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Harrah's Horror - The Worst Of The 2007 World Series Of Poker (So Far)...By Nelson Lardner

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . .

By now, anyone with more than a casual interest in the 2007 World Series of Poker knows what the deal is.

I had feared the worst once Harrah's snared the rights to the event after buying out the remains of the Binion family.

I had seen how the Harrah's "treatment" had altered the character of what was a great, great property - the Rio -- by downgrading most of the games well below the point of playability, while rapaciously jerking up rates on virtually everything under their purview.

And you may have believed they couldn't possibly apply the Harrah's "touch" to the WSOP, even subsequent to their gaining a full grip on the extravaganza.

You thought wrong.

Last week's $2000 no-limit event was contested in what was laughingly labeled the "Players Pavilion", a glorified tent featuring almost-entirely-ineffectual air-conditioning. Perhaps Harrah's could have gotten away with this in April or October, but not in mid-June, with outdoor temperatures eclipsing the century mark. The players, by and large, endured it. It was a WSOP event, after all.

But why were the tournament players exiled to a sweaty, smelly tent?

Because the main poker room (the Amazon Room), air-conditioned to the max . . . was completely filled with cash side games, with the house rake merrily grinding away.

The logic employed here is utterly self-serving, in the worst corporate sense. Having prepaid, and thus stripped of leverage, the tournament players are sentenced to suffering. Meanwhile, unchained to the property, the side-game players are catered to, despite their far-smaller spending power . . . because if they're not happy with the conditions, they could take a walk.

By this point on the timeline, such shoddy conditions had ample precedent, as demonstrated by the conditions prevailing during the WSOP's June 5 Omaha competition. Harrah's overscheduled WSOP activities for this date, and the Omaha players bore the brunt. The temperatures weren't quite so steamy for this go-round's 5 PM start time, but the wind has been known to pick up in the desert in the evenings, and June 5 proved no exception, as strong breezes eclipsing 40 MPH made for noisy surroundings, making player communication difficult. Eventually, a portion of the tent failed to hold its proper shape against the wind assault, and play was suspended - until, their hand forced, management relented and blocked out sufficient Amazon Room space to accommodate the survivors. The horribly-long registration lines at the outset were the first real tipoff . . . the result of a nasty combination of off-kilter planning, wishful thinking, and probably more than a dash of taking WSOP patronage for granted.

Not that there hasn't been considerable counterprogramming available, around town. The Venetian's Deep Stack Extravaganza is chugging along, in its second season . . . while the World Poker Tour's Bellagio Cup is now in its third go-round.

And make no mistake, there's a spreading-the-talent factor in play. 21-year-old Johnathan Westra came roaring out of the gate at Bellagio to capture this year's opening NL event (winning $65K+), and proceeded to finish second in another, a few days later. Westra has banked some $300k in live-tourney winnings since emerging on the live circuit, last fall.

Westra's also participated in the Venetian's go-round, which runs throughout June, leading to a July 1 final. More than 4700 players participated in the initial Venetian presentation this past winter, and an international crowd has returned to town to take more shots at what has become quite the diversified menu of opportunities.

'Course, the intense competition isn't the only circumstantial reason why everyone hasn't dropped everything to rush in to partipate in WSOP events. Bob Nersesian, a Vegas attorney long known for defending the rights and interests of so-called "advantage players", wrote, in a letter to the Review-Journal published on Father's Day:

" . . . Harrah's excludes players from the World Series of Poker who have been barred for their skills in blackjack or other games, and inexplicably prevents some of the best players anywhere from competing . . . The effect of this policy is to taint the series and call into question the legitimacy of the ultimate winners."

There isn't much Harrah's can say in response to that . . . but wait! The news isn't all bleak. By now, most are aware that Harrah's is in the process of being bought out out by a couple of major-league private equity groups for over $17 billion. Full approval of the deal by each of the dozen states involved remains pending, but envision no substantial obstacles to eventual finalization. So the first gaming company listed on the Big Board (in 1973) will now be in private hands. Given the swollen debt load involved, would surmise that the new buyers would seek to sell bits and pieces of the properties they deem to have the least upside . . . provided that the prices are right.

No one would ever expect Harrah's to throw the WSOP party for free. They're a corporation, not a charity. That conceded, there remains marked room for improvement over Harrah's WSOP stewardship since their takeover. This is by no means a slam at the people on the front lines, who are forced to deal with circumstances beyond their control on a daily basis, if they wish to remain employed. These problems are firmly-rooted with top management. Perhaps the new owners will treat this asset with greater respect.

It would be difficult to do otherwise.

Nelson Lardner

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