New pro poker league makes Las Vegas home

A professional poker league that will begin play in Las Vegas this year is taking its cue from the PGA Tour.

The yet-to-be-named league, the brainchild of former World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and professional poker player Annie Duke, is geared toward the big names on the professional poker circuit.

Some 200 players will be invited to compete in the league’s four planned nationally televised "tour stops." Entry to the league will be based on a mathematical formula driven by a player’s previous poker achievements, such as major event titles, career winnings and recent success.

Like golfers on the PGA Tour, the poker players will need to earn their tour card to compete in the events.

"We’re not in competition with the World Series of Poker or the World Poker Tour," Pollack said Tuesday. "We want players who excel at those events to compete in our league. We want the players who do well in the major tournaments."

Duke, who will serve as the league’s commissioner and won’t participate in the events, said such a league is "something poker players have talked about for a long time."

Erik Seidel, an eight-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner and a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, figures he will be able to earn his tour card to compete in the league.

"It has been a long time coming for a poker league on par with other professional sports," Seidel said. "I am looking forward to true excellence in the game being rewarded."

Unlike major poker tournaments, the league’s events will not take a rake — a percentage of the money wagered — on the event’s prize pools from the players. Pollack expects the league to earn revenues from sponsorship agreements and other vehicles. Players will pay their own entry fees.

The league will have three initial tournaments between August and December, all at the Palms. A fourth event and championship tournament is expected to take place at the Palms in January 2012. Each tournament will have several events and conclude with a $25,000 buy-in main event.

Pollack said the formula for entry, the league’s name, tournament formats and the initial competitors will be announced later. He said the league’s deal with the Palms is exclusive and he is not looking beyond the initial year.

The business venture returns Pollack, chairman of Professional Bull Riders Inc., to poker.

He was commissioner of the Caesars Entertainment Corp.-owned World Series of Poker from 2005 to 2009 and is credited with growing the size and scope of the annual tournament. The 2010 tournament drew a record 72,966 entrants to 57 events with a prize pool of more than $187.1 million.

The league is being created by Federated Sports & Gaming, a company Pollack co-founded with the two founders of Youbet.com, a horse wagering site that was sold last year to Kentucky Derby host Churchill Downs.

The ESPN-televised World Series of Poker is open to any players who will put up the entry fees. The World Championship No-limit Hold ’em Main Event costs $10,000 to enter. Last year’s event drew a field of 7,319 players and was won by Jonathan Duhamel, a little-known professional from Canada who collected more than $8.9 million.

Pollack and Duke said their league’s events will be more exclusive.

"The poker market continues to be robust," Pollack said. "This will allow us to celebrate not only the established stars of the game, but new stars as well. This is not just about the names you know, but it’s also about the names you should know."

Duke has collected more than $4.2 million in tournament poker, cashing 38 times at the World Series of Poker since 1994 and earning one individual event champions bracelet. She won last year’s televised "Head’s Up Poker Challenge" and was runner-up two years ago to comedian Joan Rivers in the Donald Trump reality television series, "Celebrity Apprentice."

She said agreeing not to participate in the league was not a hard decision.

"It’s appropriate and it’s very much a natural extension for what I’ve been doing," said Duke, who has lobbied in Washington, D.C., over the past few years on behalf of legalizing Internet poker. "The qualifications for players in the league are based on performance, and that’s a key element."

Duke said the league’s events will be exclusively hold’em because it’s the most popular poker game and translates the easiest to a television audience.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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