POSTED: 3:40 p.m. HST, May 31, 2013
LAS VEGAS >> The world's richest series of card tournaments are beginning in Las Vegas amid the return of the websites that helped make them what they are today — a destination for everyone from the wealthiest gamblers to the everyday players who learned the game online.
The World Series of Poker — a seven-week extravaganza featuring trash talking, catch-up session, and ever-shifting stacks of chips— is getting underway one month after the return to the U.S. of legal online poker.
The Nevada-based site Ultimate Poker launched in April, and several companies, including the World Series itself, are expected to open rival sites in the coming weeks.
Organizers hope the online rebirth will help restart the poker craze of the 2000s.
Tens of thousands of poker fans from more than 100 countries still flock to Sin City each year to compete for millions of dollars in prize money and 62 World Series of Poker champion bracelets.
More than 3,000 players are expected to enter Saturday's opening weekend "millionaire maker" tournament at the Rio hotel and casino off the Strip. It's one of five events that pay out at least a million dollars.
For their $1,500 buy-in, players get chips worth $4,500 in game money.
They can't cash out. As in all the tournaments, to win anything back, they must leverage their skill, guts and luck to make the final 10 percent of players.
"Just like in school — to get an A you need 90 percent," spokesman Seth Palansky said.
The World Series started on Wednesday, with an event for casino employees, and has already seen appearances by the game's top players, including 13-time gold bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth, known as "the poker brat," and nine-time bracelet winner Phil Ivey, sometimes called the Tiger Woods of poker. On Thursday, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps ushered in the parade of celebrities who show up at the Rio each year.
First held in 1970, the event is a reunion of sorts for top players. At the table, players listen to music on headphones and don sunglasses. But outside of playing hours— which end at 3 a.m. this year— side games and hang out sessions abound.
Seemingly every major poker variation is present, with buy-ins for the various events ranging from $500 to $111,111. Anyone 21 years or older can enter and admission to watch is free.
The series culminates in July with the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event, then pauses before the final nine competitors meet in November. The final table will air live on ESPN.
Last year's winner, professional player Greg Merson of Maryland won $8.53 million after topping a field of 6,600 participants. He was 24.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Chris Moneymaker's historic 2003 main event win.
Moneymaker's televised transformation from an amateur player to an international star was a watershed moment for the championship.
The Nashville accountant managed to parlay a $40 entry fee in an Internet poker tournament into a $2.5 million prize and the game's most prestigious title.
After that, every computer nerd with a pair of mirrored sunglasses thought he could take on the pros. Newly minted aficionados honed their skills online, shielded from the trash talking and snickering of a real table game.
Poker's popularity began to fade after a government crackdown on the semi-legal world of online wagers in 2007.
Entries in the series' main event took a tumble that year, falling by 28 percent from a high of 8,773. Entries have only topped 7,000 once in the years since.
Never fully legal, Internet betting was strictly outlawed in 2011, after the Department of Justice seized the domain names of the largest offshore sites catering to U.S. customers.
This crackdown, dubbed "black Friday," left poker fanatics with two options: They could either get dressed and visit a card room, or break the law and log into an offshore site.
Now, online poker is returning state by state, starting in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware.
The World Series of Poker brand is getting in on the action with its own real money site, which could debut during tournament play.
Organizers accidentally let the site go live on Wednesday before quickly taking it back down.
The championship is introducing another wrinkle this year with a tiered pricing structure intended to create a true women's only tournament.
Organizers have attempted to draw ladies with segregated tournaments in the past, but men thinking they spot an edge have always crashed those games.
The World Series is legally bound to take all comers, but this year they are charging men $10,000 to enter the ladies championship, 10 times the normal cost.
The structure takes advantage of a new state law that allows businesses to offer women reduced prices on drinks, food and entertainment.
"Anything to lessen the barrier of entry to get women to play is something we want to do," Palansky said. "It's about trying to get people to sample it who haven't."
That goes for online poker as well, he said.
"It's all about experiencing the game from whatever vantage point, and then we think that you'll eventually end up at this event."