Binions mulls its future in poker - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Management at Binions Gambling Hall and Hotel is offering more questions than answers about next years Binions Poker Classic, an inaugural tournament that would follow the 2006 World Series of Poker.

Binions, which began devising its own poker tournament after Harrahs Entertainment Inc. bought the rights to the World Series of Poker in 2004, is still negotiating key aspects of the tournament, including television coverage and a prize pool.

The tournament will take place in fall 2006, though an exact date will likely take a few weeks to sort out as other poker tournaments finalize their schedules, Binions General Manager Brian Eby said Friday.

Fall has emerged as an "optimal time" because a number of popular tournaments have emerged in the weeks leading up to summers World Series of Poker, Eby said.

Binions also is negotiating with major brands to sponsor the tournament, Eby said, declining to name them.

"Weve gotten lots of interest from sponsors," he said. "This is like Yankee Stadium. This building made poker players famous."

Binions is also looking at ways the event can distinguish itself from the World Series of Poker, by far the worlds most famous and most played poker tournament.

"We have to do something different," Eby said. "Were looking at odds and how we can give people the best odds for the (prize pool) we are offering."

For the first time this year, the World Series of Poker -- which attracted a record number of 5,616 players for the final event of no-limit hold em -- was staged largely at the Rio. The final 27 players squared off at Binions last Thursday and played down to two in a marathon session that ran from Friday evening to Saturday morning. The kickoff to the 2004 World Series of Poker final event, with only about 2,500 players, was staged at Binions over three days to accommodate the large number of players.

Eby said Binions is capable of hosting a large tournament to rival the World Series of Poker. Size isnt everything, he said.

"Once you get to be big it gets to be a sanitized experience," he said.

Debbie Burkhead, an advertising sales manager for Poker Player magazine in Las Vegas and a competitor in last years World Series of Poker, said the Binions Poker Classic will be successful "if its televised and if the prize pool is high enough."

"Poker players love the exposure of TV and love the big prize pools," she said. "Its rare that a tournament that doesnt have those two things doesnt make it."

The event also shouldnt conflict with either the World Series or the World Poker Tour, a rival series of tournaments that are broadcast on the Travel Channel, she said.

Eby, who previously served as vice president of operations at Ballys Tunica in Mississippi, said he became aware almost immediately that he was stepping into a job with a very different focus.

"Were in the poker business," he said.

To make the point, Binions on Friday unveiled a new logo that will eventually replace exterior and interior signage at the property over the next few weeks as well as a new marketing tagline: "The place that made poker famous."

Eby said Binions is doing well even though it no longer hosted most of this years World Series of Poker. Slot machine volume is actually higher this year compared with the period the property was hosting the tournament in spring 2004, he said. Table volume is a "little down" but other parts of the revamped casino, including a new race and sports book added this year and upgraded restaurants, have helped make up the difference, he said.

Parent company MTR Gaming Corp. has spent about $3 million to upgrade the casinos backup computer systems so that it can offer new slot machines that can track players, devices that also cost in the millions of dollars, Eby said.

Before the technology upgrade, "we had version one of everything," he said.

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