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Quest for gold!

Apr 16, 2003 3:48 AM

By David Stratton

Every sport has its trophy, its shining symbol of excellence. Hockey has its Stanley Cup. Football has its Lombardi Trophy. And poker has its gold bracelet.

Those coveted gold bracelets will be on the minds of thousands of poker players over the next five weeks in downtown Las Vegas, where Binion’s Horseshoe hosts its 34th annual World Series of Poker.

"The bracelet means more to me than the prize money," said one poker player, who traveled from New Jersey to compete in this year’s tournament. "Prize money comes and goes, but the gold bracelet is everlasting."

The gold bracelet is an exclusive at the World Series of Poker. Only one will be awarded for each of the 35 events. Each symbolizes excellence, each represents a championship.

Whether the game is Seven Card Stud, Razz, Limit Hold’em, ”˜em, Omaha Hi-Lo Split, H.O.R.S.E., Pot Limit Omaha, or any of the other WSOP events, the winner receives a gold bracelet.

"In a sense the gold bracelet represents immortality," said George Fisher, poker director at the Horseshoe. "You can play poker for a lifetime and never win one. That’s why they’re so highly valued."

Fisher said this year’s World Series will award more prize money — up to $25 million — than every before. Last year, players split nearly $20 million in prizes.

Although some poker players from locales such as Europe and the Far East may be hampered because concerns over travel, Fisher said he expected at least a near record number of entrants.

The featured event, which takes place starting Monday, May 19, is the $10,000 buy-in, No Limit Hold ”˜em World Championship.

Twelve years ago, Brad Daugherty was the first player to ever win a million dollars in a poker tournament. Only 10 years later, Chris Ferguson became the first player to win $1.5 million. Last year, Robert Varkonyi won the World Championship and $2 million.

This year, some lucky person will win at least that amount, and take home the cherished gold bracelet. The champion will also be enshrined on the Horseshoe’s Wall of Fame, joining such poker titans as Johnny Moss, Johnny Chan, Stu Unger and Bobby Baldwin.

With extensive worldwide press coverage, the World Series of Poker draws thousands of people to downtown Las Vegas.

All of the tournament events are held upstairs in the converted ballroom, while poker satellites are conducted in Binion’s poker room downstairs.

Any poker player, 21 years and older — amateurs and professionals alike — has a chance to win any event, including the World Championship, by entering and winning the satellite tournaments.

The idea for the World Series was sparked in the summer of 1949,when high-stakes gambler Nick the Greek Dandolos approached Benny Binion, owner of the Horseshoe, with an unusual request: to challenge the best in a high stakes poker marathon.

Binion agreed to set up a match between Dandolos and Johnny Moss, with the stipulation that the game be played in public view at the front of the casino.

Johnny Moss ultimately won the "biggest game in town," and Binion was amazed at the attention the five-month marathon attracted. In 1970, he decided to recreate this excitement and staged a battle of poker giants to determine who would be worthy of the title, "World Champion."

In addition to the cash and the championship title, the winner was awarded an engraved, 14-karat gold bracelet to commemorate the victory.

The idea that a player can land a spot in the World Championship by starting at an inexpensive satellite tournament proved true last year as Robert Varkonyi from New York parlayed a single table satellite entry into a $2 million cash prize.

Varkonyi topped an all-time record field of 631 entries during an intense five-day championship poker game.

His unorthodox style and dynamic performance at the poker table will be remembered for years to come. His "Queen-ten" (the final winning hand of the tournament) is sure to be remembered as a "Varkonyi."