I left home on a nonstop Ted flight to Las Vegas — the long-awaited start of my annual World Series of Poker adventure, when I get to leave behind the responsibilities of lawyering and indulge the fantasy of winning the most coveted piece of jewelry in tournament poker — the WSOP championship bracelet (not to mention the $8 million first-place prize money).
The flight was routine, and even arrived early. I collected my checked luggage and hopped a taxi to the hotel. After dropping my bags in my room and changing into comfortable clothing for what I assumed would be a long night of poker, I headed over to the tournament area at the Rio. For 35 years the World Series was held in downtown Las Vegas, at a cowboy joint named Binion's Horseshoe Casino. Two years ago, following the death of Benny Binion, the World Series was sold to Harrah's, which moved the tournament to one of its modern uptown hotels, the Rio.
At first blush, it looked a lot like last year. The tournament is held in the convention center wing of the hotel. Two hundred poker tables are set up in a room the size of two football fields. The hallways are lined with exhibit booths of all sorts — anyone who wants to market their products or services to poker players, from Milwaukee's Best to T-shirt companies (they tell me that the biggest sellers are "Top Pair" for the ladies, and "I've Got The Nuts" for the gentlemen). Massage tables and chairs. Photographers who will make you a nice custom-framed photo with the rock star player of your choice. A display by Corum (the official watch of the 2006 World Series of Poker), including the custom "royal flush" watch that will be awarded to this year's winner, copies of which can be ordered by any poker player with $8,500 to spare."
There were throngs of people of all ages and types. One new addition is the elaborate "hospitality suites" set up by most of the top internet poker sites within a few steps from the tournament area. The typical one has two scantily-clad 23-year-old models proudly displaying the handiwork of their plastic surgeons, urging you to come in and sign up for their drawing to win a trip to Europe or a seat in the World Series championship event or a Lexus or whatever.
So you enter the suite, go up to the person at the counter, and under his/her direction you enter your contact info on one of the laptops (name, mailing address and e-mail address). Now you are registered for the drawing — and you're in their marketing database. Once you have registered, you are entitled to collect your freebies. T-shirts, hats, tote bags, mouse pads, tins of mints, souvenir poker chips you can use as a card protector — all bearing the distinctive logo of the Web site.
In one case, you can sign a form promising to wear their logo should you make it to a final table in one of the televised events, in return for a five-figure payment. Not a smart deal. I heard that one unknown amateur made it to a final table as the chip leader, and walked around to each of six different Web site hospitality suites offering himself to the highest bidder. He ended up getting $30,000 to wear the hat and T-shirt of the winning Web site bidder. Best of all, he also won the event! So they will definitely get their money's worth when that event is broadcast and rebroadcast on ESPN throughout the next year.
The hospitality suites also have free food and drink, comfortable couches and lounge areas, laptops you can use to check your e-mail, big-screen TVs to keep an eye on your favorite sporting event, and at least one rock star poker pro you can sit down and chat with. One even has a small poker table where the pros give lessons at various times of the day. It's quite a marketing show.
But the marketing coup of the year goes to Party Poker. It's the largest online poker site, in terms of numbers of players and dollars of revenue (and we are talking about billions here, not just millions or even hundreds of millions). They have no hospitality suite at the Rio. Instead, they paid Harrah's to print their logo on the felt that covers every one of the 200 poker tables in the tournament area, right in the middle of the table just above the spot where the dealer places the common cards ("the flop") each time a hand is dealt. Not only are 20,000 WSOP competitors staring at their logo several hundred times a day every time a hand is dealt, every television viewer who watches the final table coverage of the WSOP events in reruns for the next year on ESPN will be seeing the logo every time a hand is dealt and shown on the television screen! I had dinner one night with the marketing director of a competing poker Web site who was sick with envy that he didn't think of it first.
After cruising a few hospitality suites and grabbing a free bite to eat, I went into the tournament area and signed up for a single-table satellite game.
In my next report, I'll let you know how I fared on that first evening at the tables.
By Ken Adams