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Who Wants to Be a Poker Millionaire?

The game is shedding its outlaw image and going prime-time, with big purses up for grabs
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 1)

Highly ranked poker pro T. J. Cloutier strolls by and happens to overhear Behnen. He stops to offer an opinion, "The people who play in the $25,000 event will also play here in the $10,000 tournament. They're all top players with top bucks and they will play in all of them. It's the little tournaments that can dry up money."

"Plus," adds Behnen, looking for an upside, "there is the dead money theory. In the $25,000 buy-in there is no dead money"—that is, players with hardly a chance of winning. "That was 110 of the best players in the world at the Bellagio."

Cloutier concurs, "Three hundred of the players here (about one-third of the field) have absolutely no chance. Of the next 300 you can block off 150. If they get lucky for five days, they have a chance of winning. But you wouldn't want to bet on them getting that lucky."

While the extra week of events that has been added to the World Series can cause people to be initially conservative with money, some players attribute the slowdown in the tournament's early games to an inevitable evolution of poker. Melissa Hayden, a slender redhead who is a regular on the tournament circuit, believes that the Internet, with its 24/7 online games, has removed some of the emotion wrapped up in a place like the Horseshoe. On top of that, she points out, the sheer volume of tournaments around the world has diluted the uniqueness of the Series. "Online players don't come here with a three-dimensional attachment to the World Series or, for that matter, to any poker tournament," says Hayden. "The World Series is still the one that everyone wants to win. But with big tournaments taking place every month, something gets taken away (from the Series)." And, she adds, that will be magnified "in five years, when playing poker online really takes off."

In downtown Vegas, at the poker room of Sam's Town, a casino favored by locals, a game that would daunt all but the most fearless of players is in progress. Brunson, world-class player Chip Reese and entrepreneur Lyle Berman casually enjoy the kinds of stakes that could drain a wealthy person's life savings in an afternoon of bad and unlucky play. However, in his role as financier of the World Poker Tour, Berman has spent the last year playing an even higher stakes game than the one unfolding at this table.

His World Poker Tour ante was $5 million and, even at that price, Berman viewed it as too good a bet to pass up. But he wanted partners. So, over dinner at Prime, Bellagio's steakhouse, he proposed the idea to Brunson, Reese and Jack Binion (the former force behind the World Series of Poker). They listened, considered and ultimately opted not to invest. Still confident, Berman decided to take on the risk himself and put up the seed money. "I had been thinking about placing poker on the air as a spectator sport for a long time," says Berman, who developed and built casinos around the United States before merging his company, Grand Casinos Inc., with Hilton Hotel Corp. in 1998 to create Park Place Entertainment Corp. Right from the start Berman realized that it would be critical for viewers at home to see the players' hole cards and to follow their thought processes via incisive commentary. He understood the need for drama rather than pure entertainment. "We didn't want the show to be a one-off thing. The idea was always for it to be something that you could follow for 13 weeks, like 'The Sopranos.'"

Berman reports that first-season revenues will return all but a half million dollars of his investment, and, as tournaments continue to grow in popularity, there seems to be nothing but upside in his near future. He talks about making the World Poker Tour into a card-playing version of the PGA Tour—complete with sponsor-funded prize money—but he points out that his event will always have an egalitarian edge. You can't buy your way into the PGA but you can buy your way into a poker tournament; anybody with $5,000 or $10,000 or $25,000 can belly up to the baize and match wits against the Johnny Chans of the world. While Berman talks about getting sponsors and having seeded players, he notes that unknowns keep it interesting. "If you have skills, even home-game skills, you can enter the tournament and compete," he says, not needing to mention that poker's luck curve is sharp enough for plenty of unknowns to have made final tables at the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour.

Besides sweetening the pot with dead money, non-professionals serve an important purpose for home viewers: it's satisfying to watch an anonymous weekend player occasionally cleaning the clock of a well-known poker stud. But whoever's playing, the pressure-cooking nature of high-stakes poker is a natural for television. "You can't camouflage your feelings in a poker game," says Berman, who's had enough high-stakes adventures to know. "In any 12-hour session of poker, you get down to every emotion a man can experience. How does he handle elation? How does he handle defeat? You get down to the raw truth at a poker table."

This naturally leads to the question of whether or not poker players want the raw truth exposed, if they mind being on television and having their strategies revealed to potential opponents. Like it or not, as Berman points out, if they want to play in some of the world's largest tournaments, they have no choice. And the allure of stardom and the possibility of their game breaking out big time provide potent counterbalance. Finally, according to Bellagio winner Goehring, "It takes more than a couple hours of watching me on TV to tune in to my trade secrets."

Producer/Director Steve Lipscomb, who had filmed a couple of gambling-related programs before pitching the idea of the World Poker Tour to Berman, insists that some players use the TV angle to their advantage. "Our repeat winner, Gus Hanson, plays to the camera," says Lipscomb. "He shows his cards to the camera and he does it to play with the other guy's head. Poker is one of the greatest psychological battles you'll ever see. And there's an educational component. Watch these shows a second and third time and you'll get stuff you didn't notice the first time. It'll make you into a better player."

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