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On a pleasant weekday afternoon, the ABC Store on Fremont Street had its usual array of shoppers looking to buy a cold drink, grab a snack or purchase an inexpensive Las Vegas souvenir. But assistant store manager Sol Cagauan said something was missing from the Hawaiian-themed convenience market popular with the island residents who frequent Boyd Gaming Corp.'s downtown casinos.
Poker players and their growing legion of fans have been nowhere in sight.
The World Series of Poker, nearing the end of its six-week, 45-event run, moved this year from the aging Binion's gambling hall to a 60,000-square-foot room inside the Rio's recently expanded convention center, leaving downtown Las Vegas for the first time in its 36-year existence.
"It was a nice, big and fun event and it brought people downtown," Golden Gate Casino owner Mark Brandenburg said. "Binion's played a role in making poker popular. It would have been nice to keep the World Series down here because the event is what gaming is all about. Not having it probably does have an impact on revenues."
Harrah's Entertainment, which bought the World Series of Poker brand last year when the company bought Binion's Horseshoe, moved the tournament to accommodate the rising number of players. The game's growing popularity, stoked by cable-television coverage and a booming Internet poker industry, helped boost Series participation.
With an ESPN television contract and corporate sponsorships, the Series has transformed from a high-stakes poker game into an internationally recognized entertainment phenomenon.
Less than halfway through the 2005 World Series, the total entries surpassed last year's record of more than 14,000 players. Tournament leaders expect this year's prize pool to exceed $100 million, more than doubling 2004's record payouts.
Harrah's sold Binion's to MTR Gaming Group this year, but retained both the World Series brand and the Horseshoe name. As a favor to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and to help the city celebrate its centennial, the final two days of World Championship no-limit Texas hold'em event will run at Binion's July 14-15.
Fremont Street business operators are happy that at least two days of the famous poker tournament will take place downtown, bringing both players and spectators.
The Series' absence so far has led to a noticeable void.
"We're not seeing the big-name poker players," Cagauan said. "We know who they are from television and, a lot of times, they would stop in for a drink in between games. Also, when Binion's had the tournament, long lines of people waiting for a seat would develop outside, and they would come in and buy drinks. Business is good, but we miss the poker players."
And, it seems, the poker players miss downtown. Most of the long-time poker standouts say they understand why the tournament moved. Although they're happy the Rio's large location means more money in their pockets, downtown brought its own unique atmosphere.
"It's good to have a really nice facility that's close to the Strip, but there is some nostalgia to the Horseshoe," said poker player Daniel Negreanu, who has developed an army of followers through televised poker. "The mystique and that sort of grungy vibe gave the Horseshoe an atmosphere that took some getting used to.
"Clearly, having the event at the Rio is better for poker's future, but I think most of the guys who have been around for a while have mixed feelings. One, they're happy about being in a great facility. But two, it's like, man, it just ain't like it used to be."
Fremont Street's nongaming business operators have said the World Series' absence may be hampering sales.
Paul Studer, the manager of Las Vegas Frontier Gifts across from Fitzgeralds, said that even before it grew to international stature, the World Series helped lure potential customers to Fremont Street -- both poker players and poker fans.
"The only thing that bothers me is this is the year poker is so popular and I think we would have had a lot of people down here because of the World Series." Studer said. "With poker being so trendy, it might have helped us in June when it's a bit slow. I'll be interested (to see) if we get a big boost in business and foot traffic when the final days of the World Series are played downtown."
Kiosk vendors underneath the Fremont Street Experience say business has tailed off from a year ago.
Judy Rhoden, the manager of LV911.com, a T-shirt, hat and novelties kiosk outside of Binion's, said there have been fewer pedestrians along the mall.
"The foot traffic is not as much as it has been in the past," Rhoden said. "It's not as crowded as it would be if the World Series (were) downtown."
Added Shane Axelrod, owner of Designer Trends, an eyewear kiosk outside of the Fremont, "We'll get a bunch of people buying sunglasses to cover their eyes for poker, but they're all up at the Rio watching the games. When the poker tournaments are going on, we do good business because all the players want a good pair of sunglasses."
Even at Girls of Glitter Gulch, a Fremont Street topless bar, the dancers long for the freespending poker players, club manager Steve Stanton said.
"Not having the World Series has probably hurt the girls somewhat because you don't have the poker players coming in here and dropping a lot of money," Stanton said. "I think it has hurt downtown not having the tournament."
Nowhere is the World Series' absence felt more than at Binion's, the founding site and home of the tournament when it was run by the Binion family and legendary casino pioneer Benny Binion.
The tournament, which awarded its first $1 million prize in 1991, steadily outgrew its surroundings. This year's final event is expected to attract 6,600 players and award a championship prize of more than $8 million.
In preparation for the last two days of competition, the Binion's poker room has been expanded for the expected influx of players. But until those players arrive, few tables are being used.
Roger Szepelak, Binion's chief operating officer, said the casino couldn't have accommodated the expected number of participants for the final event. Still, even for just two days, the poker players will be embraced at the event's original home.
"There's a lot of nostalgia to playing poker at Binion's and, while it will take time to get the property in shape, we plan on being a player in the poker business," Szepelak said. "We'll be happy to welcome the tournament back, even if it is for a short time."
Fremont Street's gambling halls have struggled to keep pace with revenue growth on the Strip. In April, a month in which Nevada casinos' gaming win grew more than 6 percent, downtown was one of two gaming jurisdictions to report a decrease. Downtown's casino win dropped almost 4 percent from the previous year.
Brandenburg, whose small casino has 15 table games and 350 slot machines, always welcomed the extra crowds associated with the World Series. He hopes the larger downtown casinos will try to bring in more gaming tournaments.
"Others have done some televised poker events, and special events make all the difference for downtown," Brandenburg said.
Fremont General Manager John Repetti said the loss of the World Series hit during a normally slow period for the downtown casinos.
"We always saw some residual play from the World Series, mostly from the spectators," Repetti said. "There was a little boost in the blackjack side of the business; people would come in and eat in the snack bars or the buffet. The casinos have to work together to fill the void."
Repetti, who has been with Boyd's downtown casinos for almost 20 years, said the World Series is missed, but poker players will always come back if properly enticed. He said the Fremont Street Experience and other attractions are helping attract customers.
"It's unfortunate the World Series is gone, and I think the poker players were accustomed to downtown," Repetti said.
Poker player Eric Seidel, who has been to the World Series of Poker's final table several times, said he misses the smaller field at Binion's where the players knew each other.
"It's more like a convention now," Seidel said of the larger space at the Rio. "It's very different so we have to make adjustments. There's extra money coming, which is nice, and some players have benefited from the endorsements and other stuff."
Seidel and veteran players believe winning the title at Binion's for the last time would be a nice benefit.
"That would be kind of fun, getting to the final table at Binion's one last time," Seidel said. "I'm glad they're doing it that way."
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