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Howard Stutz
 

Shuffle and Deal: Series returns

31 May 2005

The World Series of Poker is changing, and Harrah's Entertainment knows the poker world is watching.

The 36th World Series, a seven-week long poker extravaganza, starts Thursday with the first of a record 45 scheduled events. The competition culminates July 15 when play begins at the final table of the $10,000 buy-in World Championship no-limit Texas hold'em match.

Harrah's purchased the World Series of Poker last year along with the then-shuttered Binon's Horseshoe. The company rescued the tournament when it reopened the venerable downtown casino in time for the event to begin.

MTR Gaming Group later bought the hotel-casino, now called Binion's. Harrah's kept the World Series and the Horseshoe brand name.

A year ago, Harrah's had just months to mount and host a major poker tournament. This time, though, the company has had a year to prepare.

"We think the tournament is going to be much more player-friendly this year," World Series of Poker Director Gary Thompson said. "We've added more events, and we think the attendance will also increase. That will lead to increased prize money and larger crowds."

Howard Greenbaum, vice president of specialty games for Harrah's Las Vegas and the Rio, said: "We're ready for (the Series) this time. The room allows for a much more expanded field. We've also added more no-limit games during the preliminary rounds. We think this will also boost interest."

This year's biggest Series change is a move away from downtown Las Vegas. For the first time, the bulk of the tournament will be held at the Rio in a specially constructed, 50,000-square-foot, 200-table poker room inside the hotel's new convention center.

The final two days of the World Championship event will run at Binion's, which hosted the World Series of Poker for the tournament's previous 35 years.

Harrah's agreed to have the Series' final two days downtown in order to participate in Las Vegas' centennial celebration, Thompson said.

Last year, the total prize money awarded for the entire tournament was $45.9 million, more than double from 2003.

More than 14,000 players entered events in 2004. This year, the figure is expected to grow considerably since the main room is much larger. The growth in entries will coincide with an increase in the total purse.

Last year, a record field of 2,567 players entered the World Championship event, and patent attorney Greg Raymer of Stonington, Conn., won first place and a record $5 million prize.

Thompson is predicting more than 6,600 players will enter this year's championship field, which could lead to a first-place prize of more than $8 million.

In addition, all nine players at the final table could earn at least $1 million in prize money, based on the expected number of total entries.

"The popularity of the World Series of Poker has increased dramatically and we believe we have responded to both the players and growing number of spectators we think this will draw," Thompson said.

The interest and participation seemed to jump overnight.

In 2003, the events drew 7,572 total participants, including 839 players taking part in the World Championship event.

In 1991, Brad Daugherty captured the game's first $1 million prize; in 2002, Robert Varkonyi won the first $2 million championship.

"I'm going to do my best to defend my title, but with 6,000 players expected, the championship is anyone's to win," said Raymer, who quit his job as a patent attorney after winning the 2004 title.

"Years ago, there was a stigma to poker and you might not admit to being the world champion, but not anymore," Raymer said. "Poker is so popular and so mainstream, that we're going to see huge crowds and have a big turnout this year."

Raymer said the players will miss the coziness of Binion's, but he realizes the tournament's size has forced it into larger environs.

"At Binion's, when there was a break, I could go across outside to the ABC Store, get a cold drink, and still get back in time," Raymer said. "The Rio is a lot larger so I hope the conveniences will be there for the players."

ESPN will televise the World Series of Poker as it has in the past two years. Last year, the network produced 22 hour-long episodes; it is expected to produce a similar number of shows this year.

During the year and a half it has owned the World Series of Poker, Harrah's has tried to capitalize on the brand.

In January, the company entered an agreement with the former president of CBS Sports, whose consulting firm has negotiated multibillion-dollar contracts on behalf of NASCAR and Major League Baseball, to help renegotiate the television contract with ESPN.

Also, as a precursor to the World Series, Harrah's sponsored a World Series of Poker Circuit, with events taking place at its casinos in Atlantic City, San Diego, the Rio, Lake Tahoe and New Orleans. ESPN planned to televise the championship round of each event. In addition to increasing the events at this year's tournament, Harrah's has scheduled a first-ever poker lifestyle trade show to run four days in July at the Rio toward the end of the World Series.

More than 100 exhibitors are expected to display poker-related products at this year's event.

Greenbaum said Harrah's will evaluate this year's tournament to decide whether to add or subtract events in the future.

Harrah's will also evaluate whether to move all or part of the tournament to the Strip and into one of the resorts the company is purchasing as part of its $9.4 billion buyout of Caesars Entertainment.

Shuffle and Deal: Series returns is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.