There’s no rest during the summer for World Series of Poker organizers and staff. By early July, the event had attracted more than 165,000 players, with 8,569 battling it out in the $10,000 Main Event, broadcast live on ESPN. That made it the second-largest Main Event in history, and the number of players increased 9% from 2018.
The annual event is a massive undertaking, with 89 bracelet events played this year, as well as satellites and other non-bracelet tournaments. The WSOP is the biggest spectacle in poker, with players coming to Las Vegas from countries around the world. Planning for the event is almost a year-round exercise. That begins in mid-August and continues until events begin in May.
Forty-five people take part in preparation meetings, encompassing a wide range of departments, including tournament personnel, cage operations, surveillance, security, accounting, compliance, food and beverage, facilities, TV production, public relations, Caesars Rewards (Caesars Entertainment owns WSOP), hotel operations, marketing, retail, risk management, legal, analytics and human resources.
To examine the scope of the event, Gaming America took in the spectacle for one day in June – from events, to players, to a special occasion celebrating the event’s 50th anniversary.
29 June, 10am
Five weeks into the series, there was still plenty of action for players. The third starting flight in the $888 Crazy Eights kicked off in the morning to open the halls of the Rio. The event has been part of the series since 2016 through the series’ partnership with 888Poker.
California’s Rick Alvarado would go on to top a field of more than 10,000 entries for the top prize of $888,888. WSOP staff have become accustomed to big fields this summer, with several events featuring buy-ins at $1,000 or less, not to mention several WSOP.com online bracelet events also available for players in both Nevada and New Jersey.
Cards were back in the air for Day 3 of the $400 Colossus event, which featured more than 13,000 entries. The huge fields aren’t easy to manage, but the WSOP makes use of differing starting flight times to pack players into the entire Rio convention space. It’s not an easy undertaking, but the series finds a way to keep it all organized. Players have had more convenient deposit options this year to make registration easier.
The day’s action also includes:
• Day 4 of the $10,000 Razz Championship
• Day 3 of the $1,500 Mixed Omaha event
• Day 2 of the Pot Limit Omaha Hi/Lo
• Day 1 of the $1,500 Limit Hold’em
It was a full day of poker and the WSOP keeps players coming to the off-Strip Rio for almost two months. For staff, there are some challenges to staging such a major event, with multiple tournaments playing out each day. With so many events, the property has almost become maxed out on space, WSOP officials say.
“The real issue is we never know how many are going to show up and when they are going to show up,” says Seth Palansky, Caesars Interactive Entertainment's Vice President, Corporate Communications. “That makes it hard to properly staff. When poker goes 24/7 for 50 days, it requires careful planning. It really is like a game of Jenga, trying to fit all the
pieces together effectively.
“The sheer size of the event and the unpredictability does challenge us at times, but we hope people appreciate the fact we try our best and strive to, in essence, keep Disneyland
open and accessible at all times.”
The Rio’s Pavilion room was already humming, with hundreds of players riffling chips in one of the massive convention spaces used for the series – with poker tables as far as the eye can see. A massage area is set up to help players deal with the grind, with therapists also working through the field.
Banners of past Main Event champions are hung throughout the room. Not only does the WSOP reach sponsorship deals, it also rents space in the halls for various companies to reach players. That includes booths advertising other tournaments, CPA services, mobile phone services and more. The tournament registration line stretches out into the halls and lengthens throughout the day.
Back in the Pavilion, Jason Beck was taking a few minutes before sitting down to play in the Crazy Eights. The film producer from Los Angeles is like many players in the field – a recreational player looking for a chance at some poker glory. He comes every year for a few days and plays some smaller buy-in events. If he makes a deep run, he’ll extend his stay.
“There’s nothing better than the World Series,” he says. “It’s literally like showing up and playing in the Super Bowl. That’s the way I look at it. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and this is the best experience any poker player can have.”
Like many, he’s amazed at the sheer size the WSOP has grown to. “I think it’s overwhelming,” says Beck, who is producing a new documentary for Hulu about magician The Amazing Johnathan.
“I’m really impressed with the staff and the organizers, and how they are able to pull all this off.” Beck took a few puffs on his asthma inhaler and was off to the green felt.
The WSOP still finds time to recognize its champions. This day's events featured a gold bracelet ceremony for Luis Zedan for winning the $1,000 Pot Limit Omaha championship. Despite the growth in the number of events each summer, the gold bracelet remains the most coveted trophy in poker.
Originally from El Salvador and now living in Florida, this was the biggest win of his career. It was a dream come true for the 56-year-old, who runs a family business in Miami.
However, Zedan makes sure poker remains fun and was a frequent talker at the final table.
“Whether I took a hit, or I didn’t take a hit, I was smiling and I was having fun,” he said after the event. “That’s what poker should be.”
After a fourth day of action, poker pro Scott Seiver added his third WSOP bracelet in the $10,000 Razz Championship. Not only do players come for events at the Rio, but also for tournament series throughout Las Vegas. That includes properties like the Golden Nugget, Venetian, Orleans, and others, but also even other Caesars properties like the company’s namesake casino and Planet Hollywood.
Poker may not be a huge money-maker, but brings in players during what is usually a slow period in Sin City. Those players not only play cards, but also visit the bars, clubs, craps tables and restaurants – adding much-needed revenue.
While the poker action continued in other areas of the Rio, the WSOP rolled out the red carpet for something special. The Fifty First Honors gala, hosted by long-time series commentators Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, was held in the Brasilia Ballroom, with some of the game’s best and most-respected players recognized.
Fans voted on players in seven categories and the winners were:
• Most Memorable TV Hand – Sammy Farha vs. Chris Moneymaker “Bluff of the Century” (2003)
• Best Overall WSOP Performance (single year) – Daniel Negreanu (2013), two bracelets and four final tables
• Most Likely to Succeed (most bracelets 2020-70) – Justin Bonomo
• Fan Favorite – Daniel Negreanu
• Favorite Bad Boy – Phil Hellmuth
• Most Impressive Main Event Win – Chris Moneymaker (2003)
• Four Most Important Players in WSOP History – Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu
It may be have been a big night for the WSOP, but there was also some nervousness among employees. Just days earlier, Eldorado Resorts announced its planned $17.3bn acquisition of Caesars Entertainment.
The companies also announced they could reach “$500m of synergies in the first year following closing.” For many employees, that could be personal and mean job losses, relocations, or other changes. The WSOP will go on, but whether it remains at the Rio or even as a part of the new company, is an open question.
Rumors have swirled in recent years that Caesars has been trying to sell the Rio and that the series may have to find a new home. None of those rumors have come to fruition, and Eldorado's plans for the Rio are unclear. In the meantime, WSOP staff, dealers and players continued to keep the action going deep into the night throughout the summer. Those have all been key components in helping make the event what it is today and organizers hope that continues for another 50 years.
“We appreciate everyone who attends, even though it doesn’t always show itself best on the front lines,” Palansky says. “The staff works very hard, very long hours and we are all human beings who have flaws. We are all trying our best to deliver good experiences for everyone who walks in the door. It is indeed a massive effort and we are thankful to the
great majority of participants who recognize that, work with us and remain patient and understanding during some of the challenges that arise.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. His work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions or email him at [email protected] for story assignments.