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World Series of Poker

A genius play

The World Series of Poker proves to be a smart investment for the Rio

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A good luck charm at the World Series of Poker.
World Series of Poker/Harrah's

Scanning the packed tables at the Rio, anyone can see the obvious truth: Whoever bought Binion’s to get the World Series of Poker for Harrah’s, and then dumped the casino, still looks like a genius—even in this economy. “Surprisingly, the recession has not impacted us at all so far,” says Seth Palansky, director of communications for the event. “We are setting records.”

Amid the tables, if you close your eyes, it sounds like crickets at night. That’s the sound of chips being dropped by thousands of players at hundreds of tables. Not that a lot of players can hear it: Many of them have audio players, some favoring thick, noise-canceling headphones. Men and women with massage chairs run like medics to players, offering quick rubs.

The poker has been going on in the convention space for weeks, and will continue until July 15. Then there will be a break before the final players in the Main Event finish things November 7-10. The Rio right now is filled with poker players, and that is the idea. According to Palansky, poker is not one of the more profitable games in the resort, netting the casino roughly 6 percent of what is bet, an amount that goes to cover dealers, security and other employees, as well as the loss of the rooms for convention business. The WSOP has only six full-time staffers, but there are a lot of part-timers on hand now: “Altogether there are about 2,000 people working the event, including 1,000 dealers,” Palansky says.

All of this makes the Rio the center of Vegas for people with the gambling bug. At the bars, the hookers are hotter; at the tables, the action is faster; and overall, the resort seems to enjoy weekend-style traffic on a Wednesday afternoon.

The World Series of Poker may have a distinguished history, but it is hardly a static event. The number of contests offered changes every year. This year there are more than 50, with two special events added. One is a $40,000 buy-in, to honor the tournament’s 40th anniversary. Californian Steve Sung, 24, lost his money in that game quickly. But he wanted more action. The other new tournament is a $1,000 “Stimulus Special.” Sung bought in to fill the time. The original 6,012 players in this game started as the largest number of players for anything other than the Main Event in the history of the WSOP. As a result, the small-stakes tournament carried a big prize. At midnight on Friday Sung won $771,106. Of course, he is not done; Sung, like so many others, is getting ready for the Main Event in July. There is a lot of poker to be played before then, and all of it at the Rio.

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Richard Abowitz

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