NO LIMIT TO THE MADNESS

Justo Guerra has spent the past few days in Las Vegas trying to play his way into the main event for the 38th World Series of Poker, which seats its first tables at noon today at the Rio.

Since his arrival from San Angelo in west Texas on Monday, the construction company owner has spent his time playing in various tournaments to try to raise the $10,000 buy-in stake required to enter the no-limit Texas hold ’em event that will run through July 17.

"It’s just the excitement of it," said Guerra, after registering for one of the satellite tournaments. "It’s the experience of playing in it and maybe winning some money."

The Rio is also running a variety of satellite tournaments with entry fees ranging from $300 to $1,000..

The main event is the culmination of the World Series of Poker tournament, which began five weeks ago and has already awarded 54 tournament champions with gold and diamond encrusted bracelets, including all-time bracelet leader Phil Hellmuth, who won his 11th on June 12.

"We’ve been running hard since June 1," said Jeffrey Pollack, commissioner of the World Series of Poker for Harrah’s Entertainment. "But the World Series is unique in its ability to capture the world’s attention."

Pollack said he would not speculate about whether the main event will approach last year’s record 8,773 entrants.

He said the final total "doesn’t matter" because of the event’s long history and because it is still considered the top poker tournament in the world.

"We’ve been around for a long time," Pollack said. "We’ve grown very organically within the poker community."

Guerra was one of hundreds of hopefuls standing in line waiting to register for the world championship event or one of the many cheaper satellite events that could help contestants avoid paying the full $10,000 buy-in.

Cory Kuchenberg, a manager of a food distributor in Escanaba, Mich., won a satellite tournament in Michigan to play in his first World Series event.

He said the lure of playing in the main event tournament is the opportunity to win "life-changing money."

"Anybody can win," said Kuchenberg, who has been playing poker for four years. "You don’t have to be a pro."

Amateur Jamie Gold came from the entertainment industry and won last year’s main event worth approximately $12 million.

Guerra said he has already won $5,000 since he hit town. However, he noted, his girlfriend has spent most of the winnings.

If his satellite strategy doesn’t pan out, he said he will pay the $10,000 so he can experience the main event for the first time.

Pollack said media coverage and sponsorship of the tournament have helped the World Series grow.

"We really just begun to modernize the tournament," said Pollack, who joined Harrah’s in October 2005 from NASCAR, "With the backing of Harrah’s, we’re not going anywhere."

Wider marketing of the tournament is also helping lure players from all over the world.

Internet poker friends Daan Slütter and Mark van der Voorden arrived from Holland hoping to catch a run of luck that could get them to the final table.

Slütter and van der Voorden are having their buy-ins paid by Team PokerNews after playing in satellite tournaments back home.

"This is the biggest tournament in the world," said Slütter, carrying a duffle bag with the Team PokerNews logo. "The main thing is to play in the main event."

Thursday was also the beginning of the newly reconfigured 2007 Gaming Life Expo, which runs through Sunday.

The Rio-sponsored expo focuses more on men’s lifestyle outside the world of poker, offering a mix of golf clubs, energy drinks, clothing and apparel, hard liquor, poker industry booths and strippers.

The convention is free and open to the public from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. in the Rio Pavilion, but guests must be 21 to enter.

The expo made news earlier this year when it banned Internet poker sites, which were some of its some of its largest exhibitors in the past.

Expansive booths from Web sites such as PokerStars, Bodog, Full Tilt, Paradise Poker and Ultimate Bet were apparently replaced in part by a few local gentlemen’s clubs.

The Sapphire Club booth near the front entrance included a stripper pole complete with a scantily dressed stripper.

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