The championship event of the World Series of Poker last weekend attracted about 20 percent fewer players than last year’s main event — the first time since 1992 that the number of entrants decreased from the previous year.
The $10,000 buy-in main event kicked off the first four opening days with approximately 6,350 players (an exact count of Monday’s entrants was not available at press time), far fewer than the 8,773 who participated last year.
Fewer entries mean the prize pool will be smaller. According to the payout structure sheet, this year’s winner is likely to take home about $8 million, significantly less than the $12 million awarded to last year’s winner, Jamie Gold.
The drop-off is widely blamed on a U.S. law enacted last October that cracks down on online gambling.
The law prohibits banks and other payment processors from handling cash transactions from U.S.-based players to and from online poker sites.
In response to the law, the WSOP this year prohibited any "third party" registrations from Internet poker rooms, such as PartyPoker.com, PokerStars.com and ParadisePoker.com, to name a few.
Those registrations had become significant in recent years. Last year, it is estimated that at least half the field — more than 4,000 players — won their seats into the main event from online poker rooms.
Although Internet poker sites this year conducted satellites and other tournaments designed to award entries into the main event, winners were given the $10,000 cash entry (plus traveling expenses).
There was no estimate as to how many players actually used the money to enter the World Series, and how many simply pocketed the cash or played in cheaper events.
Tournament commissioner Jeffrey Pollack said organizers were focused on making the tournament better, not necessarily bigger.
"Whether it’s 4,000, 6,000, 8,000, or 10,000, this will still be the biggest, richest, most prestigious poker tournament in the world," Pollack said. "Whoever wins will walk away a multimillionaire, lives will be changed and some great poker will be played."
The WSOP crew set up a high-tech tent (euphemistically called the "pavilion") for several tables of play outside the host Rio hotel — giving it a capacity for 12,000 players over the first four days — but coupled with the smaller fields and soaring temperatures, the tent was only used on the third and fourth days, when the fields exceeded 1,600 players.
Tournament play will continue this week as the field is whittled down to the final nine players, whose final table is scheduled for Tuesday, July 17.
Even with fewer contestants, the odds against making it through the large field were still colossal.
As usual, play began in a circus-like atmosphere. Las Vegas entertainer George Wallace announced the traditional "shuffle up and deal!" Comedians Ray Romano and Brad Garrett, from the TV series "Everybody Loves Raymond," yukked it up as ESPN camera crews rolled. "Are you able to get his entire nose in the shot?" Garrett quipped.
Jeff Madsen, a 22-year-old who became the youngest player to win an event bracelet last year, then followed up with a second, appeared in a black and red jester suit after losing a bet with pros Gavin Smith and Joe Sebok. Smith also appeared as a clown on his starting day.
"Maybe people will play different against me because they think I’m a joke," Madsen said.
And in World Series tradition, the first player to be knocked out, losing his $10,000 buy-in within the first 10 minutes of play, received a small measure of recognition.
This year, Luke Staudenmaier, a 21-year-old online poker player from Pittsburgh, called an all-in raise before the flop with pocket aces. When his opponent showed an ace and king of clubs, Staudenmaier said he was "elated," because he was a huge favorite to double up his chip stack. But his opponent made a flush, and Staudenmaier’s million-dollar dream ended.
"I’m sure I’ll never live it down although I couldn’t do anything to change it," he said. "I guess it just wasn’t meant to be."
That would be the refrain throughout the tournament, as Lady Luck often interceded on an unfortunate player’s behalf.