Tuesday, May 17, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
The prevailing thought from those around the poker community is that this year’s World Series of Poker will suffer its first decline in participation in eight years.
With federal authorities shutting off Americans' access to the largest online poker sites last month, many players had large amounts of money frozen and/or lost an avenue to play themselves into some of the WSOP’s tournaments.
Tom Dwan, a notable pro who starred at the 2010 World Series of Poker, was among those predicting a sharp decrease in numbers. Dwan tweeted that he would set the over/under on Main Event players at 5,144 — more than 2,000 less than the 7,319 who paid the $10,000 entry free last year.
Based on comments from World Series of Poker officials on a conference call last week, the over might be a smart bet.
“I believe this is the year when everyone sees evidence of just how big poker has become around the world,” World Series of Poker Executive Director Ty Stewart said. “I believe this is the year where people see and recognize what a juggernaut the modern World Series of Poker has become.”
The 42nd annual World Series of Poker kicks off its eight-week run at the Rio on May 31 with the first of 58 bracelet events. The tournament series faces quite the challenge to live up to last year’s numbers when it brought a record 72,966 entrants.
“We’re always planning for more regardless of any outside factors,” Tournament Director Jack Effel said. “If a tournament had 3,000 players last year, we expect the tournament to have 3,000 players this year.”
The Main Event, an eight-day tournament at the end of the series considered poker’s world championship, drew the second-most participants of all time last year behind only the 8,773 players in 2006’s tournament. The 2006 Main Event, not coincidentally, was the last one to allow poker sites to pay players’ buy-ins.
After the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in late 2006, the WSOP forbid offshore gambling sites from buying in for players directly. Some sites continued to hold tournaments they considered WSOP satellites, but the prize money went directly to the winners who then had to decide for themselves whether to register for the Main Event.
Therefore, it made it impossible to track how many players won their buy-in from online poker sites over the last four years.
“Our adjustments were made in 2007 and we plan no further adjustments this year in light of any recent news,” WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky said.
Palansky noted that Caesars Entertainment would continue to be the leading satellite provider into WSOP tournaments. He estimated that 15 percent of all tournament entries last year came from official satellites.
Effel said Main Event registration was no different than usual at this point, but that most players don’t sign up until right before the tournament. Stewart has already seen reason for optimism.
“We think the hotel rooms booked is a more truer benchmark of where we’ll be,” Stewart said. “We are marginally up today.”
Another positive sign may have come at this week’s World Poker Tour World Championship at the Bellagio. It’s a $25,000 buy-in tournament considered the most prestigious non-WSOP event of the year.
The six-day tournament, which concludes Friday, drew 220 players or 25 more than last year when David Williams won the $1.5 million first-place prize.
Only 11 of the 58 World Series of Poker tournaments this summer carry a buy-in of $10,000 or higher — with the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship as the priciest — and Palansky said some of those events were the only ones in danger of starting with significantly fewer players.
“Besides that,” Palansky said, “we don’t expect anything else to affect numbers,”
Bottom line, according to each of the three WSOP executives, is the Rio will have action players can't find anywhere else all summer.
“If you’re a poker player with any bankroll,” Stewart said, “you’ll be in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker.”