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WSOP optimistic for this year's event

12 May 2011

By Howard Stutz
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The federal government's crackdown on three Internet poker gambling sites and their operators won't hurt participation in the 2011 World Series of Poker tournament, which is scheduled to begin at the end of the month at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, tournament officials said Wednesday.

However, World Series of Poker Executive Director Ty Stewart acknowledged that poker players who can't retrieve funds frozen by the three shuttered poker sites could have their gambling activities curtailed.

"The World Series of Poker is not impervious to outside issues," Stewart said during a media conference call to kick off the 42nd annual tournament. "We are concerned about players not getting their funds back in a timely fashion. If a large amount of bankroll is impacted, that could be a salient factor."

The 2010 World Series of Poker, held in the midst of a recession, attracted a record 72,966 entrants from 117 nations with players competing for more than $187.1 million in prize money over 57 events.

Stewart and World Series of Poker Tournament Director Jack Effel said they don't see any reason why this year's field of players won't meet or exceed last year's numbers.

Higher buy-in events, such as the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em World Championship, which attracted 7,319 players last year, could see an attendance drop, however, if players still can't collect tied-up funds by July.

"We're optimistic because if you're a poker player with any bankroll, you will be in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker," Stewart said.

Advance hotel room bookings at the Rio are up for June and July, Stewart said, which is a better benchmark on attendance than advance registration for different events.

Tournament officials addressed what they called, "the elephant in the room" at the outset of the conference call.

On April 15, 11 individuals, including the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, were charged by federal prosecutors with money laundering, bank fraud, and operating illegal gambling businesses in a nine-count indictment unsealed in New York. The websites were frozen and the government said it was seeking $3 billion in money laundering penalties.

Stewart said the World Series of Poker, "did not have any contractual agreements" with the three gambling websites. However, the sites had a presence at past World Series of Poker tournaments, sponsoring and paying players large endorsement fees to wear logos on shirts and hats for televised events, such as final tables. Star poker players who served as the websites' online spokesmen often had their entry fees covered.

The past two Main Event champions, Joe Cada and Jonathan Duhamel, were sponsored by PokerStars.

Stewart said the tournament has not changed its rules about players wearing logos. But his understanding is operators have terminated agreements with poker players or have asked the players not to wear the logos at American events.

Because the websites have been slow to unfreeze players' accounts, Stewart said he doubts any players would wear logos from the indicted companies.

"It would be like walking into a PETA convention wearing a fur coat," Stewart said.

The World Series of Poker changed many of its rules after the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act became law in 2006. The Act, signed by President George W. Bush, made it illegal for banks and financial companies to process Internet gambling transactions.

Stewart said the start of the 58-event World Series of Poker on May 31 will help continue interest in the game, despite the cloud over the recent crackdown.

ESPN plans to increase its television broadcast schedule for the tournament, adding 36 hours of same-day coverage for the Main Event between July 16 and 19, starting when the money bubble is reached and the field is sliced to the final table of nine players.

On Wednesday, the tournament announced that it will stream coverage of 55 different gold bracelet final tables online on the World Series of Poker's website with a 30-minute delay.

"The focus is back on the felt," Stewart said. "We expect the summer is going to be great and (the tournament) will give the industry back its swagger."

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