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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz
 

World Series of Poker, born in smoky poker room, now a phenomenon

7 August 2012

What would Benny Binion think?

The legendary downtown Las Vegas casino owner enticed some the best poker players to his family's Horseshoe Casino on Fremont Street in 1970 for several days of high-stakes cash games inside the property's dark and smoky poker room.

That idea evolved into the World Series of Poker.

Binion, who died in 1988, might not recognize today what he created.

The World Series of Poker is now a year-round poker extravaganza, not just the annual seven-week tournament at the off-Strip Rio that has grown from its humble beginnings to a multi-million-dollar event.

The World Series of Poker Circuit Tournament, now in its ninth season, will make 20 stops through next May, starting this week at the IP Casino in Biloxi, Miss. Almost one-third of the events will take place at casinos not owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., whose subsidiary, Montreal-based Caesars Interactive Entertainment, operates the World Series of Poker.

The World Series of Poker Circuit concludes with its National Championship event at Harrah's New Orleans in May. The conclusion comes just in time for the start of the 44th World Series of Poker at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

Meanwhile, the World Series of Poker Europe is in its sixth season and will host a series of events at the Casino Barrière de Cannes Croisette and the Hôtel Majestic Barrière in Cannes, France, for two weeks from the end of September through the beginning of October.

In April, the inaugural World Series of Poker Asia-Pacific event will take place at the Crown Entertainment Complex in Melbourne, Australia.

Which brings us back to the original World Series of Poker.

"It's really hard to call this a poker tournament anymore," said Ty Stewart, the World Series of Poker executive director and a vice president with Caesars Interactive.

Stewart joined the tournament in 2006 after spending seven years in the marketing department of the National Football League in New York City.

He is never understated in his opinions on the World Series of Poker and its place in the landscape of the gaming industry.

"This is all about the viability of poker and the interest from poker players 365 days a year," Stewart said. "I really don't think there is any end in sight on how much we can grow."

TIMES HAVE CHANGED

The first World Series of Poker drew seven players to Binion's Horseshoe for several poker games. The late Johnny Moss was crowned the first Main Event champion by a vote of his peers. The next year, Moss won the title outright, defeating a field of six in a $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em Main Event that earned him $30,000.

It wasn't until 1982, when the late Jack Straus won the title, that the Main Event field crossed the 100-player threshold, earning $520,000.

The 2012 Main Event drew 6,598 players -- fifth-highest in tournament history -- and a prize pool of $62 million. When the final table of nine is concluded on Oct. 30, the winner will take home more than $8.5 million.

But that's not the whole story of the World Series of Poker.

Over seven weeks between May and July, the tournament hosted 61 events in which the winner earned a gold championship bracelet. Those events drew 74,766 entries and a record prize pool of more than $222 million.

The World Series of Poker -- which took up three large ballrooms and the entire 160,000 square feet of space inside the Rio's Convention Center -- hosted daily satellite tournaments and Deepstack events that, combined with the bracelet events, drew 232,263 players.

While bracelet events had entry fees of between $1,000 and $10,000, as well the $50,000 buy-in Players Championship and the $1 million buy-in "Big One for One Drop," satellite and Deepstack games cost anywhere from under $100 to a few hundred dollars to enter.

"The idea is having something for every player, not just the high-stakes games," Stewart said.

"IT'S REALLY OUR BUSIEST TIME OF THE YEAR"

For the Caesars Entertainment-owned Rio, which began hosting the World Series of Poker in 2005, the tournament is New Year's Eve to the 2,520-room hotel-casino during a typically slow period on the Strip.

The massive influx of poker players and poker fans leads hotel room occupancy in the high 90 percent range at a time when the rest of the industry is struggling for business.

The Rio operates the tournament for Caesars Interactive under the casino's gaming license. The Rio also hires close to 2,000 employees for the tournament, including about 1,800 poker dealers. Other areas of the property, both casino and nongaming, see increased business volumes.

"It's really our busiest time of the year," said Rio Assistant General Manager Jeff Solomon. "Our restaurants are busier than usual and we also see increases in our slot machine and table game business. Some of our sister properties [Caesars operates 10 casinos on the Strip] will send employees over for the tournament."

This year's event marked the first time the World Series of Poker occupied the entire Rio convention complex. The Amazon, Pavilion and Brasilla ballrooms housed about 500 poker tables, encompassing 120,000 square feet. The Rio's primary poker room, normally located near the race and sports book, moves into the World Series of Poker space during the tournament.

The remaining 40,000 square feet housed poker tournament offices, a restaurant, production offices for ESPN, surveillance and a cashiers cage.

If more poker tables are required, the Rio can move tournament tables to an area near the Buzios Seafood Restaurant.

"It's a busy time and it's both fun and exhausting," Solomon said. "Having the poker tournament serves the property well."

CIRCUIT'S STOPS

The World Series of Poker Circuit Tournament allows Caesars-owned resorts to experience the tournament, albeit on a bit smaller scale. Last year's tour drew more than 70,000 entries throughout 17 stops around the country.

For the first time, the circuit will make a stop outside the U.S. when the tournament hosts an event at the River Rock Casino in Vancouver, B.C., at the end of October. The property is owned by the Great Canadian Gaming Corp.

Other non-Caesars World Series of Poker stops include Boyd Gaming's IP Biloxi, the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles, the Choctaw Indians' Durant in Oklahoma, the Palm Beach Kennel Club in Florida and the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut.

The tournament added two other stops at Caesars-operated casinos, the new Horseshoe Casino Cleveland and Harrah's Cherokee in North Carolina. In Cleveland, the casino opened with a 30-table poker room themed after the World Series of Poker. It's expected the popularity of the Circuit event could expand beyond the walls of the room.

Stewart expects the Circuit tour to draw more than 100,000 players over the 20 locations.

"The Circuit allows us to grow the World Series of Poker brand outside the Caesars walls," Stewart said. "The most important aspect is the cultivation of the World Series of Poker brand nationally and internationally."

WHAT COULD LIE AHEAD

The World Series of Poker was near extinction when Caesars Entertainment (then known as Harrah's Entertainment) acquired the brand from the Binion family.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

The Internet, television and renewed interest in the game fueled a resurgence in poker.

The potential legalization of online poker in the U.S. could be the next charge.

Caesars is already operating legal World Series of Poker brand websites in the United Kingdom, France and Italy. The company is partners with 888 Holdings, a European-based online gaming operator, in the business.

Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon said U.S. legalization benefits Caesars and the World Series of Poker, given the brand recognition and number of players familiar with the product.

"Easily, they would be in the top tier and a World Series of Poker website could claim a 20 percent market share right away," Beynon said. "Caesars is likely the best-positioned land-based casino operator in terms of online gambling. The cornerstone of the company's online strategy will be the World Series of Poker, the most popular poker brand in the world."

Stewart said legalized online poker in the U.S. could double the size of the field for the Main Event at the Rio.

"All of this gets taken to the next level with our entry into online poker," Stewart said. "We can harness the ubiquity of the brand in a way that should only guarantee the future growth of the Series."
World Series of Poker, born in smoky poker room, now a phenomenon is republished from CasinoVendors.com.