04/14/2005 12:00AM

World Poker Tour hits a milestone


In 1973, Steve Austin, played by actor Lee Majors, was the "$6 Million Man."

Maybe it's just a sign of inflation, but meet Michael Gracz, the World Poker Tour's "$100 Million Man." No, he wasn't in an accident and didn't get rebuilt with bionic parts to be the ultimate poker player. And it's not because he's won that much money.

Actually, it's an honorary title he earned when his $1.5 million victory last month in the Party Poker.com Million tournament put the World Poker Tour over $100 million in prize money in only its third year of existence.

"During the tournament, we didn't know the winner would be the $100 million man or anything like that," Gracz said. "We were just trying to win like any other tournament, but when I was told afterward, I thought it was great. The World Poker Tour has done a lot for poker, so I'm glad to do anything to help them promote it."

Steve Lipscomb, president and founder of WPT Enterprises Inc., said the milestone shows that the poker explosion isn't just a passing fad.

"If you look at the PGA, it took them 31 years to reach $100 million in prize money," Lipscomb said. "We have lifted poker from a backroom game to a sport that is churning out a whole new generation of respected professional players making their living by competing in our tournaments around the world."

The WPT has created 22 millionaires in its short history, and Gracz, a 24-year-old native of Warsaw, Poland, is a perfect example of a player going from the backroom to the top of the sport. As a high-schooler working as a Games Galore store clerk, he started playing in home games at age 16 against some of his older customers. After losing his modest $100-a-week salary, he became a student of the game by reading every book he could. He pursued a finance degree from North Carolina St., where he picked up his poker education in more home games. He earned enough to quit his job waiting tables and pay his tuition.

He continued to hone his skills in home games, and his big break came last year when a friend, Chris Bell, staked him to play in the Taj Classic in Atlantic City, which Gracz won to claim the $300,000 top prize. He then placed in the WPT's tourney in Tunica, Miss., and the LA Poker Classic in Commerce, Calif., before his Party Poker.com Million victory.

"The money is great, but it's all still about competing and winning," Gracz said.

Most people, even those who follow the WPT closely on The Travel Channel, don't know about Gracz's accomplishment yet, because the tape of that tournament will not air until June 15.

But the poker world moves on, and next week is the WPT World Championship Season III at the Bellagio here in Las Vegas. The tournament begins Monday, with the final table to be contested Sunday, April 24. For those who didn't qualify in previous WPT events or in satellite qualifying tournaments, there is a $25,000 buy-in, plus a $500 entry fee, and the total purse is expected to top $10 million, which will get WPT off to a good start toward its second $100 million.

The tape of the WPT championship will debut Wednesday, June 29.

Plaza to host no-limit tournament

If you've flipped through television channels in the past year or two, it's obvious that the WPT doesn't have a monopoly on poker or its programming. And neither does the Bellagio. High-stakes events can be found all over Las Vegas, as well as across the country.

Binion's Horseshoe for years was the epicenter of tournament play with the World Series of Poker. The downtown property is still hosting the final two days of the no-limit hold 'em championship event, but the majority of this year's WSOP will be held at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino on Flamingo Road, near the heart of the Strip.

The Plaza has filled the void with what it's calling the "largest poker tournament of the year in Downtown Las Vegas." The Plaza World Poker Classic begins Monday with some satellite tournaments for its no-limit championship and other games - such as seven-card stud, H.O.R.S.E, and Omaha - and culminates with its $50,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament on May 16-17.

"For many seasoned poker players, taking the World Series of Poker away from Downtown Las Vegas and changing the date from a slot it filled for decades is sacrilege," said Ben Magee, director of poker tournaments at the Plaza. "The caliber of the final table buy-in is going to present an opportunity for the pros to win millions and take this tournament to the level a major downtown tournament was meant to be."

The next major tournament will then be the Mirage Poker Showdown, which is actually the premiere of the WPT's fourth season. That runs May 23-26 with a $10,000 buy-in and is being held on the Memorial Day weekend that traditionally hosted the final table of the WSOP.

Instead, the WSOP has been moved back to June and July. The early events, starting June 2, will be held at the Rio, with the no-limit Texas hold 'em world championship event starting on Thursday, July 7. Actually, Day 1 of the tournament will be split into three days, Thursday through Saturday, in the Rio Convention Center, to accommodate the huge field, which included 2,576 last year at $10,000 a pop and is projected to exceed 6,000 players this year.

Day 2 will start Sunday with between 1,500 and 1,950 players and be whittled down each day until the final 27 move to Binion's for Thursday's action, and then the final table of nine players will face off Friday, July 15.