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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

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Mirroring poker's national surge in popularity, the main event at the World Series of Poker has grown dramatically among both men and women. Three years ago, only 631 people registered to play.

But since then poker has exploded, thanks to the game being dealt into homes through nightly TV shows and a pair of poker phenoms who learned how to play on the Internet and won in 2003 and 2004.

Suddenly, one of the most difficult card games became accessible, and anyone willing to practice could become a winner - a big winner.

Also, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., the largest gambling company in the world, bought the rights to the World Series of Poker and created the popular championship circuit. Company officials decided to move the tournament to the Rio's cavernous convention hall and announced this will be the last year the finals are held at the historic Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel.

Cowboy gambler Benny Binion began the poker tournament in 1970 to establish the world's best player. Then, only grizzled veterans stood a chance of being crowned king. Binion probably never imagined a woman could win the World Series of Poker's most prized bracelet.

Last year, Suzanne Carpenter finished 21st among the 2,576 contestants who entered the main event - which requires a $10,000 buy-in. Women made up about 5 percent of the 2004 field, said Nolan Dalla, the tournament's media director.

Dalla expects that figure to rise slightly this year, meaning the top women players still face very long odds.

"We are all very competitive," said Liebert, who won a "Battle of the Sexes" episode on the Game Show Network in March. "It's a long shot for anybody. You gotta play your best game and you can't be afraid to lose."