Are you ready for some poker?

The World Series of Poker prepares to shuffle up and deal at the Rio

By Renée LiButti

When it comes to world-class poker, nothing compares to the World Series of Poker, which will get underway at the end of this month in Las Vegas. Now in its 43rd year, the prestigious poker tournament is on track to bestow the richest first-place prize in sports.

“With a $200 million prize pool, it’s going to be a record-breaking World Series of Poker,” said Ty Stewart, the tournament’s executive director. “I think people are going to recall the special $1 million buy-in and having the all-time record of a $15-million-plus first-place prize, which should end up being not just the biggest prize in poker history, but also the biggest single prize that’s awarded in sports.”

Action at the 2011 World Series of Poker

Players competing in the early action of the 2011 World Series of Poker at the Rio

The World Series of Poker, presented by Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, kicks off on Sunday, May 27 at the off-Strip Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. The action – consisting of approximately 75,000 entrants competing for a $200 million prize purse in front of ESPN cameras – will run through July 16. Due to this year’s presidential election, the Main Event, a final table of nine contestants dubbed the “November Nine,” has been moved up a week. This year it will be called the “October Nine” because the nine finalists will play down to two on Oct. 28, and then the final battle and crowning of the champion will take place on Oct. 30.

“We would have been head-to-head in our normal slot in November against the presidential election, and it’s not in anybody’s best interests to be up against that,” explained Jack Effel, the tournament director of the World Series of Poker. “Other big organizations – whether it’s the NFL or Major League Baseball – are making scheduling changes around the conventions and the whole process as well.”

This will be Effel’s eighth year working at the World Series of Poker and his sixth year as the tournament’s director. He oversaw the first $100 million prize pool when he started in 2005 and now eagerly anticipates the trailblazing prize pool of 2012.

“World Series of Poker just continues to break records, and players continue to show their support,” said Effel. “Every time a World Series of Poker event is played, history is made, prize money is won and someone is that much richer in World Series of Poker wealth.”

Indeed, the tournament has experienced mind-blowing growth over the years. The World Series of Poker began in 1970, when Benny Binion invited a handful of the best-known players to be part of a high-stakes tournament at his namesake Binion’s Horseshoe casino (now known simply as Binion’s) in downtown Las Vegas. The following year, seven players posted a $5,000 entry fee to complete for a winner-takes-all prize. Today, the World Series of Poker, which moved to the Rio in 2005, boasts a collection of 61 distinct tournaments in all variations of poker, with buy-ins ranging from $500 to $1 million per event.

The World Series of Poker logo

The 2012 World Series of Poker is sponsored by Jack Link's Beef Jerky.

“We’re excited to be back at the Rio. We’ve continued to expand – as we’ve done every year for the past few years,” said Effel. “This year – along with the convention space utilized for poker action – we’ll have the Brasilia Room, where we’ll house 92 additional tables that will be dedicated to bracelet events. Between the Brasilia Room, the Amazon Ballroom and The Pavilion, we’re going to be approaching 470 tables. And that’s not including the resort’s poker room and the Búzios space that we have in the casino, which will put us at close to 500 poker tables on the property – the largest number ever played in one venue for a poker event. We’re prepared for a huge and great World Series of Poker!”

With 61 bracelet events, players and fans alike can rest assured that all of their favorite games are coming back – and being joined by a few new ones. This includes two fairly affordable events: an ante-only no-limit hold’em tournament with a $1,500 buy-in and a four-max no-limit hold’em tournament with a $2,500.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in popularity with four-handed poker this year,” said Effel. “With the $2,500 buy-in, we’ll likely have a 1,000-plus player field in the World Series of Poker.”

Plans are also in the works to debut what’s been nicknamed a “mix-max” event with a $5,000 buy-in. The format engages nine players per table on day one, six players per table on day two and so on. This will continue until the final 32 players are determined. Then the field will be reseeded into a heads-up bracket from high to low chip stack and played down until there’s a winner.

“We used this format at the World Series of Poker Europe with about 125 non-seeded players and a 10,000 euro buy-in. It was very exciting,” said Effel. “Michael ‘The Grinder’ Mizrachi won it. He didn’t even let other players have a chance. He beat them in five minutes every time he got to the table.”

Besides these and other events, there will be 24-hour cash games along with single-table and mega-satellite daily tournaments. Thrice-daily no-limit hold’em tournaments with buy-ins priced as low as $135 will be occurring nonstop throughout the Rio as well.

Plus, there are some interesting changes to the rules that are likely to lead to a livelier World Series of Poker this year. First off, players will be allowed to celebrate their success as long as it doesn’t disrupt the tournament or injure anyone. Excessive celebration – like jumping, grabbing chairs and other theatrical outbursts – are still being discouraged.

Pius Heinz wins the Main Event at the 2011 World Series of Poker

Pius Heinz won the Main Event – and $8.72 million! – at the 2011 World Series of Poker. This year, the first-place winner will take home more than $15 million.

“We want to have an authentic experience. If people are excited about potentially winning unthinkable money, then they should be able to show excitement,” said Stewart. “This is unlike any other poker tournament in the world, so my hat is off to Jack for acknowledging that there can be some flexibility in the rules to make everything more enjoyable for the players.”

Secondly, along similar lines, players will also be allowed to use “verbal strategy” during this year’s World Series of Poker. Many people in the poker community have felt that the rules for talking have been too tight – meaning it’s been too quiet at the tables because players won’t say anything in fear of penalties. However, according to Effel, verbal strategy has been an important way to outmaneuver opponents dating back to poker’s origins at saloons in the Old West.

“We’d like to see more players talk at the table because we definitely feel it’s an integral part of the game. So we’ve revised our talking rule to be as such: You can say anything you want regarding the contents of your hand, as long as you don’t expose your cards and you reopen the action to a player who has already acted,” explained Effel. “Obviously, there are going to be some errors, but what we’re trying to do is get players to loosen up a little, be able to talk and have a good time at the poker table.”

Although there has been some anxiety about the viability of poker in recent years, both Effel and Stewart share a positive view about the future.

“I think we’ve seen that this game is stronger than we’d all even hoped, that it has become truly global and that it is here to stay,” added Stewart. “There’s little doubt that in a few year’s time we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the World Series of Poker, and I’d be willing to bet the over on it right now, whatever the line.”

For more information on the World Series of Poker and a complete schedule of events, click here.


I’m a Las Vegas native. By profession, I write at Mostly about the city’s hotels, but on other topics – gaming and transportation – too. I really love staying at hotels. And the ones here are among the biggest and best in the world. Some key things I’ve learned: Resort fees are inescapable (frustrating but true), a friendly attitude at the front desk may score you a great view and over-the-top room amenities – bath butlers, Japanese tea service, menus with “intimate” items – do exist. What else should you know about me? Well, I’m comfortable at a blackjack table. And I like eating late-night pancakes in hotel coffee shops. A lot. Follow Renee on Google+.