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Kevin Smith

WSOP - Thoughts from a Railbird

12 June 2004

Nearly two weeks after witnessing Greg Raymer winning $5 million as the champion of the 2004 World Series of Poker main event, I still find myself on a poker high. And now I know why this sport is shooting to the top of the list as the latest craze in the entertainment world.

Having watched coverage of the sport over the last year, and seeing the insurgence of online poker first hand during the last two years, my curiosity got the best of me and I had to just take this in.

Granted watching guys play poker, especially when you don't have the advantage of TV cameras revealing the hole cards, isn't exactly the most exciting way to spend your time in Las Vegas, but it all seemed more than worth it after the final hand was played on Friday night around 9 p.m.

Anyone who plays poker, or has even seen the coverage of the World Poker Tour and the WSOP on TV, knows that online poker rooms have played a big part in the game's recent boom.

Both players and spectators were adorned with hats, shirts and jackets promoting their favorite online poker room. Representatives from Party Poker, Paradise Poker, Pacific Poker and PokerStars were all on hand. Raymer and last year's winner Chris Moneymaker won their seats for the WSOP after winning satellite tournaments on

Harrah's wouldn't comment on the record, but it was no secret that the company that now owns Binion's and the WSOP isn't happy with the way online poker sites are "taking over" the biggest land-based poker tourney in the world.

These are precarious times for the online gaming industry, especially in the United States, where the federal Justice Department is cracking down on the advertising of online gaming sites. It's no wonder that Harrah's would want to distance itself from the industry.

After six days of play without restrictions related to I-gaming, Harrah’s announced no players on the final table would be allowed to wear clothing displaying online gambling brands.

But anyone who tries to argue that the influx of online poker sites, and their players, to land-based tournaments is a bad thing for the sport is fooling himself.

The main draw for most of the Internet players is that they can go online and play in qualifying tournaments for a lot less than it would cost them to qualify at a land-based casino.

Not only was the number of online qualifiers staggering for this year's event, the nearly 1,000 players who won their seats online dwarfed the previous record for total players (online and offline). The total number of players this year was 2,500, but considering how many other players those online qualifiers had to beat, the numbers are staggering.

Educated assumptions have each online qualifier that made it to Vegas beating out an average of 250 players, depending on the route he or she took. So in addition to the 1,000 that made the final event, there were probably at least another 250,000, and maybe upwards of 450,000 who attempted to qualify.

What other sporting event has that many people trying to qualify for it? If that doesn't send a message to the U.S. government, what will?

Some other thoughts and observations from a railbird:

Anyone who says these guys aren't athletes doesn't get it. Granted judging by the girth of some of the participants they may not have the physique of a well toned athlete, but anyone who can make it through six days of poker, at eight to 10 hours a day, as champion Raymer did, has a mental focus and strength that should be the envy of anyone who has tried his hand in competitive sports.

Plans are already in place to move the WSOP to the Rio for 2005. Binion's will be missed, but clearly the tournament needs more room. Nearly every available inch at Binion's, from the sports book to random places near slot machines, was used this year for tables. There is some "charm" to the old place, but the Rio should provide some much needed elbow room for the WSOP.

While the number of participants tripled this year in the final event, many aren't predicting another record gain in 2005. Some feel the Texas No Limit Hold'Em final might hit the 5,000 mark but the real growth is likely to come in the preceding events, which start five weeks before the final event. ESPN announced plans to increase its coverage of the other events, which range from Razz, Five-Card Stud, Omaha and nearly every other poker game imaginable. It is a safe bet that as more coverage is given to the "minor" events, interest and participation in them will also increase.

Is there a more dramatic moment in sports than when they bring out the prize money--$5 million this year--in cash and throw it on the table when the final two players are left? I would love to see them wheel out a cart of $2.5 million in cash and throw it on the green right before Tiger Woods looks over a 15-footer to win the U.S. Open.

What other sport can give you such diverse and compelling characters as Chris "Jesus" Furgeson, Phil Hellmuth, TJ Cloutier, Chris Moneymaker and Dan Harrington, just to name a few? And that doesn't even take into account the 20 to 30 "celebrities" who took part in the final event.

Is there any doubt that for all the growth poker as experienced over the last year or two that this is still just the tip of the iceberg? I sure hope so. I can't wait to see how big the WSOP gets next year, and that role online sites will play.

WSOP - Thoughts from a Railbird is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith