06/02/2005 12:00AM

World Series has always been granddaddy of poker


The poker explosion continues unabated, with the World Series of Poker starting this weekend and running through the middle of July.

That's six weeks of high-stakes action, culminating with the No-limit Texas Hold'em World Championship Event, which ESPN has dubbed as the Main Event, on July 7-15.

The World Poker Tour, with its weekly shows on The Travel Channel from casinos all over the world, gets a lot of credit for bringing the game to the masses, but it is the World Series of Poker that is still the driving force of tournament play, and its prominence has only been enhanced with ESPN's coverage.

Put in horse racing terms, the World Poker Tour is like a Triple Crown event, with contestants flying around to different locales to compete in one event - in the case of poker, no-limit Texas hold'em. The World Series of Poker, though, is like the Breeders' Cup, where all the best poker players come to one site and compete in their best games and divisions. The World Series of Poker has divisions for games such as Omaha and seven-card stud, while the Breeders' Cup has divisions like the Sprint, Mile, and Turf, and there's even a ladies' only hold'em division, which is kind of like the equivalent of the Distaff. The festivities are then capped off by the Main Event, the equivalent of the BC Classic.

Gaming pioneer Benny Binion started the World Series of Poker in 1970 at his downtown Horseshoe casino, inviting the top eight poker players of the day to play for a winner-take-all prize. The event drew a crowd, and it became an annual event. The tournament was opened to anyone willing to put up the $10,000 entry fee and the fields grew over the years, but Binion died in 1989, before seeing what his dream would evolve into.

Binion left the hotel-casino to his children, and there isn't enough space to go into the full demise of the Horseshoe, but the end of the family's hold on the downtown icon came in January 2004, when federal marshals raided the casino to collect $2 million in unpaid contributions to the union workers' pension and health funds. Without enough reserves to pay winning gamblers, the casino was closed.

By the following week, Harrah's Entertainment Inc. jumped in to purchase Binion's Horseshoe from Becky Binion Behnen, Benny Binion's daughter. Harrah's, which was already in negotiations with her brother, Jack Binion, for the rights to the Horseshoe brand outside Nevada, wanted it here in Nevada, too.

Another perk of the deal was the established World Series of Poker, and Harrah's really lucked out by catching the wave of the poker explosion. In 2003, the Main Event had drawn a record 839 entrants. Despite having less than six months to prepare for the 2004 WSOP and many players unsure if the event would be held at all, the Main Event drew a whopping 2,567 entries, most of which came from people earning the $10,000 entry fee by winning online tournaments or satellites with smaller entry fees.

This year, officials are estimating the field in the Main Event will be around 6,600. Because of the growth, as well as all the people coming in to play the smaller tournaments held over the next five weeks, Harrah's is moving all of the smaller events, as well as the first seven days of the Main Event, to a convention center at the Rio, just west of the Strip on Flamingo Road.

The Main Event starts Thursday, July 7. Last year, the first "day" of the Main Event was split into two days to accommodate all the players. This year, there will be three Day 1's, on July 7-9, with approximately 2,200 people starting each day. The 500-650 survivors from each day will come together for Day 2 on Sunday, July 10. The field will be whittled down each day, to approximately 1,000 after Sunday, between 200-400 after Monday, between 100-150 after Tuesday, and down to 27 after Wednesday.

When Harrah's bought the Horseshoe, it agreed to hold the final two days of this year's tournament at Binion's as part of the city's centennial celebration, so the final 27 will compete Thursday, July 14, with the final nine making the final table on Friday, July 15. If the field is 6,600, as expected, they would be playing for first prize of $8 million. Last year, Greg Raymer collected $5 million for his victory.

In an obvious case of supply and demand, the WSOP has added more hold'em tournaments throughout the schedule (available at worldseriesofpoker.com), and even has $1,000 and $1,500 buy-in events on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the final week for those knocked out of the Main Event early.

For those who can't make it out here or just want to watch the condensed coverage on television, ESPN will start airing its weekly Tuesday poker shows (plus countless reruns) starting July 19, leading off with five weeks of qualifying tournaments. The first WSOP event, this Saturday and Sunday's no-limit and pot-limit events, will be televised Aug. 23. The Main Event tapings will air starting Oct. 11 and run through Nov. 15.