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Fans flock to Rio to watch poker tournament

13 July 2009

By Ray Brewer, Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Cretel Kaleel enthusiastically cheered from the rail this week for her husband, David, who was playing in the World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio.

While David Kaleel was busy accumulating enough tournament chips to advance to the third day, his wife had a different gathering task: securing autographs from the couple's favorite professionals.

So, when popular professional Gus Hansen, who was eliminated from the 6,494-player field earlier in the week, walked through the ballroom on Friday afternoon, Cretel Kaleel grabbed her shirt loaded with autographs and a marker with hopes of adding to her collection.

She wasn't the only one.

Hansen was immediately noticed by at least two-dozen fans and spent the next 20 minutes taking pictures and signing autographs like he was the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees.

Cretel Kaleel said Hansen's signature instantly became her favorite.

"I love the way Gus plays," she said. "He is so unpredictable with how he switches his playing style. I was so excited to see him."

Tournament officials estimate 4,000 fans on average attended the event on Friday and Saturday with play starting at noon and lasting roughly 12 hours.

It's one of the best bargains in Las Vegas — there is no price for admission. State law requires all persons in the gaming area to be 21 years of age or older.

Poker has exploded in popularity over the last five years since ESPN began televising the series.

The attention has turned players like Hansen, who said he has been a professional gambler for 15 years, into marketable celebrities. He was more than accommodating in honoring autograph and photo requests.

"This is great for poker," said Hansen while posing for pictures with a group from his native Denmark. "It's great to get out here and meet your fans. Nowadays, this is part of poker."

Hansen admitted the attention and requests can be overwhelming, especially after being eliminated from a tournament.

"No matter if you have a good day or a bad one (of gambling), you have to put on a smile for the fans," Hansen said.

The series, a slew of tournaments starting in late May and ending with the Main Event, will draw roughly 100,000 fans, said WSOP Communications Director Seth Palansky.

The crowd includes folks like Kaleel supporting a family member, players who were eliminated early in the event and the increasing number of people interested in following the game.

John Ayala from Southern California was vacationing in Las Vegas this week and made sure to stop by the Rio to get a look at the action.

"It's crazy knowing millions of dollars are on the line and I'm feet away from the action," Ayala said.

There are 150 poker tables set up in the ballroom at the Rio, all situated inside a roped off area that keeps the crowd from roaming freely from table to table. Players sitting at the outer tables, however, must contend with the masses.

If the dealer at one of the outer tables notifies a tournament director that a player's all-in bet has been called, the crowd immediately rushes over to see the hand played out.

"This is great way to spend the afternoon," fan Andre Conrad said.

Fans aren't allowed to use flash photography or video recorders. Palansky said most are respectful of the players.

"At the end of the day, the player is our customer and we would control the crowd to ensure the game is enjoyable," Palansky said.

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.