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Apr 16, 2003 9:08 PM

The 34th annual World Series of Poker kicks off this week, bringing with it tradition, high-stakes action, colorful characters, millions of dollars in prize money and the fleeting chance at instant celebrity.

These are the lures that draws hundreds of poker players from around the world. This year, players will compete in 35 events, including the prestigious $10,000 buy-in, No Limit Texas Hold’em event, which will determine the new World Champion of Poker.

A total of $25 million in prize money is expected to be paid to players, up from nearly $20 million last year. The World Championship, scheduled to begin May 19, is expected to award more than $2 million to the overall winner.

Any poker player, 21 years and older ”” amateurs and professionals alike ”” has a chance to win any event, including the World Championship.

Binion’s Horseshoe, sponsor of the tournament, offers one-table and multi-table satellite competitions. The small entry fees allow virtually any player to parlay a hundred dollars to more than $2 million.

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 tradition continues for every World Series event, and the bracelet has become the most prized possession in the world of poker.

Dreams can come true

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."

Runner-up in last year’s championship, Julian Gardner, from Manchester, England, took home $1.1 million.

Riding the satellites

The satellite system offers players a chance to enter a World Series event without having to post the regular buy-ins’s.

The single table satellites give players a means into the World Series by winning a one-table tournament. The winner receives a tournament entry plus cash.

Single table satellites for any particular WSOP event are usually played during the 24-hour period preceding the start of that event.

Single table satellites for all WSOP events begin on April 14 and will run 24 hours a day until the start of the $10,000 buy-in World Championship Event on May 19.

Double shootout satellites are two-tiered satellites that award a $10,000 seat for the World Championship Event to a player who beats out 18 other players, nine at the first table and nine more at the final table.

Buy-in is $125 for the first table. Winners of ten first table satellites will return to play against each other at a final table. The winner of the final table will receive a $10,000 entry into the World Championship event.

Super satellites are multi-table tournaments offering multiple players the chance to win a $10,000 seat in the World Championship Event. Buy-in is $225, and multiple $200 re-buys are allowed during the first three levels of play.

Prize pool money for each super satellite is converted into as many $10,000 seats as possible, and play ends when there are as many players remaining as there are seats to be awarded.

Super satellites run twice daily at Binion’s at 4 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. from now until May 18.