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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- On the final session of the four-day opening round of the World Series of Poker main event, Internet poker was given a brief moment in the spotlight.
Former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who now heads a nonprofit organization attempting to legalize online poker, called out the traditional "shuffle up and deal" to kick off play Monday.
Meanwhile, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who has introduced legislation that would exempt poker from the Internet gambling ban passed by Congress last year, made an appearance inside the Rio's World Series of Poker tournament room, receiving a warm reception from both players and spectators.
Despite the absence of Internet poker-backed players from this year's event, the World Series of Poker still had a respectable turnout for the $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas hold'em world championship event.
In total, 6,358 players entered the 2007 championship, well below the record field of 8,773 players a year ago but topping the 2005 field of 5,619 players.
The winner will collect $8.25 million from the prize pool of more than $59.8 million. Last year, Jamie Gold won $12 million in winning the world poker championship, while Joe Hachem won $7.5 million in 2005.
This year's World Series of Poker drew 54,288 entries to 55 events and had a total prize pool of almost $159.8 million.
Last year, Internet poker players who won seats in the main event through online tournaments accounted for more than half of the entire championship field, according to poker sources. If online poker players could have gained entry into this year's event, the field could have topped 10,000, said Michael Bolcerek, president of the Poker Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization of almost 600,000 that is lobbying for changes in the Internet gambling ban.
D'Amato, a former Republican senator from New York, is chairman of the Poker Players Alliance.
"We appreciate being able to bring more light to this issue," Bolcerek said. "The World Series of Poker was on the path to almost double in size every year. What Congress didn't realize was the size of the American public that played poker online. Our organization hopes to be a million strong shortly."
Bolcerek said the organization is supporting efforts by Wexler, who introduced legislation in June that would designate poker as a game of skill, thus exempting it from legislation passed last year that effectively banned Americans from wagering online. Almost all of the major Internet poker gambling sites quit accepting wagers from U.S. players.
The bill calls for a distinction between gambling games, such as blackjack and roulette, and poker, where Wexler said success is determined by the skill of the players.
"Poker is an American national pastime as much as baseball and it needs to be permitted to enter the 21st century, which is playing online," Wexler said. "We're trying to create a momentum and an awareness and we're hoping the poker players will contact their local representatives and demand a change."
Wexler, who was witnessing the World Series of Poker for the first time, said the tournament room constituted a "hometown audience."
Bolcerek said the World Series of Poker gave Wexler a receptive audience to promote the legislation.
"We're letting poker players know what they need to do to get involved in the process," Bolcerek said.
On Monday, 1,783 players competed in the final day of the four-day opening round, including, Gold, last year's world poker champion, and 11-time World Series of Poker event winner Phil Hellmuth, who won the world championship in 1989.
By the early afternoon, Gold had doubled up his chips to more than $20,000. Hellmuth, however, in keeping with tradition, arrived two hours after play began.
Hellmuth was supposed to show up at the Rio in a race car sponsored by an Internet poker Web site, but he reportedly crashed the car Sunday afternoon in the Rio parking lot. Instead, he arrived via a limousine, wearing a racing suit and carrying a helmet.
Other popular professional poker players taking part in Monday's championship event included Daniel Negreanu, Hall of Fame poker standout Chip Reese, Gus Hansen and Leif Force, who made the final table of nine players in last year's world championship event.
The survivors over the four days of play will compete again today. The elimination will take place through Sunday until the final nine players are determined. After an off-day next Monday, the final table of nine will begin July 17.
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