04/25/2007 12:00AM

Poker tourneys drawing full houses


Sports betting is a year-round activity. The seasons flow from one to another with football running into the basketball and hockey seasons, which run into baseball, which runs into football, and so on and so on.

Some professional bettors get burned out from the day-to-day grind and take their summers off. A lot of them, partly because they're action junkies and also partly because there's money to be made, play poker in their down time.

Poker is a year-round "sport," if you want to call it that, and with ESPN, the "worldwide leader in sports" devoting so much time to the game and a lot of sports publications devoting more space, it's pretty well ingrained in the sports world.

There's always been a big crossover between the race and sports books and the poker rooms (which is why you'll often see them situated in the same general vicinity of casinos, with sporting events often shown on the TVs in poker rooms), so it's no surprise that many sports bettors also choose to take this time of the year to play. Making the game more tempting to gamblers is the availability of big-money poker tournaments in the spring and summer.

The World Poker Tour Championship has been taking place this past week at the Bellagio. The tournament, which is the finale of WPT's fifth season, carried a $25,500 buy-in for those who didn't earn an automatic berth, and the field set a record with 639 entries, up from 605 last year. The total purse is nearly $15.5 million.

As of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, there were 54 players remaining, with Phil Helmuth sitting as the leader with $1.8 million in chips. But there was a lot of poker to be played, and the players will be whittled down Wednesday and Thursday until a final table of nine is set.

The final table will commence at 5 p.m. Friday in the Bellagio's Tower Ballroom. Admission is free for spectators, but only a few hundred will be allowed into the main room. A live closed-circuit broadcast will be available for the overflow crowd. For those who can wait, this tournament is scheduled to be shown on the Travel Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 8.

But the WPT Championship isn't the only big-money tournament around at this time of year. A World Series of Poker Circuit Tournament is taking place at Caesars Palace through next Wednesday, the WPT Mirage Poker Showdown is May 19-23, the WPT Mandalay Poker Championship is May 29-June 2, and then the World Series of Poker starts June 1 with the $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Texas Hold'Em World Championship, aka the "Main Event," from July 6-17 at the Rio.

Last year's Main Event drew 8,773 entries and plans are being made to accommodate 10,000. Most people are predicting a smaller turnout due to the U.S. government's crackdown on online gambling, which means fewer people will earn their seats on the Internet. However, the WPT increase is at least encouraging.

While there are fewer ways to earn spots on a pay-to-play dot-com poker site, the WSOP did enter an agreement to conduct its own sanctioned free online qualifying tournaments with AOL. Players sign up at http://games.aol.com/poker and enter to play in satellite tournaments Sunday through Saturday (check site for tournament times). Each contest is limited to 5,000 players, and the top 100 finishers from each contest earn a free entry into the weekly championship event at 2 p.m. EDT Sunday, with the winner of that 3,000-player tourney earning the $10,000 entry fee into the WSOP's Main Event as well as round-trip airfare for two to Las Vegas, ground transportation, hotel accommodations at the Rio, and $1,000 spending money.

It's a great way to qualify. I tried it myself last week and earned a spot in the weekly finals on my second try, finishing 84th for the record (Note: there is no further incentive after you make the top 100 as you're just competing for play money). The bad part was that when I went to register for Sunday's finals, I found out that Nevada residents were not allowed to win prizes.

That didn't make sense. I'm no lawyer, but I've been around enough handicapping tournaments and know that while Nevada has laws prohibiting online gambling, this is a free contest and thus shouldn't fit anyone's definition of gambling (not to mention that poker lobbyists are trying to get poker classified as a "game of skill."). I notified officials at the World Series of Poker and AOL to get an explanation for Nevada's exclusion and no one had a definitive answer for nearly a week as AOL consulted its lawyers. I then received an e-mail from Kurt Patat, communications manager for AOL, who wrote, "According to our representatives, with the current laws in Nevada being so vague, to launch the game on schedule, the decision was made to exclude residents of Nevada."

In other words, in the current legal climate with a lot of gray areas concerning Internet gaming, they chose to play it safe (though I can't say I blame them too much as Patat makes the point about the current laws being vague).

Other states where residents are not eligible are: Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Vermont.