Of the many games that grace the floors at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, poker might be the most universal. From casino floors to living room floors, the World Poker Tournament estimates that nearly 60 million Americans play the game. Even the president plays poker.
And now, any one of those 60 million will have their own chance at the game’s holy grail, the World Series of Poker.
This month, the casino will be hosting its first-ever World Series of Poker event, a 10-day poker extravaganza that culminates in two large tournaments and a 10-player final. The lucky winner of that game will go home not only with winnings, but a coveted slot at the prestigious World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas. They’ll even be flown to Nevada, courtesy of their winning hand.
Ron Hager, director of table games for the casino, said that in the two years they’ve been offering the game, popularity among patrons has soared.
“They’re always asking, ‘Why don’t you have the big tournaments?’” said Hager. “Then there’s the added appeal of the World Series of Poker. It’s like every poker player’s dream.”
Indeed, that’s the appeal of this event: any player can become a Cinderella story. They just need the skills and, of course, that vital measure of luck that makes a good player a winner.
Although the poker at Harrah’s Cherokee isn’t exactly like the real-deal main event the WSP puts on in Vegas — it’s an electronic set-up, sans live dealers, thanks to some legal agreements the casino has with the state — Hager said that the players aren’t fazed. Some, claims Hager, even purport to like the electronic version better than the real deal. There are fewer errors.
“The players that play it, they all say it’s a heck of a lot better than you ever think it would be. People really like it,” said Hager.
And, he said, that claim is proven by the multitudes who are flocking to Harrah’s tables.
“We started with four tables, went up to seven tables after about two months, and increased to the 10 tables we have now. On weekends and holidays, 10 tables isn’t nearly enough,” said Hager.
In recent years, the game has seen a surge in popularity, thanks to events like the World Series of Poker and other televised matchups that bring the quiet drama of poker out of smoky back rooms and casinos and into America’s living rooms.
The game has the hushed, measured qualities of golf — patience, shrewdness, strategic calculations and a certain amount of bravado and luck are what make winners. But poker, unlike golf, offers everyday players the same shot at glory as the big-name players, no preternatural athletic prowess required.
As Hager said, it’s every poker player’s dream, and as the game gains a following, it gains a lot more hopefuls, too.
The World Series of Poker started in 1971. The headliner that year — the $10,000 Texas Hold-‘em tournament that’s become the star-studded spectacle of the poker world — had six participants. The numbers languished around the lower end of the size spectrum until 2003, when the event hosted 839 players. That was the year Chris Moneymaker won. He was a 27-year-old comptroller/restaurant worker who won the big pot by qualifying through an online poker site. He was young and fairly portly. He wore baseball caps. He was everyman. And he walked away with $2.5 million.
And that’s also when poker’s star began to ascend.
By 2006, the WSP had more than 8,000 hopefuls playing hands, an increase of more than 1,000 percent in just three years.
Last year, the tournament was down slightly to around 7,000 players, but interest in the game is clearly still blooming, even with the federal indictment handed down earlier this month against the three largest online poker sites on the Internet.
Moneymaker was proof that poker, unlike many other sports, doesn’t need extensive training from childhood, wealthy parents, the right build or the right coaches. It just needs the right hand in the right hands.
Moneymaker is set to appear at the Harrah’s event, which will, in itself, be a draw. Since his watershed win in 2003, he’s played in a plethora of tournaments, but he’s also parlayed his unique rise to stardom into a business opportunity with appearances at poker events worldwide.
Hager and his team are hoping that Moneymaker, and the ethos he represents, will bring in players to their event that might not otherwise frequent the tables. Though their pre-registration isn’t high, Hager said that’s normal and not something they’re particularly worried about.
“Amazingly enough, 60 percent of the people that register for a tournament do it in the last 30 minutes before the tournament starts,” said Hager.
So if you’re still honing your online skills getting ready for the big day, you’ve still got time. And if watching is more your speed than playing, there will be large screens and special coverage set up inside the casino for spectators.
And who knows? You might just be watching another Moneymaker in the making.
The schedule throughout the 10 days of WSOP includes live action tournaments and events for poker players of all types. Highlights include:
• Friday, May 6- May 8 — $550 buy-in multi-day tournament and final on Sunday, May 8
• Monday, May 9 — Omaha PL Hi/Lo $120 tournament
• Wednesday, May 11— $225 Carnival PokerPro Challenge Cruise Event
• Thursday, May 12 — $60 No Limit Turbo Hold’em event
• Friday, May 13-Sunday, May 15 — $1,075 buy-in tournament, winner receiving $10,000 seat at the 2011 WSOP in Las Vegas and a cash prize.