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When I first heard that the hugely successful Tunica World Poker Open would be going head to head with the equally well-received Reno Hilton World Poker Challenge in January, 2002-the dates for the two events are virtually identical-I felt, like most members of the major poker tournament scene, greatly disappointed.

After all, there are seven great tournaments in the U.S. each year, and here we had two of them now operating it total competition with one another, making it impossible for the big time tournament players to attend both.

What could have caused this, I wondered? Management at both events is top flight. Why should one tournament try to hurt the other and almost certainly hurt itself? Had this become some sort of poker “pissing contest?”

It turns out that none of those preliminary judgments or guesses were even remotely correct: some unfortunate timing, and some completely benign decisions by management, left the two tournaments facing one another.

I’ll get to those reasons in a moment, but I soon realized that this overlap created an opportunity for the mid-level tournament player to score in a prestigious event, because the top hundred players in the world can’t be in two places at one time, and that means that even though the fields in both tournaments will be tough, they can’t possibly be as tough as they would be if they each held their own space.

In other words, if you’re a good but not great tournament Sbobet player, the overlap that so dismays the poker elite may just provide you with the opportunity of a poker lifetime. Ditto for the average tournament player who is hoping for that one big score.

OK, so that’s the good news. How did the situation come to pass, and what can players expect to see in Tunica?

Originally, the World Poker Open was the creation of Jack Binion, a poker legend who for so many years ran poker’s Holy Grail, the World Series of Poker. When Jack and sister Becky had a parting of the ways, Becky retained control of the Las Vegas Binion’s Horseshoe, and Jack opened his own Horseshoe in Tunica, Mississippi.

The first two World Poker Opens were roaring successes by almost any definition. Although I chose not to attend either (more on that in a moment-it’s important), I heard nothing but absolutely spectacular reports about not merely the events, but about all the little (and not so little) things that help make a poker tournament successful:

Awesome side action, with thirty to forty round the clock games at any limit you could imagine, with plenty of players who seemed willing to mix it up (One fairly famous and reliable poker friend of mine told me she had never won as much in side action as she had at the first WPO, and she hadn’t even felt that she’d gotten so many great cards).

Great rooms at great prices ($29 for rooms throughout the tournament, including the weekends).

Incredible food (not that the average poker player has high gastronomical standards) served with expected southern hospitality.

Now, I could excuse myself for missing an event like this the first time around, because the WPO was, after all, a new tournament, and even with Jack Binion’s name behind it, I couldn’t be sure what it would be like, and Tunica is a long way from LA.

The second time around, though, I passed on Tunica because the World Series of Poker had backed up its starting time to within a week of Tunica’s finish (the first year, there was a two week separation). Knowing that I planned to spend a month in Las Vegas covering the WSOP, the thought of three weeks in Tunica with almost no turnaround time seemed a bit much to me, if I planned on having any kind of a life outside poker for those two months.

For 2002, Jack Binion faced a dual dilemma. There were rumors, unclear at the time but still credible, that the WSOP was going to continue to expand its schedule and move its starting time closer to the Tunica finish. If a one-week turnaround was going to be tough for people who don’t devote their lives to poker (and that’s a description that applies to most participants in both events), no turnaround time figured to be devastating to the WPO.

Second, the Las Vegas Club starting talking about running its own tournament during the exact same period, and even though the LVC event wouldn’t be as big as the WPO, a simultaneous event was going to cause problems for Horseshoe poker room manager Ken Lambert.

“We’ve always had problems getting enough quality dealers to come to Tunica,” Lambert told me. “We’ve made it, but not with much margin to spare. For an event of this magnitude, you want the very best, and a lot of the very best dealers are in Las Vegas. Unless we put together some sort of incredible financial package, we felt it would be difficult to lure dealers out of Las Vegas to come to Tunica.”

The final piece of the difficult puzzle was set when the Horseshoe and neighboring property The Gold Strike went searching for a time slot when they could offer poker players the inexpensive rooms they like so much. The event is too large for either hotel to manage individually and so it is run as a collaborative effort. This doesn’t cause any problems for the players because, as Lambert told me, “the two buildings are so close that you’d have to walk really slow to get wet if it were raining.” For those of you interested in less colloquial measures of distance, it’s about 50 yards.

he two facilities wanted to set aside roughly 850 rooms for the event, and only have 1,600 rooms to start with (as of this writing, with nearly six weeks to go before the event, more than 500 rooms have been reserved at the $29 rate). Of course, the Reno Hilton doesn’t exactly come up short in this department either: they offer $25 rooms for the duration of the WPC!

As a result, Binion, Tournament Director Jim Albrecht (himself a WSOP legend), and Tournament Coordinator Jack McClelland, along with Lambert, decided to do something they didn’t want to do: go head to head with a tournament they like and whose management they respect. McClelland is certainly tournament poker’s all-time greatest director, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else you’d consider putting ahead of Reno’s Dave Lamb.

“It’s a real shame,” Binion told me. “We certainly weren’t trying to damage Reno. I think it’s important for poker tournaments to try to cooperate with one another, and try to build up poker overall, rather than fighting over what action there is. But we got boxed in by room availability. Players weren’t going to want to shuttle in from hotels 20 miles away.”

Even though Binion wasn’t anxious to get into “we’re better because…” kinds of statements, he was willing to talk about what he thinks makes the Tunica event the great tournament that it is.

“Number one, I would have to say, is our side action,” Binion said. “People are really surprised at how good the action is in the south, especially in the higher limit games.”

Lambert’s experience also provides a good reason to come to Tunica. Lambert has been more or less following Binion around since he was 16 years old and got a job as a busboy at the downtown Las Vegas Hilton. He later moved into Security when he turned 21, but had always had his eyes on poker, when he would deliver room service orders to poker players and noted the thick bundles of cash.

Lambert left Binion briefly when the Mirage poker room opened, staring as a brush and working his way up to assistant shift manager in three years. But when Jack Binion called him in September 1994, he headed to Mississippi to run Binion’s poker room there.”

“I’d thought about holding a big tournament at the Shoe almost from the day I got there,” Lambert said, “but I realized that for the kind of tournament I wanted to run, one that would really put Southern poker on the map, we needed a partner, and I worked on the Gold Strike folks for about a year, convincing them that we had a real winning situation, combining Jack’s name with the marvelous Gold Strike facility.”

“Once we had the Gold Strike convinced of the possibilities, I called up Jim Albrecht, who was semi-retired, and Jack McClelland, who was completely retired, and all of a sudden we had us a real all-star line-up of tournament professionals.”

As to the overlap with the Reno Hilton, I wasn’t surprised to hear Lambert echo Binion’s sentiments.

“It was never personal,” Lambert said. “I even called (Hilton poker room Manager) Mike Gainey to see if there was some way they could switch. We were just already in trouble with the WSOP only one week away-30% of our players were leaving early, because most players have families, jobs, or other responsibilities and just can’t drop off the face of the earth to play poker for two months straight. I hope Reno does well also.”

For Reno to do well (and having attended that event last year and having loved it, this won’t be hard for them to do), they will have to offer side action that matches up with Tunica.

“We run all the action in the 30-60 games and above at the Gold Strike,” Lambert said, “and that includes a lot of pot-limit. Usually you can find pot-limit Omaha with 5-5 blinds, 10-25 blinds, and more often than not, games as big as 200-400 blinds too. We spread some pretty big limit games, too. We had $1,000-$2,000 Lowball last year.”

“The smaller games,” Lambert continued, “we run over at the Horseshoe, but I wouldn’t even call those ‘small.’ We’ve had as many as eight 20-40 games going on simultaneously over there. If you want to play some serious money poker, you don’t ever have to go near the tournament room to an action-packed three weeks.”

From my talks with people who have played both events, it sounds like if you want lots of options at the lower and middle limits, Reno might be the right choice, and if you want lots of options at the high-middle and higher limits, Tunica sounds like the right destination.

Both events will be non-smoking this year. In Tunica, all of the tournaments, and all of the action at 30-60 and above, will be at the completely non-smoking Gold Strike. The smoking situation at the smaller games over at the Horseshoe isn’t quite as clear. There will be non-smoking tables, but you should be prepared for some second-hand smoke in the Horseshoe side games.

As far as the tournaments themselves, if you’re looking to play a little higher, Tunica is probably the better choice, while if you’re on a bit of a budget, Reno makes more sense.

Tunica will offer one $300 event with rebuys, nine $500 buy-in events, five $1,000 buy-in events, $2,000 events in Limit Hold’em and No-Limit Hold’em, and a $10,000 Championship event (for which they are guaranteeing a million dollar prize pool).

In Reno, you can select from among eight $300 events (one with a rebuy), six $500 events (two with rebuys), four $1,000 events (one with rebuys), and a $5,000 Championship event.

If you’re one of those folks who holds a strong opinion for or against Tex’s Tears 50% blind increase structure, you’ll find that in Reno (although WSOP payout structure will be used), while in Tunica you’ll find a the more traditional WSOP-style blind structure and payouts, not surprising considering that McClelland is running the show.

“I think we’ll give the players a lot of action for their buy-ins,” McClelland said. “We’ll be using 50 minute rounds in the early events, hour rounds in the later events, and …