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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bet it all

Lipscomb's secret: He turned poker into a slickly produced reality show. Viewers can follow the action, get close to the wacky characters populating poker rooms, pick up tips, or enjoy a chuckle from the sardonic commentary on the sidelines. "It's dazzling, like you're on a movie set," says Antonio Esfandiari, 26, who won $1.4 million in a WPT tournament last season.

Certainly, Lipscomb has had other aces in the hole. One is his chairman and primary investor, Lyle Berman, CEO of Minnetonka (Minn.)-based casino operator Lakes Entertainment (LACO ), which owns 80% of WPT. Berman, a veteran poker player who was a driving force in the growth of gambling on Native American reservations, met Lipscomb in late 2001 at a World Series of Poker event. He liked Lipscomb's business plan and was taken by his unrelenting enthusiasm.

UPPING THE ANTE. Lake's initial $4 million investment allowed Lipscomb to lock in key tournaments at more than a dozen of the country's hottest casinos. "If someone like Steve were to come to us now, I'm not sure we would give him exclusive rights," says Vikrant Bhargava, general manager of PartyPoker.com, which has its annual multimillion-dollar event aired on WPT. As Ian Valentine, senior vice-president for programming at GSN (formerly the Game Show Network), notes: "Lipscomb has essentially locked up a set of events that people have to play at."