Ray Brewer / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, July 9, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Ty Stewart easily rattles off the names of past World Series of Poker champions and a few notable occurrences in the event’s 48-year history in Las Vegas when talking to a group of supporters Saturday at the Rio Convention Center.
The event’s executive director proudly says it started as a one-table tournament in downtown with just seven players. Standing inside the Brasilia ballroom, which was decorated with floor-to-ceiling posters of the past six Main Event champions, Stewart announced a 10-year deal with Tencent Limited Holding to bring the WSOP brand to Asia. That, he boasts, brings the already immensely popular WSOP to another level.
“Thankfully, they really like poker,” he joked about Tencent, a tech company which is considered China’s most valuable corporation and provides mobile games among other services.
Saturday, of course, had other significance. It was arguably the most important day of the WSOP calendar: the start of the Main Event. One of the 5,000 or so players who pony up the $10,000 entry fee on the first of three starting days of this year’s tournament, running through Monday, could be poker’s next millionaire star.
That fact wasn't lost on Stewart.
The poker boom, started more than 10 years ago when amateur Chris Moneymaker outdueled many of the games notables for the championship, is responsible for producing a new star each summer at the Rio. Who’s next?
“I call our event the Las Vegas version of the American dream,” Stewart said. “You put in a little work, you have a little luck and amazing things can happen to you, and happen in an instant.”
Stewart sat down with the Sun minutes after the Main Event started. Here are some highlights of the conversation, which were edited for clarity.
As a local, it touched home when you were talking about the history of WSOP. I remember when you could drive up and down Fremont Street, and of course you guys had the Main Event one year outside, right?.
TS: A lot of people remember when Stu Ungar won that event outside (in 1997). That was crazy.
There are so many people who come to play the Main Event with that dream of being the next champion. How awesome is knowing some wait all year for their chance at this one tournament?
TS: It is really special to see the emotions and the believers. That is what we do all year around is building to this day, where all the would-be Moneymakers and would-be champions show up.
Poker rooms all throughout town have struggled; many have closed. How were you guys able to survive and continue with the steady growth?
TS: I have to be honest. I wish I could tell you. I wish I knew what exactly what the secret sauce is. There is one World Series of Poker and the players love this brand so much. If you look to any other indicator, whether that be the action live poker rooms around the city or country, whether that be other semi-prestigious live tournaments, everyone would expect us to be trending down. But this will be our fifth consecutive year of all-time attendance record. The main event has proved to be Teflon.
I’ve watched the final table the past few years on ESPN. Seeing the cheering sections and excitement reminds me of a college-basketball small conference tournament game with students storming the court. How has that environment added to the growth?
TS: That would be (unheard of) years ago to think there would be cheering and disruption around the poker table. But there are a large group of people who really like it. It is a big part of our differentiation in the television coverage. We are excited about that. Much of our success is because we can spread the hope around the globe that people still can get lucky in Las Vegas.
I overheard you reciting some numbers — players from 100 countries, 2,000 employees, 500 tables, ect. That’s a lot to manage. Where do you start?
TS: For the city, this has become the most important gamblers’ convention. We have a lot of other attractions and events, but as far as qualified gamblers, we are bringing in tens of thousands of folks to the city which are creating hundreds of thousands of room nights. We are truly lifting the city in the summer. It is a great responsibility and we feel an immense amount of pride.
The fact you can’t go play online like you could have during the boom. Have you guys seen that kind of taper off a little bit the affects of it?
TS: It is hard to tell. The gut reaction would be, of course it has impact because there were just so many more people able to play for more moderate stakes via the internet. Poker is a numbers game, so the more people you have playing, the better. However, if you actually look at event statistics, you would see zero impact. We have not dropped off in Main Event at all and all the other events are growing. It is like the demand to play poker only manifests itself here in Las Vegas. They get it all in during the summer time.
China is huge for you guys. Game-changer. More than when you went to Europe?
TS: It’s absolutely huge. (Tencent) is the most powerful internet company in the world. Almost instantly the World Series of Poker become relevant across Asia, and an entire new market will hopefully buy into the same dream of the World Series of Poker and we see a Chinese champion in the not-so-distant future.