thompson said the company decided to keep the 2006 World Series at the Rio in a specially built 60,000-square-foot poker room in the resort's convention center.
This year's tournament drew more than 30,000 entries into 45 events over five weeks, with players competing for more than $100 million in prizes.
Thompson said the Rio has the space, surveillance systems and staff to accommodate the World Series and the accompanying Poker Lifestyles trade show, which drew more than 50,000 people over four days. He said the show will add vendors and days.
"Some of the vendors did a tremendous amount of merchandise sales during the show, so my guess is that it will go a little longer next year," Thompson said. "The Rio's staff has the experience now in putting together the World Series of Poker, so it just made sense to keep the show here."
In the end, Thompson said, it almost doesn't matter where the World Series is held because crowds will follow.
Binion's will host the final day of the event starting at 2 p.m. today in Benny's Bullpen on the downtown casino's second floor.
The last nine players from the original field of 5,619 entries will play in the final table of the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold 'em event that drew a prize pool of $52.8 million and will take more than nine days to complete.
The first player eliminated from the final table will earn $1 million for ninth place, and the 2005 world champion will collect $7.5 million. The runner-up takes home $4.25 million.
Once the 2005 World Series ends, Harrah's will launch a high-stakes, nationwide poker tour that culminates with the 2006 World Series of Poker in late summer.
Harrah's is doubling the schedule of its World Series of Poker Circuit to 12 events and incorporating some of the casinos the company acquired when it bought Caesars Entertainment for $9.4 billion.
The circuit events will begin Aug. 11 at Grand Casino Tunica and will run at Harrah's casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, New Orleans, Biloxi, Miss., Lake Tahoe and at Caesars Indiana.
The 12 winners of each circuit championship event -- a $10,000 no-limit Texas hold 'em game -- will qualify for the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions that will take place in late June at the Rio just before the World Series of Poker.
The event will be a $2 million "free-roll." Harrah's will put up the jackpot for the 27-player field, which will include the 12 champions, the nine players from the 2005 World Series of Poker final table, and six players chosen by the tournament's sponsors.
"This circuit is a way to bring the World Series brand into new markets and allow everyday players to compete against the game's best poker players and world champions," Thompson said.
Harrah's purchased the World Series of Poker last year when it bought Binion's, eventually selling the downtown casino but retaining the event and brand.
The company earns 6 percent from the prize pool -- commonly referred to as a "rake" -- and the money is used to pay dealers and other expenses. Worldwide exposure, however, has been more valuable than any monetary amounts.
"The front-page coverage in national and international newspapers has been invaluable to Harrah's," company spokesman David Strow said. "The benefits for Harrah's go far beyond the World Series of Poker. It has helped us introduce the company and what we offer in many different markets."
When Harrah's announces its second-quarter earnings Aug. 4, it is expected to include record numbers from the Rio, where the bulk of the World Series competition took place in June. Customer traffic in the casino, associated with the World Series, had Rio executives elated, sources who requested anonymity said.
Sources also said the Series will also effect Harrah's third-quarter earnings, since World Series of Poker competition took place in early July. Sources said they expect the Series' effect on the third quarter to be less than its effect on second-quarter earnings.
"The World Series has greatly benefited the Rio with the increased numbers of customers and the exposure the property has received," Strow said.
In trading Thursday, shares of Harrah's hit a 52-week high, closing at $77.31, up $1.18, or 1.55 percent.
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