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The start of the 42nd annual World Series of Poker main event this afternoon at the Rio has all the hallmarks of the world’s largest poker tournament during the heyday of the game in American popular culture, with throngs of eager participants and onlookers.
This year’s crowd looks a bit different from last year, however. There are a lot fewer logos for online poker sites such as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker — sites that were shut down in April by the Justice Department, with their operators indicted on charges of operating illegally in the United States.
Hats are few and far between — a change from years past when baseball caps bearing poker logos were part of the typical poker-playing uniform. Clothing veers toward the nondescript, with logo-free T-shirts and polo shirts.
Tournament owner Caesars Entertainment would like to keep it that way. New tournament rules this year prevent participants from wearing hats with logos of any kind — from poker sites to a player’s favorite potato chips.
The rules also prevent players from wearing more than one commercial logo per article of clothing. Logos that are more than 9 or 12 inches square also are prohibited.
The changes have more to do with increasing broadcast restrictions around the world than the poker indictments, tournament spokesman Seth Palansky said.
Some European countries are preventing the use of commercial logos in their broadcasts, a concern for a tournament that’s expected to air in more than 50 countries over the next 18 months, Palansky said.
The change riled Phil Hellmuth, a poker celebrity who was told to remove a hat he was wearing before a previous tournament at the World Series of Poker this week. The hat featured a logo for Aria.
By offering players a discreet, convenient and relatively inexpensive way to hone their poker skills, poker websites are largely responsible for the staggering growth of the World Series of Poker over the years, as well as the spread of nonvirtual poker games and tournaments around the world.
Although the Rio has banned the sites from operating booths or hospitality suites for the past several years, they have played an important though somewhat underground role at the tournament by sponsoring players and paying them to wear their logos.
The indictments haven’t appeared to dampen interest in the event, Palansky said.
Attendance in the dozens of tournaments leading up to the main event hit a record of 68,807 people, a 9 percent increase from last year. Prize money for those events rose 8 percent. (Attendance figures for the main event weren’t available.)
ESPN is increasing its coverage of the World Series of Poker this year, including six consecutive days of live coverage from July 14-19. The live coverage, another first, will be on a 30-minute tape delay to comply with Nevada gambling laws.
The added coverage is expected to draw more fans who appreciate immediate coverage rather than the reality-show approach of watching events that have been taped weeks or months before, Palansky said.
“There is an audience that wants to watch this in real time” like a mainstream sporting event, he said.
The increase in poker programming, although it may help the tournament reach a wider audience, may have more to do with the NBA and NFL lockouts than a surge in interest in poker, however, he added.