Friday, March 25, 2005 | 11:12 a.m.
In a corridor off the main pit at the Rio, a crowd of gawking tourists has collected behind a velvet rope to watch amateurs battle seasoned professionals for a championship.
It's not the sports book and this isn't the NCAA basketball tournament.
It's Day 3 of a no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament. The $10,000 buy-in tourney is the first Las Vegas event in a new World Series of Poker Tournament Circuit created by Harrah's Entertainment Inc. after the company's purchase of the famed poker tournament last year.
Las Vegan Russ Hamilton has just been knocked out of the tournament after a three-hour session.
"Poker is a young man's game -- it's an endurance game," said Hamilton after standing up to leave the event. Hamilton, the 1995 World Series of Poker Champion, is one of a growing number of pros who no longer have to travel the world to make a living playing in poker tournaments.
"I'm going to slow down," said Hamilton, 56. "In the last five or six years I quit traveling for poker. Now I only play the big Las Vegas tournaments."
Down the street, the Bellagio poker room is bustling with a $500 buy-in Texas hold 'em tourney. The property now holds events on Wednesdays and Fridays, but will offer daily tournaments starting next month.
For lower-rollers, the Orleans also holds daily buy-in tournaments from $20 to $100, sometimes more on the weekends.
Poker tournaments -- long dominated by Southern California card rooms and the former Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas -- have spread across Las Vegas as a key attraction for poker newcomers and veterans alike.
Before television and the Internet changed poker into a pop culture staple, big league tournaments -- generally defined as those with $10,000 buy-ins and large six-figure or small seven-figure prizes -- were few and far between.
"Now you don't even have to leave Las Vegas and you can have a $10,000 buy-in almost once a month," said Jeff Shulman, co-publisher of Las Vegas-based Card Player magazine. "In the last year and a half, Las Vegas has become the poker (tournament) capital of the world," he said.
Many Las Vegas casinos, fresh from opening or expanding poker rooms, now offer weekly poker tournaments with buy-ins as low as $20. A handful -- including the Bellagio and Mirage resorts -- have stepped up recently with the kind of big buy-in events that attract traveling professionals.
Starting next month, Las Vegas will enter a poker season of sorts with a series of big tournaments leading up to the Rio's World Series of Poker.
"Right now the hottest thing to draw someone in is to have tournaments," said Jack McClelland, Bellagio's poker tournament director.
McClelland joined Bellagio about three years ago to kick-start the property's tournament business and quickly established one of the richest tournaments in the world, next month's annual $25,000 buy-in World Poker Tour event at the Five Star World Poker Classic. About 20 percent of the property's poker revenue now comes from tournaments.
The lion's share of poker receipts comes from Bellagio's cash or "live" games that attract poker's highest-rollers. Bet sizes can soar into the tens of thousands while millions can be won or lost in a matter of hours.
Casinos make money off tournaments by taking a percentage "rake" off the prize pool. The profit is small but the opportunity to draw a crowd to other games and venues is worth the distraction. Tournaments are attractive, operators say, because they offer a chance to win a large pot for a relatively small initial bet.
Following the World Poker Classic, Bellagio will kick off daily Texas hold 'em tournaments with more than $500 buy-ins Sundays through Thursdays and more than $1000 buy-ins on Fridays and Saturdays. For a cheaper price, players can catch daily satellite games in the mornings for a chance to win a seat in the tournaments.
Las Vegas' biggest rival is Los Angeles, home to the Commerce Casino, billed as the world's largest poker room with about 100 tables and upwards of 200 tables for tournaments. Southern California is also home to several other card rooms where poker tournaments are front and center rather than a side attraction of the business that is captured at Las Vegas' full-service casinos.
"California is a huge poker market where you can more easily stage a big tournament without disrupting the overall casino," said Gary Thompson, director of poker tournament operations for the World Series of Poker. "But the major events -- the really big events -- take place in Las Vegas. This is home to the biggest prize pools and the most television exposure, which is what the players look for."
The World Series of Poker, the granddaddy of poker tournaments, is expecting to draw 5,000 to 6,000 players for its championship final, a no-limit Texas hold 'em event. At $10,000 to enter, the prize pool could approach $60 million -- easily becoming the world's largest.
The tournament prize pool could rise to $100 million over the tournament's 45 different poker events, which run from June 2 to July 15. That's up from some 2,500 players for the final event and about 35 total events last year.
This year's event will feature about 200 tables and take place in the newly expanded Rio Pavilion Convention Center.
Poker pros shuddered when Harrah's -- a slot machine-driven empire that has only recently emphasized poker in its domain -- bought the rights to the World Series of Poker. But Thompson said the company is "taking this seriously."
Harrah's expects to hire sports marketing and merchandising experts to "exploit the popularity of this brand and to bring its excitement to more players," he said.
The World Poker Tour, a poker tournament juggernaut owned by WPT Enterprises Inc. of West Hollywood, has rolled 16 of some of the world's largest poker tournaments into a year-long series of events broadcast on the Travel Channel.
The tour launched in 2002 and now rolls through the Mirage and Bellagio as well as a number of other poker cities including Los Angeles, Atlantic City and Paris.
"The notion was that we were going to dominate the (tournament) calendar," WPT President Steve Lipscomb said. "These are long-term exclusives."
Most Las Vegas tournaments outside the tour, with the exception of the World Series of Poker, are aimed at locals and have smaller buy-ins, he said.
"It's difficult to get into the calendar with a big event. But you're going to see more and more smaller tournaments," he said.
The World Poker Tour began with a handful of regulars who played all of the tournaments year-round. That group has ballooned to upwards of 100 to 200 players and is growing. Each tournament draws at least 300 people and many are attracting 600 to 700 players, Lipscomb said.
With the anticipated openings of high-end poker rooms at Wynn Las Vegas, Caesars Palace and MGM Grand -- which opens a poker room next week -- the local tournament scene is about to get a lot more competitive.
But the competition isn't just regional.
Somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, Internet poker room PartyPoker.com is hosting a cruise for 700 poker players and dangling a prize pool of $7.4 million.
"About half of the (regulars) went to the Rio and half of the people went on the cruise," Shulman said. "People are going to go wherever they treat players the best. But casinos with the huge buy-ins will continue to get the players."