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Do the series shuffle

4 Jun 2007

By Howard Stutz

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Quietly, Harrah's Entertainment officials don't expect the 38th World Series of Poker to attract the record-shattering number of players reached a year ago.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing, said Jeffrey Pollack, a Harrah's vice president who serves as the poker tournament's commissioner.

He hopes enhancements to the seven-week-long poker extravaganza at the Rio, which started Friday, will be noticed by the players, spectators and the ESPN television audience that can begin tuning into the competition on July 10.

"I've been very consistent; the metric that we will measure the success of the World Series of Poker is the experience," Pollack said. "Is this a better experience than ever before? We believe the enhancements and changes we have made will be noticed by players and spectators."

For the third straight year, the Rio's convention pavilion has been transformed into the world's largest poker room with 250 tables.

The number of events offered during the World Series has increased by nine to 55 with buy-ins ranging from $1,000 up to $50,000 for the five-day H.O.R.S.E. event that blends five different poker games and is expected to attract only a handful of the hard-core professional players.

Event champions will win the most expensive bracelets in the tournament's history, Pollack said, without divulging a figure. The world poker champion will receive a bracelet that weighs 136 grams, is made of 18 karat gold and has 120 diamonds. A new payout structure means players finishing in the middle of the pack have a better chance to cash out winnings.

Meanwhile, the poker room will be easier for spectators to navigate with directional signs pointing out key tables and different events.

ESPN nearly doubled the number of cameras it uses to cover the event to 40 while the final table area has been transformed with more bleacher-style seating and an expanded footprint.

"Our promise each year is to do better than we did the year before," Pollack said.

The first event that began the tournament, a mixed hold'em game that flips between limit and no-limit play, had a $5,000 buy-in and unofficially attracted more than 450 entries.

Last year, the World Series held 46 events that attracted more than 42,000 entrants from 56 countries and generated a total prize pool of more than $171 million.

Hollywood producer Jamie Gold won a record $12 million when he bested a field of 8,773 entries over a two-week period to capture the world poker championship in the tournament's main event, the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold'em competition.

Whether or not the 2007 World Series of Poker reaches those figures is up for debate.

Last year, Congress passed a bill barring bettors from using credit cards, checks and electronic fund transfers to settle online wagers. The prohibition halted contests operated on pay-for-play poker Web sites, which had served as a growing source of World Series of Poker entries.

Although poker players from countries outside the United States can still qualify for the tournament through online play, it's doubtful they will make up for the absent American qualifiers.

Pollack hopes additional events geared toward amateur players will help increase attendance. Two different lower-limit H.O.R.S.E. events ($2,500 and $3,500 buy-ins) have been added along with a heads-up competition where players compete just two to a table.

"We'll have more action at the other end of the spectrum that we hope will attract competition," Pollack said.

Although the Internet poker-sponsored player lounges prevalent the past two years won't exist this year, a VIP Lounge for players who make a tax-deductible $1,000 contribution to the Nevada Cancer Institute, will be available.

Another charitable event will be the Ante Up For Africa tournament on July 5. Hosted by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle and poker professional Annie Duke, the event will feature Hollywood celebrities and top poker professionals competing in a tournament designed to raise public awareness about and money for victims of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan.

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