Sandy Silverman was eager to watch her husband play in his third World Series of Poker Main Event in July at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The previous year, Dave Silverman, a mortgage broker from Baltimore, made it to the second round, a decent showing even though it didn't mean any money. And in 2005, he survived long enough to cash in for $33,000.
But last year, discouraged by the huge crowd waiting to get into the Amazon Room, where the famous tournament is held, Sandy simply went back to her hotel room. Dave lost in the first round, so Sandy never got to see him play in the $10,000 buy-in event.
"It was really disappointing," Sandy says. "The first year was great, I saw him a lot, and the second year was OK, but last year, it was just horrible. You couldn't even get in."
Sandy Silverman wasn't the only spectator who missed out on the action. Joyce Hartman of Forth Worth, Texas, joined others stuck in a hallway while husband Frank made a run at what she called his "once-in-a-lifetime chance." The money the couple saved for Frank's buy-in represented a joint investment, Joyce said, but she was shut out of the excitement.
This year, World Series and Rio officials say they are determined to make the tournament a more satisfying experience for players and spectators. The Main Event, which begins July 3 and lasts 12 days, with the final table scheduled for November (more on that later), is just one of 55 World Series of Poker competitions that begin on May 30 and continue for about six weeks. Last year, there were more than 54,000 player registrations, and the total prize pool for all events reached nearly $160 million.
As a quasi-sporting event, the poker World Series, which is owned by casino company Harrah's Entertainment, poses special challenges for the people who run it. For starters, it's impossible to predict how many players are going to show up. In the watershed Main Event of 2003, which ignited the poker craze, Chris Moneymaker emerged victorious from a field of 839. By 2005, participation had climbed to more than 5,600, and it peaked at nearly 8,800 in 2006. Last year, it settled down to 6,358.
Organizers made the mistake last year of using a tent to handle the overflow of players.
Bad idea. Players paying $10,000 buy-ins didn't want to sit in a tent for 10 to 12 hours - even one that's air-conditioned - when the temperature outside was steaming north of 110 degrees.
As a result, tables were moved indoors, the tournament room got tighter, the fire marshal noticed, and spectators were squeezed out. Some spectators waited in line for hours without knowing whether they would get in.
This year, there won't be a poker tent. The main room will be limited to about 180 tables. Overflow tables, all of the satellites (qualifying tournaments for the Main Event), and the tournament cashier cage will be in other parts of the Rio's convention area.
There will be better signs so that it's clear where events are being held, and there will be separate entrances for players and spectators to get into a more spacious Amazon Room.
"Last year, we were caught in the position of trying to determine who was more important in the room, the players or the spectators," says Joe Scibetta, the director of customer service for the Rio. "But definitely we believe that the beauty of the World Series of Poker is that it is open and you can come here and enjoy the spectacle."
The spectacle won't conclude until November. After the field is narrowed to nine players, the tournament will take a four-month break and resume on Nov. 9. ESPN, which broadcasts World Series of Poker events as edited programs, will air final table play on Nov. 11. The delay is designed to ratchet up the hype and suspense.
For players eager for a piece of the action but who may not want to jump into the deep end of the pool, about 36 less-expensive events will cost $1,000 to $2,500 to enter. The cheapest way to participate is in satellites that cost $330.
At the other end of the spectrum, the HORSE tournament, starting June 25 and featuring five styles of poker, costs $50,000 to enter.
But the real excitement is the opening of the Main Event. The first round is spread over four days, July 3-6, with thousands of competitors - poker professionals, celebrities and ordinary players - seeking fame and fortune (last year's champion, Jerry Yang, a California social worker, won $8.25 million).
For spectators, admission to the tournament room is free. And down the hall, a Gaming Life Expo will offer all things poker: tables, chips, apparel, art, video games and instructional books. Last year, players such as Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke signed autographs and posed for pictures. This year may also feature exhibition games featuring card-playing stars seen on TV.
"The circus will still be here, but it won't be as much chaos as last year," Scibetta promised. "It'll be fun for everyone."
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