07/08/2005 12:00AM

Net savvy gives poker edge on racing

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NEW YORK - Horseplayers and the horse-racing industry cannot help casting a wistful eye toward Las Vegas this weekend, where a revolution in American gambling is in full bloom at the World Series of Poker.

The WSOP began June 2 with the first of 36 tournaments, but the one everyone cares about started this past Thursday, the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Texas Hold'em Championship Event, which runs through July 16. On that day, one survivor will be left standing to take home a first-place prize of over $10 million.

That payday, larger than any payoff in parimutuel history, is enough to make any horseplayer salivate. The spectacular growth of the WSOP over the last five years, a time in which racing's business has at best flattened out, is enough to make industry leaders weep.

The WSOP, which began in 1970 with a field of just 38 players, grew steadily through its first three decades, attracting 513 players by 2001. Then the numbers went through the roof: 631 in 2002, 839 in 2003, and 2,576 in 2004. This year, all but the final rounds of the event had to be moved from the traditional venue of Binion's Horseshoe to the massive Rio Suites convention center to accommodate the 5,661 entrants who put up $10,000 apiece.

The tenfold increase in the players and purse in just five years is obviously a function of the national poker craze, fueled by dozens of hours of televised poker tournaments each week on cable television. The most important component in the growth, however, was the Internet, in two respects.

Online poker opened the game to millions of players who had never been to a casino poker room and allowed many to qualify for the WSOP without putting up $10,000. Four of the last five Main Event champions qualified this way, most notably Chris Moneymaker in 2003, who parlayed a $40 buy-in to an online tournament into a free seat at the Main Event, where he won the first prize of $2.5 million.

Moneymaker's success, like that of amateur Robert Varkonyi a year earlier, was replayed hundreds of times on ESPN's seemingly endless rebroadcasts of the events. In addition to all the free publicity, the broadcasts drove home a very attractive point: These guys really did not play particularly well. If they can do it, thought many a viewer, so can I. So now there are more than 5,000 people, over half of them having won their $10,000 seat fees through feeder tournaments, trying to live the same dream this weekend.

That is also exactly why, after flirting with the idea of buying a seat this year, I decided to keep the rubber band on the bankroll and instead run it through the windows at Saratoga a few times. It's not that racing offers fundamentally better odds: Takeout at the track averages 20 percent, while the WSOP keeps just 6 percent of the entry fees, paying out 94 percent in prizes.

The problem is that the sheer size of the field may have finally turned the World Series from a poker game into the world's most expensive lottery ticket.

The nature of a no-limit poker tournament is such that a player must frequently be willing to risk his entire stack of chips. (It took only seven minutes to eliminate the first player Thursday and thin the field to a mere 5,660.) Even a skilled player who knows the mathematics of every situation must survive numerous showdowns that boil down to virtual coin flips. In a 500-player tournament, you have to be lucky enough for heads to come up a few times, but in a field of 5,661, you have to win a dozen or more such showdowns without hitting tails. A better than average player has a mathematical edge in the very long run, but who's got 10,000 years and $10,000 a year to let the math prove itself out?

In the shorter run, there are a few lessons racing can learn from the WSOP's success. First, there is obviously a massive market of Americans interested in intelligent gambling, willing to read books, learn complicated rules, calculate odds, and bet accordingly. Second, the best way to reach those people and to facilitate that betting is through the Internet, which racing still embraces only awkwardly and tentatively.

According to WSOP officials, over 95 percent of this year's Championship entrants regularly play their game of choice online. That rate is probably 10 times higher than can be said for the people attending the racetrack this weekend, which might help explain why the World Series of Poker has grown tenfold in five years while racing has not.