By Wendeen H. Eolis

Poker Player Newspaper

No sooner than the plane touched down on the tarmac at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, my mobile phone is afire with messages from players at the 2005 World Series of Poker.

Record fields of tournament entrants are daily occurrences. High-profile poker players are fixated on tournaments that will be televised, and three more poker player associations have been hatched in the WSOP corridors.

Mike Caro, the “Mad Genius of Poker” and long-time friend whisks me away from the airport with further updates on the exhilarating madness that awaits me at the 2005 World Series of Poker. A full mile away from the main entrance of the Rio suites hotel, site of the World Series of Poker, a jam-packed parking lot hails the arrival of players from across the country and as far away as all four corners of the globe.

I enter the convention center and make a right hand turn into a grand hallway fit for a red carpet affair. Two hundred feet further, a big sign beckons new arrivals: “Register here.” Having been warned that the final event of the 2005 WSOP may be sold out, I have already anted up for the Big Dance through the WSOP online registration program. I have gotten a jump on my procrastinating friends, not only by ensuring that I cannot be shut out, but also by getting my starting day, table, and seat number in advance.

Yesterday’s rumor was that Harrah’s might open the number of available seats for the main event past the previously announced 6,600 places. Could the starting number of punters swell past 8,000? Silently, I note that with more than $700 a head in entrance fees taken off the top of the prize pool for the House, the mega-resort has good reason to figure out how to accommodate every last poker player on the face of the earth who wants to be here!

Journalist that I am, I insist on checking out the rumor with a reliable source. So I tag Ken Lambert, Harrah’s Director of Tournament Poker. He says “no dice” to such chatter, informing me that higher-ups have assured him that there will be no expanded finale. The 6,600 number is firm and to make sure that players will have an opportunity to win seats in satellites at the Rio Suites property right up to the last day, Harrah’s is currently holding out an estimated 1,000 seats, according to Lambert. “From this point on, your best bet for a seat in the Championship Event is a satellite or a super-satellite at the Rio or by using the old-fashioned method of “buying in” for 10 dimes-sooner than later. As of June 23rd, online registration for tournament events has been closed. Going forward, if you plan on playing in a satellite elsewhere between now and July 7th, beware: you could find yourself a winner, but standing on the rail.

Worry-free about such matters, I take a spin through the Rio poker room. It is a ‘never been seen before’ vision: two hundred poker tables under bright lights glisten before my eyes. They stand above plush carpeting with ample space to navigate between tables. The room is immaculately clean. Beyond the sea of faces already at the tables for the $2,500 No Limit Hold’em competition today, I spot TJ Cloutier, the towering ex-football player and long-time player who is still at the top of his game in his sixties. He’s already shown the zillion young studs in attendance here that maturity and experience are valued assets and that it is staying power that brings genuine respect for your game.

In a widening loop around the tables, I note that old-timers seem scarce against the throngs of twenty-something newly minted wannabees. The road-gamblin’ Texans of yore are outnumbered by thousands of recreational players with full-time jobs that only dream of turning pro.

No matter the debates surrounding each and every event until the very last minute, as to the number of players that will sidle up to the table, nothing matches the frenzied private bets among players and tournament staff on the size of first-place prize money for the main event. I push Lambert to make a prediction. He tells me that the optimists are hoping it will hit 10 million. He smiles broadly, but says nothing when I ask if the odds makers are in trouble with the over at 8 million.

Sitting in the middle of the poker room, I eye the tables, the dealers, the crowd, and the ESPN crew that is moving about like a synchronized cast of characters in a play. Ken Lambert and his trusted right hand Johnny Grooms talked to me about this historical moment in the poker world. They give me answers to the right questions even before I pose them.

Rooms at the Rio Suites are still available. As of late, they are selling like hotcakes even though they are double the price of the old Binion’s Horseshoe rate. Ken adds that the $109 tariff on weekday nights and $179 charge for weekends are true bargains compared to the hotel’s year-round rates. Next, Ken schools me about the rules for player sponsorships during this year’s tournaments. He cautions that there will be no repeat of last year’s efforts by certain poker companies to “buy the final table,” offering players the chance to wear their logos for big bucks once they’ve proven their mettle in the event- trying their darndest to make the finalists look like a billboard for their corporate entities.

This time around at the WSOP, players must obtain sponsors prior to the beginning of the tournament in order to wear their logo apparel for televised poker shows. Then they must meet Harrah’s requirements which allow a maximum of a three inch square patch on one visible garment. If you dare to come with more, the excess logos will be taped.

Talking about televised poker action, tournament staff chuckle that the players’ are totally smitten by the chance to play poker on the tube. One dealer mocked the rush of reporters by poker pros, saying, “You’d think that the opportunities to mug for the camera would guarantee a future fortune. “Don’t assume that.” There are a lot of one-stunt wonders out there who get found out pretty quick.” For the time being, however, the press seems as anxious for interviews with players- pros and unknowns alike-as players are for the attention. Everyone is lapping up the current poker madness that reigns here.

Poker players and poker dollars are flying into town at lightning speed, with unknown 21-29 year old males frequently accounting for nearly a third of the field in major events. I can’t help but yearn for the good old days of poker when Jack Binion announced the name of each and every player in the main event as they strolled to their seats, greeting their fellow gladiators by name as they took their places. The poker gods read my thoughts; the elite of the poker world and longtime friends are gathered here this evening for a roast of John Bonetti. The gravelly voiced, tough-talking original from New York has made his mark on the tournament trail, having started down that path at age 65. Bonetti is no quitter. Neither bad streaks at the felt nor a rare and frightening form of cancer could keep this man down. He keeps on cashing. The three-time WSOP bracelet winner has added to his stash another $175,215 with a third place finish in a $5000 No Limit Hold’em event here at the 2005 WSOP.

The belly-laughs at the Bonetti roast come fast and furious with Mike Sexton’s rapid patter setting the tone. Sexton tells the crowd that John Bonetti’s passion for the game has earned him a record number of penalties for uttering the F-bomb word. Sexton doesn’t let up. He points out that Bonetti has the lone distinction of a penalty for use of the f-word during a tournament break, moments after a hand that didn’t please him. And Sexton finishes him off with a claim that dealers keep a dart board on hand in the break room in a lame effort to make mincemeat of the killer poker player.

At the end of the day, however, John Bonetti’s foibles pale in comparison to his heart for the game, his courage in facing life’s trials, and his faithful friendships throughout the poker world. Here, here to the 2005 World Series of Poker and John Bonetti, an old world poker hero, with talent to handle the modern game.

Wendeen Eolis has cashed four times with record-setting performances at the WSOP, including twice in the main event. She has appeared on the WPT televised Ladies Night II event and was elected to the inaugural of the WPT’s Professional Poker Tour. Her accomplishments in business, politics, and poker have been profiled by major print and broadcast media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, A & E’s Biography and most recently on the Travel Channel.