The obvious question about poker since the game's popularity rocketed in 2003 has been: Can the growth continue?
That query will be answered to some degree by the entries for this year's World Series of Poker main event, the game's bellwether tournament. It was the WSOP main event in 2003, won by a then-unknown accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker, that helped ignite interest in poker. That year, there were 839 main event competitors.
In just a year, participation in the $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold 'em tournament jumped more than three-fold to 2,576, something pro Phil Gordon credited, in part, to "the Moneymaker effect." Then last year, players in the main event doubled to more than 5,600.
Without a doubt, the ESPN broadcasts of the poker World Series have helped propel much of the success enjoyed by other televised poker shows, participation in casino and Internet poker rooms and even retail sales of poker equipment.
And although no one expects exponential growth in the World Series of Poker field to continue, Harrah's Entertainment - the casino company that owns the tournament - is planning for as many as 8,000 players in this year's main event.
That means the first round, with a maximum of 2,000 starters each day, would be played over four days, with the field being narrowed to 800 each day. The second round would be played over two days, with 1,600 players being winnowed to 700 each day.
The larger field would stretch the main event into a marathon, two-week tournament beginning July 28 and concluding with a final table that would start on Aug. 10.
As many poker enthusiasts know, the World Series of Poker is more than just the main event. This year, it will be a collection of 45 individual tournaments featuring several poker styles and various buy-in levels.
For instance, there will be a tournament exclusively for women ($1,000 buy-in, No-Limit Hold 'em) and another for seniors with the same rules and buy-in (50 is the minimum age).
Other types of poker games that will be played during the eight-week WSOP include Omaha (similar to hold 'em only with four hole cards), seven-card stud and razz (a stud game in which the low hand wins).
They'll begin to shuffle up and deal at the WSOP on June 25 starting with qualifying tournaments, known as satellites.
A new wrinkle in this year's World Series will be the addition of a big buy-in event that is tailored for professional players. Tournament officials said the pros, especially 2004 Player of the Year Daniel Negreanu, lobbied for such a tournament.
The new event will be a $50,000 buy-in HORSE event, which will rotates several poker styles: hold'em, Omaha, razz, seven-card stud and eight-or-better (to win the low hand, a qualifying hand cannot contain a card higher than an 8).
Such a tournament is attractive to the pros for two reasons. First, the hefty buy-in will keep many amateurs out of the field. And second, the sweeping collection of poker styles will help eliminate the element of luck that has become crucial in winning the main event.
Obviously, the pros hope the new $50,000 buy-in tournament attracts significant public attention and becomes a popular part of the ESPN telecast.
This year will mark another noteworthy first - but in terms of what won't be part of the World Series of Poker.
For the first time, the championship will not be decided at the casino best known as Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, where the poker championship was born. Last year, just the main event final table was played at what is now Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel.
Instead, all the tournaments - including the main event final table - will be played at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino, where the majority of the WSOP already was held in 2005.
And for the second year, the Rio will hold a poker lifestyle show, where vendors will sell instructional books and videos, poker equipment and poker-related apparel and jewelry. The lifestyle show is scheduled to run July 27-31 during the first week of the main event.
For more information on the WSOP: www.worldseriesofpoker .com.