No bluffing: Cards to fly in Vegas with poker tourneys on tap

ON GAMBLING

April 11, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

Las Vegas is poised for an unprecedented stretch of big-time tournament poker that starts next week with the World Poker Tour's season-ending World Championship at the Bellagio and continues through the World Series of Poker at the Rio, which runs a marathon seven weeks from late June to mid-August.

In between those two poker heavyweights, Caesars Palace will hold a WSOP Circuit tournament, and both the Mirage and Mandalay Bay will deal major WPT events. Plus the Tournament of Champions, also at the Rio, is wedged in at the beginning of the World Series.

Undoubtedly, the most impressive numbers, in terms of participants and prize money, will be recorded by the two majors.

The WPT Championship, which runs April 18-24 and concludes the tour's fourth season, is a $25,000 buy-in that is expected to attract as many as 600 players for a total prize pool of as much as $15 million and a first-place haul of $3.5 million. To put that winning check in perspective, it's in the neighborhood of Chris Moneymaker's then-phenomenal payday for winning the WSOP main event in 2003.

The defending WPT world champion is 28-year-old Parisian-born Tuan Le, now of Los Angeles, who bested a field of 452 a year ago to earn $2.8 million. Although the WPT Championship field will be considerably smaller than that of the World Series main event, the $25,000 buy-in means it will be thick with professional talent. Preliminary events are being played at the Bellagio as a prelude to the championship.

But frankly, there's nothing in poker to compare with the World Series, which includes more than 40 individual events straddling nearly two months and attracting thousands of players from all over the world. The $10,000 buy-in main event drew more than 5,600 players last year and Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the tournament, is bracing for as many as 8,000 this year.

While the nearly nonstop major tournament action from April through August in Las Vegas is a notable indicator of the game's vitality, there have been signs over the last year that there are just so many big-time players to go around.

The 2005-2006 season was the first full campaign for Harrah's World Series of Poker Circuit, which began last August and included 12 events. The more mature WPT, in its fourth season and running May through April, had 17 events.

In cases where scheduling overlapped between the two tours, the WPT championship events consistently drew more players.

For instance, last month at the WPT's World Poker Challenge in Reno, Nev., the $5,000 buy-in title event attracted 592 entrants; the WSOP $10,000 buy-in circuit stop at Caesars Atlantic City being held at the same time had just 99 starters. In February, the WPT's L.A. Poker Classic had 692 players while the top event at the WSOP Circuit tournament at Harrah's Atlantic City, again being held at the same time, had 124. Of course, there were many more players in preliminary events.

The underlying lesson may be that title event fields will be squeezed by the finite number of traveling pros who can consistently come up with $10,000 buy-ins, even with satellite qualifiers that provide a cheaper entree for amateurs.

But before draping Harrah's poker efforts in black crepe, it bears mentioning that the prize money for the World Series main event at the Rio alone will approach the WPT's total purse for its entire season.

Because virtually all major poker tournaments are taped for later broadcast, the game exists for its fans in parallel universes. There's real world poker and then there's TV world poker.

The National Heads-up Championship, actually played last month at Caesars Palace, will begin airing at noon Sunday on NBC and will run for five more consecutive Sundays.

The format of one-on-one poker mimics college basketball's championship bracket with a starting field of 64 players culminating with a heads-up faceoff for a $500,000 first prize. The first two episodes will be an hour each and the final four segments will be two hours. Reruns will air on CNBC.

If you want to be surprised, don't read the next sentence.

The final match saw Ted Forrest outlast Chris "Jesus" Ferguson for the win.

Jon Miller, the NBC senior vice president of programming who coaxed poker onto the major network, said he doesn't believe that the audience potentially knowing the outcome of a poker tournament spoils the game for fans.

"I used to think that it would hurt, much like when people know Olympic results before the skaters take to the ice," Miller said. "But in poker, people want to see how the players win and I think that's why it's the only game where people will watch the repeats over and over. They want to know what Doyle Brunson had when he bluffed Phil Helmuth ... and people want to see how players handle certain situations. Especially when they know what will happen, they want to see the expressions."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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