How Big Can the World Series of Poker Become?

As if things weren’t pumped up enough in 2003 when a record 839 players entered the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em championship at the World Series of Poker, this year the head count more than tripled. In case you’ve been hibernating on a deserted island with Robinson Crusoe or the cast of Survivor and haven’t heard the news, last year’s event marked the coming of the online gaming community into poker’s premier event. When a 27-year-old accountant by the name of Chris Moneymaker parlayed a $40 entry fee in an online satellite event into a $2.5 million payday when he won the 2003 World Series of Poker, it helped set the poker world on its ear.


When all of last year’s shouting was over and done, I found myself standing next to Horseshoe owner Becky Binion Behnen and asked her how many players she anticipated for the main event in 2004. She smiled and said, “I guess we might have as many as 1,000.” I thought she erred on the side of caution, and in a column right here in Card Player, entitled “That’s My Number and I’m Sticking to It,” I predicted 1,150 entrants. I thought I was conservative, too, but I might have been swayed somewhat by Becky’s estimate. After all, she owned the joint — or did.


For a while, it seemed like there might not even be a 2004 World Series of Poker. In early January 2004, U.S. marshals entered Binion’s Horseshoe and seized $1.9 million to satisfy debts owed to the Southern Nevada Culinary and Bartenders Pension Trust Fund and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Welfare Fund, and forced the closure of the 52-year-old property’s casino.


Seizing the Horseshoe sparked all sorts of rumors, and for weeks no one could tell you what the casino’s fate would be. And if the casino’s fate was up in the air, so was the fate of its biggest asset: the World Series of Poker. But the Horseshoe reopened on April 1, only three and a half months after its closure by U.S. marshals, under the management of Harrah’s Entertainment.


While Harrah’s promised Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman that at least the final days of the 2005 WSOP would take place Downtown as part of the city’s centennial celebration, preliminary events will probably be sited at the Rio, another Harrah’s property in Las Vegas. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Most crystal ball gazers predict the WSOP will eventually move to a new megaresort on the Strip.


Since its relatively modest beginnings, the World Series of Poker has grown exponentially. From five events in 1970, it’s grown to a tournament comprising more than 30 events. The grand finale, the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament, attracted 839 participants in 2003 and created a prize pool of $8,390,000 in the process. This year, it attracted 2,576 players and generated a prize pool of nearly $25 million.


By the time the main daftar poker online event was set to open, so many players ponied up $10,000 for this year’s main event that the first day was run in heats, with half the field playing on Sunday, May 23 and the other half on Monday. They combined the reduced fields on Tuesday. At the tournament’s start, no one was even sure how many players entered the event. Estimates ranged between 2,550 and 2,600, and the actual number turned out to be 2,576 — more than triple last year. If you graphed the growth of the World Series of Poker over the past 34 years, you’d see an acceleration curve that looks like a turbine engine ramping up to speed, growing slowly at first, then swinging from its steady horizontal rise to an almost vertical line resembling the vapor trail of a rocket launched into outer space — up, up, and away. Zoom. Swoosh. All of those comic book adjectives come together to form a perfect descriptive fit.


In 1997, the 300-entrant barrier was crossed for the first time, and it seemed a lot. Everyone was shocked when more than 800 entered last year, but 2,576 players is off the charts. And it could have been more. The limiting factor was not the number of players, but available space to seat them all. Had they scheduled the first day at the Las Vegas Convention Center, we might have seen the total number of players climb to 3,000 or more.


As the number of players grew, the folks at the Horseshoe did what they could to constrain the field. Usually, there’s a feeding frenzy of satellite tournaments right up to the start of the main event, with each player paying $225 to enter a satellite that awards as many $10,000 buy-ins as it can. They also play one-table satellites, with players paying $1,025 for a chance to win a buy-in for the main event. Once Harrah’s management saw that there would be no possible way to accommodate all of these other players, last-minute satellites were eliminated.


On the day prior to the main event, the last satellite they ran had the longest line I’ve ever seen for an event at the Horseshoe. It snaked from the tournament area into the hall, beyond the gift shop and buffet, down the escalator to the first floor, and then out onto the sidewalk. No one wanted to be shut out of the main event, but many were. There is only so much room at the Horseshoe — even with many of the ground floor slots temporarily removed so that poker tables could be put in their place — and it wasn’t enough to accommodate 2004’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of poker players.


Five players in this year’s event earned at least $1 million. One event, five millionaires — not bad. And all of TV-watching America can view it as part of ESPN’s expanded coverage, with two new one-hour episodes back-to-back every Tuesday throughout the summer, for a total of 22 hours of coverage. ESPN plans to triple its WSOP coverage compared to a year ago, which will give it a product that rivals the World Poker Tour in breadth and depth of coverage.


Total prize money at the 2004 World Series of Poker reached $49 million, a new poker tournament world record, as was Greg Raymer’s first-place win of $5 million. Last year’s World Series of Poker tournament prize money, by comparison, was just under $22 million, and 2003 World Champion Chris Moneymaker won a top prize of $2.5 million.


What are we to make of it all? The biggest poker tournament in history just took place in a year when no one was certain that it would even take place at all. Last year, ESPN focused only on the tournament’s main event, and covered it in a few shows. This year, it’s devoting significantly more time to the entire tournament. It saw what television did for the World Poker Tour, and now it has its own series to compete with it.


If the first few days of next year’s event are moved to another Harrah’s property, such as the Rio, you can expect attendance for the final event to dwarf what you saw here. After all, the Horseshoe ran headlong into space restrictions, but the Rio has a convention center, and the event could easily accommodate many more players. Perhaps the player base, lured by TV coverage and a bigger facility, will double. Maybe it will even triple. Can you imagine a poker tournament with 5,000 entrants? How about 8,000? It’s all quite possible.


Poker’s riding the crest of a tidal wave right now, and this is just the beginning. Most of the game’s growth was fueled by TV and the increasing popularity of Internet poker, along with the compelling human-interest story of Chris Moneymaker. In achieving his dream, he democratized poker and showed its accessibility to everyone who sat up and took notice.


More TV coverage will probably bring more players to the table, and if they can’t get to the tables in person, they can train to become next year’s champion in their skivvies and bathrobes by playing online. That’s the pathway the winners have taken the last two years. And while it’s a long shot, to be sure, that prize pool just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.