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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 2)

True or not, it's a convenient stance for Lipscombe to take. Doug Dalton, who manages poker for the Bellagio, views the whole explosion of tournaments in a more measured way. "In the big picture of poker, it is not advantageous for poker players to play in tournaments; it is not good for the poker economy," he says. "You pool together all this money and it gets handed back to one or two people. Who knows what they will do with it? It may end up back in poker. Or it may get taken out of circulation. Plus, a player without a lot of experience gives himself a better chance by sitting down (in a ring game) with $2,000, winning a little, and getting up to leave. In a poker tournament, you can't get up to leave."

While Dalton obviously has his own biases, he acknowledges that the growth of tournament play and an association with the World Poker Tour have their appeals. "Poker tournaments are not going away, and I realized I can't keep overlooking them," he says, sounding resigned. "We have the highest limits for poker in the world, and it there was no reason for us not to be a major player in this industry. It made no sense for our customers to go everywhere else while we don't do anything."

So, in typical Bellagio style, he stepped up and put on the biggest tournament that poker has ever seen.

It is easy to imagine that the Bellagio and World Poker Tour want to devour the Horseshoe and its World Series. But Dalton, Lipscomb and Berman insist that nothing can be further from the truth. Still, considering the world they're operating in, a bluff from them would hardly be out of the question. Lipscomb acknowledges that the World Poker Tour wanted the Series to be the finale of its season, but the Horseshoe turned the offer down (it has a deal with ESPN). Rumors swirl that the Series name was once up for sale with a $6 million price tag and people in the poker world whisper that the Binion's classic is hobbling.

In the wake of the 2003 event, however, that last nugget of gossip is hard to take very seriously. The big game at the World Series attracted 839 participants, creating an overall purse of $7.8 million and a first prize of $2.5 million. Those are all record breakers, and there's no reason to doubt that next year will be even bigger. Driving the whole thing home with poetic efficiency is that the winner of this year's Series was an unknown accountant from Tennessee, with the improbable name of Chris Moneymaker, who had never before competed in a live tournament. Moneymaker qualified by putting up $40 to play a satellite event on the Internet. Upon completion of the World Series' final hand—which he won with a full house—this poster boy for the mainstreaming of poker turned from the table and bear-hugged his father who had loaned him the $2,000 that financed his trip to the big game.

No doubt it's a moment that will make for great television.

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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