Despite questions that clouded its future, the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe gets under way on Thursday, marking the start of 35 championship events, culminating in the $10,000 buy-in, No Limit Hold’em World Championship, May 22-29.
With the closure in January of the Horseshoe, and subsequent sale to MTR Gaming, the future of the World Series had been in doubt. But Harrah’s, which will run the hotel-casino for at least a year, has vowed to keep the legendary poker event intact.
In fact, World Series tournament co-director Matt Savage said this year’s tourney will feature "58 exciting days" of championship play and more than $25 million in prize money for players.
Equally important are the gold bracelets that accompany the first place awards.
"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."
Indeed, 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, 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.
Although some poker players from locales such as Europe and the Far East may be hampered because of concerns over travel, poker officials expect a near record number of entrants and lots of exciting action.
In will be hard, however, to top the excitement of last year’s World Series, when Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson won his ninth gold bracelet, and perennial champ Johnny Chan added two more bracelets to his jewelry box.
Chan captured his eighth and ninth gold bracelets for winning the $5,000 No Limit Hold’em and the $5,000 Pot Limit Hold’em events, respectively.
Good-naturedly known as the "Orient Express," Chan said the money and bracelet are great, but playing the game is supreme.
"I play because I enjoy the game," Chan said. "No Limit Hold’em is the most skillful poker game, and that’s why I enjoy playing it the most."
Earlier in the World Series, Brunson captured his ninth gold bracelet by winning the $2,000 H.O.R.S.E. event.
Just one bracelet behind Chan and Brunson is Phil Hellmuth, who had seven gold bracelets to his credit before winning the $2,500 Limit Texas Hold’em event.
Another player to hit the board after a considerable absence was Men "The Master" Nguyen, whose victory in the $5,000 buy-in Seven-Card Stud event brought Nguyen his first gold bracelet since 1996.
But perhaps the biggest story of last year’s tournament was Doyle Brunson’s win. For poker fans, it was like watching Jack Nicklaus win the Masters in the twilight of his career, or watching Babe Ruth hit a home run in his final at bat.
Brunson’s presence at the final table was enough to guarantee a standing-room only crowd. Brunson was making his first final table in five years.
When it was over, Brunson had cashed 23 times in the legendary tournament, with two world championships ”” in 1976 and 1977 ”” under his considerable belt. Between 1987 and 1997, Brunson made it to six final tables, and won all six!
After the game, Brunson fielded questions from reporters and fans alike. Determined to win a 10th gold bracelet, Brunson declared he "won’t retire until I stop winning."
Poker lovers hope that won’t occur any time soon.