Sarah Feldberg
Sarah Feldberg

“It really is like Christmas morning today,” said Seth Palansky on May 27, just hours before the 46th Annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) got underway at the Rio All-Suite Casino in Las Vegas.

Palansky is spokesman for WSOP, the long-running poker tournament that draws players from all over the world to Las Vegas every year. In 2014, a record 82,360 people sat down at poker tables over the course of the tournament, competing to take home some of the nearly $228 million that was awarded and one of the event’s coveted winner’s bracelets.

“One key goal this year is to bring new players to the game,” Palansky said.

One way WSOP hopes to do that is with the appropriately named Colossus, the opening weekend no-limit hold ’em tournament that drew 22,374 entrants and set a record for the largest live poker event ever, easily surpassing the previous record of 8,773 players set by the WSOP Main Event in 2006. With a $565 buy-in, the price point was the lowest for an open event at WSOP since 1980, which may have drawn participants priced out of other WSOP events.

“There’s a misperception that the WSOP is about card sharks and poker experts, but really it’s geared towards hobbyists and recreational players,” Palansky said. “We have PhD mathematicians, we have Harvard law degrees, Wall Street investment bankers and bartenders and librarians. Poker is the great equalizer. When you get your cards and get your chips in front of you, everyone’s equal.”

Over the years, WSOP, which has been owned by Caesars Interactive Entertainment since 2005, has studied its own numbers to determine what drives participation in a given event. Palansky says they look at the data and “try to understand what works best on Tuesday at noon and what’s better for Friday at 6 p.m.”

This year’s tournament at the Rio features 68 events over 51 days from May 27 to July 14, with the Main Event Final Table returning to Las Vegas Nov. 8 to 10. Certain events are also designed to galvanize specific communities of players, like the Super Seniors No-Limit Hold ’em tournament, restricted to ages 65 plus, which starts June 21. The Ladies No-Limit Hold ’em Championship, which offers a $9,000 buy-in discount to women, kicks off June 26.

While 69% of participants in WSOP hail from the U.S., the 2014 tournament drew players from 110 different countries, and Palansky said interest in poker is growing everywhere except on WSOP’s home soil. The ability to play on the Internet, he added, “has created the next generation of player.” Social poker on mobile devices can also drive people to try out live poker in a tournament setting.

And those who don’t want to play can still check it out. The tournament is open to spectators of legal gambling age, and it’s free to watch. Some people come hoping to catch a glimpse of celebrities like NBA player Paul Pierce, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps or actor Ben Affleck at one of the WSOP tables.

“This is the Woodstock for poker,” Palansky said. “Players come from all around the world to Las Vegas. They have since 1970, and the day it ends each year is the day I sort of go, ‘Ugh, I have to wait another year until this happens again.’”

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