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Apr 20, 2004 6:39 AM

The Five Star World Poker Tour Classic at Bellagio in Las Vegas culminates this week with the World Poker Tour (WPT) Championship, which kicked off Monday and continues through Friday.

The final event of the tournament, the WPT Championship, is the richest in tournament play with a buy-in of $25,300. The event will be filmed for broadcast later this year on the Travel Channel.

At least 200 players were expected to pony up their $25,000 entry fees or earn a seat via satellite tournaments. The WPT championship is expected to be contested by the world’s top poker players including last year’s champ, Alan Goehring, and top flight players, Howard Lederer, Johnny Chan, T.J. Cloutier and Scotty Nguyen.

In addition to the WPT Championship, Bellagio hosted 12 other events, including Limit Hold’em, Seven Card Stud, Omaha Hi-Lo, and Pot Limit Hold’em, to name a few. Buy-ins range from $2,500 to $10,000.

Because of the power blackout at the Bellagio, four tournaments — Events No. 9 through 12 — were cancelled. They included Omaha Hi-Lo, $5,000 buy-in Limit Hold’em, $5,000 buy-in Seven Card Stud and $500 buy-in No Limit Hold’em.

Nevertheless, the preliminary poker events offered plenty of opportunities for new champs to emerge. In the $2,500 No Limit Hold’em event, the total prize pool of $875,425 was sought after by 360 players. Taking first place and the $339,000 award was Howard Lederer of Las Vegas, a long-time pro and World Series winner.

Other top names to compete were T.J. Cloutier who took third place ($80,762), and Scotty Nguyen of Henderson (15th place).

Lederer also found the winner’s circle after he won the $5,000 buy-in Pot Limit Omaha event, which brought him another $139,680 in winnings.

In other action, Barry Greenstein won the $2,500 buy-in, No Limit Hold’em event, which was worth a cool $215,000 and, equally important, a $25,000 seat in this week’s WPT Championship.

The World Poker Tour, and its affiliation with the Travel Channel, is credited with stimulating a national interest in poker that borders on frenzy.

"We are very excited about the World Poker Tour series on the Travel Channel and the significant increases in viewership we’ve experienced," said Travel Channel General Manager Steve Cheskin. "The success of the series shows that poker makes for good television ”” and that’s a testament to the World Poker Tour’s unique and compelling format."

By bringing viewers inside high stakes poker tournaments and using state-of-the-art technology to reveal the cards held by the world’s elite poker players, the WPT has turned a popular card game into a must-watch spectator sport with millions of dollars on the table.

With the record buy-in of $25,000, the series finale and championship event being taped this week (for broadcast later this summer), marks a high point in the Travel Channel’s coverage.

"We’re thrilled with the ratings success of the World Poker Tour series," said World Poker Tour CEO Steve Lipscomb. "The series’ success further emboldens our feeling that we’re on the crest of a wave ”” with the best yet to come.

"Poker is a hugely popular pastime with an estimated 40-50 million players nationwide," he continued. "However, poker as a primetime television series is brand new, and it is clearly resonating with audiences."

World Poker Tour tournaments air on Wednesdays on the Travel Channel. The tour is a global series of poker tournaments united under one banner for television. This is the tour’s second complete season.