When it's time to shuffle and deal for the World Series of Poker, the Las Vegas spectacle could have a new flavor. That's because online poker companies are largely being dealt out of the popular event that's scheduled to start June 1.
Last year, about half of the record 8,773 Main Event players had qualified in online tournaments, where the buy-in could be less than $100. Otherwise, the full buy-in price for the World Championship was $10,000.
But now the online companies - key drivers in poker's popularity - are mostly unwelcome at the World Series because of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act that was signed into law last year. While the law doesn't criminalize online card-playing, it largely prohibits online gambling businesses and the funding of gambling accounts.
As a result, some large online operators, such as PartyPoker, have stopped accepting U.S. customers. Other companies, such as PokerStars and FullTilt, still accept U.S. players.
Ironically, Chris Moneymaker, the player who is often credited with single-handedly jump-starting poker, was a PokerStars qualifier. He earned his seat in the 2003 tournament - where he pocketed $2.5 million - by first winning a $39 Internet tournament.
Over the last few years, online poker has been huge at the World Series. Last year, PartyPoker had its logo emblazoned on the tables at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Many Internet sites had lavish hospitality rooms for their qualifying players and were major advertisers, handing out T-shirts and baseball caps.
Much of that will be muted this year (the table logos will stay), as the online companies stay away or reduce their presence, and casino company Harrah's Entertainment, which runs the World Series, tries to distance itself from them.
Yet, Harrah's is increasing the number of events to 55 from 46 a year ago. To make up for the potential loss of online qualifiers, Harrah's will hold its own Main Event qualifying tournaments at the Rio for $550 and $1,060.
With participation still a question mark, it's unclear how big the top prize will be for the Main Event - otherwise known as the World Championship No-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament. Last year's champion, Jamie Gold, won $12 million, and 873 players finished in the money. This year, Harrah's says it's leveling the payout schedule, with lower top prizes so most winners get more cash.
For spectators, the tournament is at its carnival-like peak for the first three days of the Main Event (July 6-8), when thousands of players are flush with optimism and a Gaming Life Expo adds to the hubbub.
But there's more to the World Series than the Main Event. It's a series of poker tournaments of various styles and stakes - each crowning its own champion and awarding a coveted bracelet - building up to the Main Event, which takes nearly two weeks to complete.
Another marquee event will be the June 24 HORSE tournament, an acronym for the five styles of poker played: Hold 'em, Omaha, Razz, Seven-Card Stud, and Eight-or-Better. The $50,000 buy-in and the versatility demanded is likely to limit the field to mostly top poker pros.
Open tournament buy-ins start at $1,000, but most will be in the range of $1,500 to $5,000. The all-women's event has become popular, drawing 1,128 competitors last year and paying more than $236,000 to the winner.
Harrah's is promising to make the events more fan-friendly by installing stadium-style seating for the finals. For more information, go to www.worldseriesofpoker.com.
Winning Bette? To replace the departing Celine Dion, Caesars Palace has signed Bette Midler to help fill its massive Colosseum theater. Dion's final official performance is scheduled for Dec. 15.
Midler, who will start performing there Feb. 20, is just starting to assemble the show. It's safe to say that audiences can expect Midler's production to be bodacious, humorous, and filled with classic pop tunes. Tickets will cost $95 to $250 and are on sale at http://bette.aeglive.com.
Midler is expected to perform about 100 dates at the Colosseum, and Elton John will stay on for an additional 50. That leaves Caesars Palace with a whole bunch of dates to fill, and officials say they expect to name a third act in the summer.
Despite the spotty track record of Broadway musicals on the Strip, the Palazzo casino-hotel will stage Jersey Boys, the Tony Award-winning play about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons featuring such songs as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Oh, What a Night." The Palazzo, connected to the Venetian, is expected to open late this year, and the musical is scheduled to open in early 2008.
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