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Player participation up in World Series of Poker

Player participation in the first 11 events at the World Series of Poker is up 2.5 percent over last year.

Through Monday, 10,624 players signed up to play in the tournament’s initial events, up slightly from 10,358 players who competed in the same 11 events a year ago.

One event, a no-limit hold’em heads-up challenge, increased the buy-in from $10,000 to $25,000 and drew 128 players, half of what the event drew in 2010. Three events, however, have increased their number of participants by more than 10 percent.

Through the 11 events, the World Series of Poker prize pool is almost $21.1 million, up 5.7 percent from $19.9 million a year ago.

The heads-up event didn’t have as many participants as last year, but the increased entry fee grew the event’s prize pool by almost $640,000.

Whether the trends hold through the tournament’s remaining 47 events is still up for debate.

“I really do believe that poker is much bigger than anyone wanted to admit,” World Series of Poker Executive Director Ty Stewart said Tuesday. “It’s not just American players. We’re still seeing the numbers of foreign players continue to increase.”

Last year’s World Series of Poker drew a record 72,966 participants from 117 countries and offered a prize pool of $187.1 million.

Tournament officials weren’t sure what effect the U.S. Department of Justice crackdown on Internet poker, which put three of the world’s largest online gaming sites off-limits to American players, would have on the World Series of Poker.

Two of the sites, FullTilt Poker and Absolute Poker, have not refunded American poker players any of the money they had on account. PokerStars said it has repaid players more than $100 million.

At the outset of the World Series of Poker, Stewart said he was worried that players with bankrolls tied up in the online sites might have trouble entering the tournament. He’s been happily proven wrong.

“We’re not being naive, but we believe there is a strong demand for the game from poker players,” Stewart said.

Still in question is what impact the crackdown will have on the tournament’s Main Event, the $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em World Championship, which begins play on July 7.

Last year’s Main Event drew 7,319 participants, second-highest in the tournament’s history to the 8,773 entries in 2006, when participants could qualify through Internet poker sites.

In 2006, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act went into effect and the World Series of Poker ended direct participation from online sites.

Stewart said many casinos around the country offer satellite poker tournaments, with the grand prize winner earning a seat in the Main Event. As such, he’s hopeful Main Event entries will continue at recent levels.

“Players are gravitating back to traditional brick-and-mortar casinos,” Stewart said. “We continue to be optimistic. We’ve met out expectations and we’ve exceeded everyone else’s.”

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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