06/21/2006 11:00PM

Poker viewing season about to peak

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It always impresses me the way that major sports leagues manipulate the calendar.

The clearest recent example was how the NBA and NHL work together during their championship series by playing on alternating nights to help maximize TV audiences and media coverage. It also happens during the end of the NFL season and with the college bowls.

The people who run one of the fastest growing sports - poker - have learned their lessons well from the other leagues. Of course, some don't consider poker a sport, even though it's on ESPN, has a commissioner, and conducts a tour. But poker is being scheduled for television like other sports in that its biggest event, the World Series of Poker, is being held when there is no conflict with the NBA or NHL.

The World Series of Poker used to be held at Binion's Horseshoe in the months of April and May when it was such a niche event that it didn't matter if it was held at the time of year when the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball were all going on.

That was when there were a couple of hundred players who would put up the $10,000 entry fee. After Harrah's bought the Horseshoe brand, and more importantly for the immediate future, the WSOP brand, in 2004, it moved most of the tournament to the Rio last year to accommodate the thousands of entries that now fill the field after the explosion in popularity of poker since the turn of the century.

Last year's WSOP events started in June and ran through mid-July. This year, the action starts Sunday at the Rio with satellites starting and live tables opening. A $500 buy-in casino employee tournament starts Monday, and the first official "open" event is a $1,500 no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament on Tuesday. There will be 45 tournaments in all, highlighted by the $10,000 Main Event, as it's been dubbed by ESPN, though its official name is the No-limit Texas Hold' em World Championship Event, starting on Friday, July 28. That's actually the 39th event, with six more smaller tournaments being held in the week leading up to the Main Event's final table on Aug. 10 for those who can't afford the $10,000 entry fee or who get eliminated early from the Main Event.

With between 8,000 and 9,000 entrants expected for this year's Main Event, the "first day" of the tournament will be held over four days, July 28-31, and each "first day" the 2,000-plus contestants will be whittled down to 800. The 1,600 survivors from that Friday and Saturday will play on Tuesday, Aug. 1, until 700 remain, and the Sunday/Monday survivors will do the same on Wednesday, Aug. 2. It won't be until Thursday, Aug. 3, that all the contestants will play on the same day.

In another indicator of the popularity of poker, the final table will be available on pay-per-view for $24.95.

It should also be noted that the World Poker Tour, the equally successful poker entity with weekly shows on the Travel Channel, is also working the calendar in its favor. Right as the WSOP is starting, the World Poker Tour is wrapping up its fourth season, with the World Championship being televised on Wednesday.

The tournament was held at the Bellagio in April. If you haven't seen or heard about the winner of the $3,760,165 first-place prize, I won't ruin it for you here. But one of the shortcomings of poker as a sport was illustrated by the final table. Men "The Master" Nguyen was the only "name" player in the final six, along with five relative unknowns. As the size of tournament poker fields has grown, one criticism is that diluting the talent diminishes the skill factor and makes it more a game of luck.

The World Poker Tour has addressed this problem by launching the Professional Poker Tour, which requires a player to reach certain level of accomplishment before being allowed to participate. Players earn one-, two-, or three-year cards similar to the PGA tour.

The attraction for viewers is that there will be more recognizable stars of the game competing, instead of the constant influx of lucky newcomers. Of course, the newcomers will have the chance to prove themselves and earn their way onto the pro tour.

The first tour took place last year, and the shows will start airing in the WPT time slot starting on July 5, just in time for the dog days of summer when sports programming has a void to fill.