07/26/2006 12:00AM

Poker party gets bigger every year


Touring the Rio Pavilion, the site of the World Series of Poker, this past week certainly shows how much of a phenomenon poker has become.

This event has gotten bigger and bigger since Harrah's pulled off the coup of acquiring the world series rights from Binion's Horseshoe in 2004.

Having covered my first world series in 2000, I'm not the best person to ask how today's world series compares to the old days, but the changes in not only the size of the fields but in the atmosphere are overwhelming. Poker players are treated like rock stars, and there's a full-blown expo from Thursday through next Tuesday, with 235 booths in 23,000 square feet of convention space. Vendors will sell poker sets, instructional videos, T-shirts, hats, and try to get you to visit and play for free at their dot-net websites. (Dot-com websites, which use real money, aren't allowed to advertise - wink, wink.)

The $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Texas Hold'em World Championship, aka the Main Event, starts Friday and will set another record for entries. This past Sunday, the field exceeded last year's 5,619, and the projected number is around 8,000. (There were only 839 players in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker used a $40 online buy-in to gain entry to the tourney and really kick-started the boom.) The field is so huge that it will be divided four ways, with play starting on either Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. The Friday and Saturday survivors will play together on Monday, and the Sunday and Monday players will play together Tuesday. Those who are still in the tournament will continue play next Wednesday. The final table will be contested on Thursday, Aug. 10, and will be available on pay-per-view for $24.95 (another first and another sign of the times).

Even though the Main Event is the, well, main event, it will be hard-pressed to top the HORSE event of July 12-15. That is being viewed by many as the real championship of poker, as it required a whopping $50,000 buy-in and requires a well-rounded poker player as opposed to just someone who plays the popular game of hold'em. The initials stand for hold'em, Omaha, razz, seven-card stud, and eights or better.

While unknowns will make up most of the Main Event field, the HORSE event attracted just the top professionals, with a much smaller field of 143. Chip Reese won the $1,784,640 first-place prize at a final table that also included Andy Block (second), Phil Ivey (third), T.J. Cloutier (fifth), Dewey Tomko (seventh), and Doyle Brunson (ninth).

* The other big highlight of the preliminary events has been the play of Jeff Madsen, who became the youngest world series bracelet winner at 21 years, 3 months by parlaying his college fund and a loan from his parents into a $660,984 payday in a $1,500 buy-in limit hold'em event on July 16. He then proved it was no fluke by winning a second bracelet and a $643,381 check in a $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold'em event on July 22.

* Max Pescatori won $16,000 in the Summer Showdown horse handicapping tournament at the Reno Hilton on June 15, 2002. That was a good day. Pescatori had a great day on July 9, 2006. If you can't tell by his name, he's Italian, and that's the day Italy beat France for the World Cup. Later that day, he played in the final table of a $2,500 buy-in no-limit hold'em event and walked away with his first world series bracelet and $682,389.

Offshore operators steer clear

Despite the cancellation of the Bodog.com Marketing Conference in the wake of last week's federal arrest and indictment of BetOnSports.com executive David Carruthers, the Bodog party went on as scheduled at the Venetian's opulent Tao nightclub. Conspicuously absent was Bodog founder and CEO Calvin Ayre, as well as other offshore sports book operators who might fear that they could be next.

Buzz Daly, who has probably met and written about more offshore operators than any other sports gaming writer, said he didn't see any offshore operators present. Among those missing were a few who told him as recently as this past weekend that they still planned to attend.

Amid the party atmosphere with free drinks, fine food and dancing girls, a lot of the talk among industry insiders was about the future of online betting. The crystal ball is still murky, as some see the arrest of Carruthers as an isolated incident that will blow over, while others see it as the end of a golden era (though no one sees Internet betting going away completely).

King Palm second yet again

In a $56,000 maiden special Monday at Del Mar, King Palm finished second for the eighth straight race Monday for the Maloof brothers, owners of the Sacramento Kings and the Palms hotel in Las Vegas.

Gavin Maloof, who runs the day-to-day operations of the Kings with brother Joe, had to be in Las Vegas on business and wasn't able to go to Del Mar, so he watched in the Palms race book.

"I think he's going to win it," Maloof said before the race. "He's due."

King Palm went off as the third betting choice and sat just off the pace for most of the race in fourth place. However, Nonsensical blew away the field heading into the stretch of the mile race, and the only drama left was if King Palm could get up for second to keep his streak alive.

As King Palm crossed the finish line 2 1/4 lengths in front of Step Over, Maloof and his friends high-fived each other and laughed uproariously at the absurdity of it all.

"I just can't believe he finished second again," Maloof said. "We wanted to win, but I've never been so happy finishing second. It's still a lot of fun."

Phil Maloof and trainer Vladimir Cerin called Gavin from Del Mar and got the phone passed to a reporter. They said that the $11,200 in earnings helps King Palm pay his expenses, and that they would look to run him again in a few weeks.