Poker Faces?

Mar 23, 2004 5:27 AM

Last Saturday, the Palms hotel-casino unveiled its newly-expanded poker room to overflow crowds. To make room for the expansion, the Palms scrapped its keno lounge, and in the process gained more poker tables and a wider variety of games.

On Sunday, the poker room at The Orleans signed up a whopping 153 players at $50 apiece for its afternoon poker tournament. Similar crowds were expected for the evening tournament.

And statistics released from the Gaming Control Board reveal that Nevada casinos raked in $68,276,000 from 383 poker tables statewide in 2003, an 18 percent increase over card game revenue the previous year.

But players’ passion for poker isn’t restricted to Nevada poker rooms. Last week, the PartyPoker Million tournament, which is conducted on a cruise ship sailing along the Mexican Riviera, attracted 546 players who were vying for $3,847,000.

Last year’s maritime tournament attracted only 177 players.

The poker craze is sweeping the country. Much of the interest in tournament-style poker has been fueled by the World Poker Tour (WPT) and its TV coverage on the Travel Channel, as well as celebrity poker tournaments aired regularly on Fox Sports Network.

The World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel (broadcast Wednesday nights) has become one of the highest-rated shows on cable television. The WPT season features 14 tournaments conducted in the top poker rooms in the country.

Next week, the WPT lands in Reno for the $5,000 buy-in, World Poker Challenge, and next month (April 19), the Bellagio hosts the $25,000 buy-in World Poker Tour Championship.

WPT events are broadcast on the Travel Channel about a month after the live event. This week, the WPT tourney held in Paris, France last month will be broadcast on Wednesday night.

"We at the WPT can’t believe the increase in players for the PartyPoker Million ... it’s a testament to and its dedication to growing the event ," said CEO of the World Poker Tour, Steve Lipscomb.

The World Poker Tour, about 80 percent owned by Lakes Entertainment, attracts more than five million TV viewers each week to watch the high stakes drama of the tense competition.

Among the highlights of the broadcast are expert commentary by poker pros such as Mike Sexton, analysis of poker and betting strategy, and WPT cameras that reveal the players’ hidden cards.

Industry trades claim the show is the highest rated series in the history of The Travel Channel.

And spiraling TV ratings have helped drive the WPT’s total prize money in its second season to an estimated $30 million, triple the prize money last year.

In turn, the added prize money is attracting many newcomers to WPT tournaments, as well as the game of poker in general.

In addition to high-stakes tournament play, the interest in poker has been piqued by the incursion of high-profile celebrities. Tournaments such as last month’s World Poker Tour Invitational at the Commerce Casino created a whole new fan base as it attracted the largest group of celebrity players ever.

Among them were James Woods, Jon Favreau, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mimi Rogers (fresh from her victory in the recently aired WPT Hollywood Home Game); Norm McDonald; Lolita Davidovich; David Arquette; Camryn Manheim; Ed Asner; Jennifer Tilly; Sharon Lawrence; Aisha Tyler; Sex and the City’s Willie Garson and Ron Livingston; Home Improvement’s Richard Karn; MadTV’s Mo Collins, and Richard Kind of Spin City.

Also bellying up to the tables were Andrea Parker and Sara Rue from Less Than Perfect; David Sutcliffe of I’m With Her, The Gilmore Girls’ Jared Padelecki; comedians Kathy Griffin and Howie Mandel; Love Line’s Adam Corolla; Rossi Morreale, host of Junkyard Megawars on TLC; L.A. Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss; and Stephen Collins of Seventh Heaven.

The celebrities squared off against some of the best of the poker world, including Gus Hansen, T.J. Cloutier, Annie Duke, Phil Ivey, and Layne Flack.

"The WPT has amassed a huge celebrity following," Lipscomb said. "Now, the largest field of big name stars ever assembled on the felt will have a chance to play against the best players in the world. Our shows have proven time and again, that anything can happen, and anyone can win."

In last year’s edition of the WPT Invitational, Dr. Jerry Buss finished second to leading pro Layne Flack, after a very intense showdown. Veteran Hollywood player Mickey Rooney also just missed making the final table. This year’s celebrities have an additional year’s worth of practice under their belts and new tips gleaned from the World Poker Tour shows.

The WPT Invitational will be broadcast on the Travel Channel on June 2.

The World Poker Tour is a joint venture between Steven Lipscomb and Lakes Entertainment, Inc., which owns approximately 80 percent of WPT.

It should be noted that Lakes Entertainment is owned by Lyle Berman, a world-class poker player in his own right, and former World Series of Poker bracelet winner.