For nearly 40 years, the World Series of Poker handed out gold bracelets in the Las Vegas desert. For all but the last three of those years, these coveted symbols of poker excellence were handed out in a place known as 'Benny's Bullpen' – more of a dimly lit cavern than a modern-day sports facility.
Poker has grown out of the caverns and into the limelight over the past few years. Any big poker event these days is a big deal, and as such must have a certain level of flair accompanying it to belong in the modern poker world.
The launch of the World Series of Poker Europe Thursday kept in stride with the call for flair, as showgirls, waiters dressed as Elvis, and two top poker players lent a hand in the launch festivities.
Things kicked off on Thursday with a press conference in an adjoining movie theatre that later that night would be showing the latest Matt Damon movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. Rather than car chases and shoot-'em-up action, we had executives, showgirls, and a couple fast-talking poker players touting the birth of a new poker tradition – the World Series of Poker Europe.
After a brief introduction by Tony Kendall, the press conference kicked off with a statement from WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, who was joined on stage by David Yu, CEO of WSOPE title sponsor Betfair. Pollack and Yu espoused the merits of the World Series of Poker, and shared their excitement for the future of the World Series of Poker Europe.
With show girls lining the stage, the next two speakers were introduced. Phil Hellmuth, Jr and Dave 'Devilfish' Ulliott took the stage. Both wearing sunglasses, the two proceeded to talk about the natural progression of the World Series of Poker to Europe, all the while trading barbs and jabs back and forth about who was the best player, and who would walk out of London with another gold bracelet.
After the press conference adjourned, it was time to head over to the casino for poker. The Casino at the Empire, a facility only opened a few months ago, will be the site for most of the poker action that will take place over the next 10 days. Right in the heart of Leicester Square in London, The Casino at the Empire is a modern, sleek looking facility.
While the casino would be dwarfed in size by the standards of any of today's modern Las Vegas casinos, by London standards The Empire is huge. Anyone who has spent any time in a London casino knows that the experience is usually akin to having one's face buried in an ashtray. Not so in the Empire, thanks to new laws banning smoking in casinos, and walls that have not endured years of smoking. The casino feels like a hip West End nightclub, with gaming tables set in the middle of it.
Due to space considerations, the fields for the WSOPE were going to be much smaller than the fields in Vegas. The Empire could hold a little over 120 players for the first event, a £2,500 H.O.R.S.E. (about US $5,000) event.
With David Yu having the honors of announcing the very first 'shuffle up and deal' in the history of the World Series of Poker Europe, just after 2pm local time, the pomp and circumstance had come to an end, and the poker had begun. Over 100 of the top players in the world gathered to chase that elusive gold bracelet. Any fan of the game of poker would have recognized half the faces at the tables of the Empire. Fourteen tables representing a small but mighty gathering of poker's elite players, all chasing poker's most coveted prize. Just like the old days, when the titans of the poker world would gather in a dark cavernous room to chase poker immortality. But, this time these players were 5,000 miles, and light years away from where it all began on Fremont Street.
Editor's Note: Check out our coverage of the World Series of Poker Europe coming at you live from the Casino at the Empire. Play is underway again at 2pm today London time.