LAS VEGAS -- A summer of legal turmoil in the online poker industry has amplified a simple truth for the World Series of Poker -- lots of folks really like to play cards.
And the series' tournament director says he thinks a year of growth in Sin City might continue at the no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event starting Thursday despite the absence of online feeder tournaments -- known as satellites -- churning out $10,000 prizes for Americans to use to buy in.
"There aren't empty tables this year. We're at capacity nearly all day, every day," Jack Effel said. "What we're seeing is a lot of the real poker players, the guys who play poker regularly, coming in and playing.
"We're seeing those guys more prominently than we have in the past," he said. "I think the big thing is that people want to win a seat for the main event. They want to get in -- they've got to have some way to do that."
Online poker might be in trouble overall as federal indictments have cut off access to top websites that hosted tens of thousands -- sometimes hundreds of thousands -- of players worldwide at any given moment as recently as three months ago. But the poker player's dream -- of a shot at a gold championship bracelet, millions of dollars and joining the likes of Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth and Chris Moneymaker in fame and reputation -- is still very much alive for many, even if they don't have $10,000 to spare for an entry.
The series is a whole schedule of tournaments that began on May 31. The main event starts Thursday with the first of four opening sessions, and continues until July 19, when the final 27 or so players will play down to the last nine. Play will then stop to allow episodic television coverage by ESPN to catch up, and resume in November to determine a winner.
"The idea of playing in a tournament where you're (in for) three or four days of the grind before you even get to the money bubble is something that once or twice in this life before I'm done I would love to experience," said Bob Morgan, a 38-year-old nonprofit manager from East Aurora, N.Y.
Morgan came to Las Vegas on Saturday, hoping to win his way into the main event through smaller bracelet tournaments or officially sanctioned satellites. "It's on my bucket list, and I've just been trying to time it against my bankroll and available time," he said.
Effel said players like Morgan are expected to double this year as the series increased its capacity at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino and has seen round-the-clock action in small tournaments and 96 cash tables since May 31.
Last year, official satellites awarded enough in entry fees to pay 7,000 buy-ins throughout the entire series, about 10 percent of nearly 73,000 total entrants, he said.
Last year's main event attracted 7,319 players, including winner Jonathan Duhamel, a Canadian poker professional who took home $8.9 million for first place.
Professionals look at the main event and see fish-infested waters, prime for sharks to pick things apart en route to a career-defining moment.
"That's still the highlight of anybody's poker career," said Maria Ho, a 28-year-old poker professional who was the last woman remaining in the male-dominated tournament in 2007. She finished 38th.
"There's just this excitement around the main event that no matter how many times you've played it, no matter whether you're a professional or an amateur, it just has never lost its luster," Ho said. "Yes, of course, there are a lot of amateurs in it and for a professional, I look at that as a great opportunity."
Ho, who competed with fellow poker pro Tiffany Michelle on the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race" in 2009, has 10 cashes for $844,000 at the series since 2009, including a second place finish at a no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament this year.
The series started a weeklong push on Monday to qualify players specifically for the main event, running big satellites four times a day for as little as $550, plus single-table tournaments that start as soon as 10 players say they'd like to play.
The series is well on pace to break records for both total entrants and total prize pool. Through 52 events, participation and prize money were up nearly 7 percent.
But it's less clear whether the growth will hold true for the main event itself without the help of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, among other sites. Those operators were targeted by the U.S. Justice Department on April 15, when federal indictments accused company executives and others of tricking banks into processing illegal gambling payments.
The events, dubbed "Black Friday" in poker circles, have been followed by wrangling over player deposits, renewed calls to legalize online poker and questions for series officials about how things would be affected if players couldn't get to bankrolls and sites couldn't send Americans to the series.
The series, owned by casino giant Caesars Entertainment Corp., cut its direct links to online operators after a 2006 law made it illegal for financial institutions to process online poker payments. That means it doesn't know how many players who buy into its events got their money through one of the sites.
Greg Raymer, the series' main event champion in 2004, said he thinks the tournament will likely fall below 6,000 players even if the series boosts its satellite entrants. He said it's disappointing, but not surprising given the effects the indictments have had on poker sites and their players.
"It's still more than twice as many than I had to beat, and more than Joe Hachem had to beat (in 2005)," Raymer said. "It's not like we were disappointed winning $5 million and $7.5 million."
Morgan, who has come to the series for several years but never played in the main event before, said he thought about canceling his trip this year after the sites were halted and he could no longer play on PokerStars.
"If I get a seat, I'll wind up extending my stay and seeing how the main event goes," he said. "I'm still hopeful to have that experience, but it would have been nice to either have it locked up or not in May."