A scavenger hunt. A social bar. Fan interaction with players.
This is poker?
The World Poker Tour has amped up its sideshow this year, which is saying something when you consider that in 2011 it rolled out shapely models in tight dresses called “the Royal Flush Girls.”
The WPT’s main event begins today at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood. It’s the second year the tournament has been held at the casino.
“People connect with the WPT in a very personal way,” WPT president Steve Heller says. “As we’ve been saying this year, ‘We want to put more event into the event.’ “
Hence, the sideshows.
The World Poker Tour ignited poker’s big bang 10 years ago, when it introduced tiny cameras that show players’ face-down “hole” cards to television viewers. Since then, poker players have become TV stars, and Texas Hold ’em became the game of choice as poker rooms flourished worldwide.
The poker trend has flattened off a bit, particularly after the federal government shut down online-poker sites on April 15, 2011, a day referred to in poker circles as “Black Friday.”
So the WPT is reaching out to attract a new base, Heller says.
“It’s about the quality of the experience and trying to bring in people who might not otherwise want to come,” he says. “We’re trying to extend the reach of poker.”
This year, the Royal Flush Girls will maintain a “social bar,” where visitors can sit with them and chat. The tournament also will feature four TV monitors, an Xbox Kinect and live Twitter feeds. (Those would-be spectators who sign up at the WPT’s ClubWPT.com receive priority seating.) At 8 p.m. Thursday, fans can join the WPT players’ party at Emilio and Gloria Estefan’s Bongos Cuban Café.
At 2 p.m. Friday, a scavenger hunt will take place on the Hard Rock property, though the WPT is offering few details about it.
In the meantime, fans such as Dave Pickering of Davie say they’ll be at the Hard Rock to see their favorite players, including Allen Cunningham, who finished fourth in the 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event. Others says they’ll follow Fort Lauderdale’s Jason Mercier and last year’s champ, Taylor von Kriegenbergh of Hollywood.
“It’s a curiosity for me, and I like studying their games,” Pickering says, acknowledging that watching players in live action compared to on TV is like the difference between seeing a baseball game live vs. catching the highlights on ESPN. It’s much slower, and, in live poker, fans can’t see a player’s hole cards.
But TV has turned many poker players into household names, to the point that fans think they know them.
“I’ll be here all week, sitting right here,” says Maria E. Fernandez of Miami, hanging out at Hard Rock Live during a preliminary tournament. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
What attracts fans to poker is that everyday people can be sitting at the table anonymously, and if they play their cards right, they’ll be famous the next week.
“People relate to it because anyone can play, and most people grew up playing cards,” says Bill Mason, the Hard Rock’s director of poker. “If you get hit with the deck [poker slang for getting good cards], anything is possible.”
Abbey Daniels was a typical Coral Springs businesswoman and band parent a year ago, before she steamrolled through a field of 433 and made the final table at the inaugural Hard Rock Summer Showdown, earning $286,819 for fourth place. Since then, she’s taken up poker professionally, opened a poker-instruction camp for women and fared well in local tournaments. She appears often on Fox Sports Net’s coverage of the WPT.
“Especially in Florida, people come up to me like they know me,” she says. “I think it’s especially because I’m a female and there aren’t that many in poker.”
Another veteran of 2011’s final table, Justin Zaki, experienced a similar rise to fame, after starting off playing $20 tournaments as a student at the University of Central Florida. He finished third and won $415,680
“And he wasn’t even the best player at those games,” says his friend, Craig Levine, of Cooper City. “But he worked at it. It shows that it’s possible for anyone.”
World Poker Tour/Hard Rock Poker Showdown
When: Noon today through Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Monday (no fan viewing on Sunday, limited on Monday)
Where: Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood
Cost: Free to watch, $10,000 to play
Contact: 954-585-5111 or WorldPokerTour.com