POSTED: 5:09 a.m. HST, May 31, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 8:36 a.m. HST, May 31, 2011
LAS VEGAS >> The world's richest series of card tournaments was starting Tuesday in Las Vegas amid a state of weakness for online poker in the United States, with many players uneasy about bankrolls and reeling from indictments that have shut down several major poker websites.
With casino officials optimistic yet admittedly unclear exactly how the World Series of Poker would be affected, two of 58 tournaments were starting with the promise of awarding millions in prize money, gold bracelets and instant fame to winners in many poker variations.
"There'll probably be a lot of chatter," said Phil Hellmuth, an 11-time bracelet winner who has won $6.2 million at the series since 1988. "It's still the purest poker festival on the planet."
The series culminates in July with the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event, and then a nearly two-week affair that ends in November after a break to give its top nine players several months to think about how to finish their run. Last year's winner, Canadian professional Jonathan Duhamel, won $8.9 million after topping a field of 7,319 players.
Poker's biggest showcase will play out under conditions not seen in the poker world since it began riding booming growth in 2003, when then-unknown amateur Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million in a transcendent moment for the sport. The growth spawned millions of fans and players who fueled an international online poker industry that grew to as much as $6 billion in the United States and even more overseas.
A 2006 law made online poker technically illegal in the United States, but operators — believing the law didn't properly define illegal gambling and saying poker is more skill than luck — kept games and money flowing. The U.S. Justice Department disapproved.
Online play in the United States has largely stopped since mid-April, when federal authorities in New York indicted 11 people tied to PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker on charges they tricked banks into illegally processing payments for gambling. Three more people and a handful of smaller websites were targeted this month through a separate federal case in Maryland, including a site that once promoted itself through card playing icon Doyle Brunson.
For years, the popular sites sent players to the series through smaller tournaments that awarded cash for entry fees. The series, owned by casino giant Caesars Entertainment Corp., hasn't tracked this since 2007, when it stopped letting third parties directly buy entries for players.
How satellite tournaments and the virtual absence of online play will affect the series is not yet clear.
"I think the fields will be slightly tougher," said Daniel "jungleman12" Cates, a 21-year-old online sensation making his debut at the series on Tuesday in a $25,000 buy-in heads up no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament.
Cates, who said the indictments made him more discerning about how he gambles because he has less available cash, said fewer satellite tournaments mean players need the skill — and means — to buy themselves in.
Cates, already considered one of the best players in the world, said he planned to play in many events even though he understands that wins are nowhere near a sure thing.
"My only real expectation is to make some sort of profit," Cates said. "One of my goals is to have as much success live as I've had online."
Hellmuth said that despite critics who think the series may have a down year, he thinks the tournaments and cash games at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino will grow because good players quickly lend each other money, and the series is the poker world's central event each year.
And he thinks that players have studied and will come with more knowledge about the game than ever before.
"Last year, the 2010 World Series of Poker, I really played some good poker and it's aggravating because the results didn't show it," he said. "One of these years, I'm going to put together playing great and running great, and that's when you win a couple bracelets."