Top 10 Stories of 2019: The Sale of the Rio; What's Next for the WSOP?
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With a storied history spanning more than five decades, the World Series of Poker has evolved from an intimate gathering of Texas gamblers at Binion's Horseshoe to the months-long international spectacle it is today.
Over the last decade-and-a-half, Caesars Entertainment has been an important factor in the WSOP's growth. In 2004, Harrah's Entertainment acquired the WSOP, then the following year acquired Caesars and took on the latter's name.
It was in 2005 that Caesars moved the WSOP to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, a site capable of handling the masses that came along with the poker boom. All events were played at the Rio that year, including most of the Main Event with only the last two days played at Binion's. Then from 2006 forward, every WSOP event has played out at the Rio.
While the location has received its fair share of scrutiny over the years — admittedly, it's not the fanciest place in Sin City — there has been no great urgency to move the juggernaut away from its convenient just-off-the-Strip location.
With enough space to host the hundreds of thousands of card playing enthusiasts that show up every year, as well as being located in an accessible spot away from any traffic congestion that's been plaguing the Strip itself for years, there hasn't been any need to break the vows in the long-running WSOP-Rio marriage.
That is, until now.
In 2019, several big stories broke that leave the future of all parties involved in murky waters. First, back in June, Eldorado Resorts Inc. agreed to acquire and merge with Caesars Entertainment in a cash-and-stock deal worth $17.3 billion.
While the ripple effects of that merger are currently trickling through the company, long-running rumors about the sale of the Rio itself were officially confirmed in December when Dreamscape Companies was announced as the new owner after acquiring the asset for $516.3M from Caesars.
With all of this happening 2019, what does the future hold for the decades-old Brazilian-themed venue, as well as for the World Series of Poker itself?
Asking WSOP's Palansky
To get a better picture of what will happen next both for the Rio and the WSOP, there's no better place to start than with WSOP's Vice President of Corporate Communications Seth Palansky.
Being the WSOP spokesperson for many years, Palansky was quick to squash any rumors of the WSOP leaving its home for the past 15 years when speaking back in September about the then-impending Rio sale.
"Can 100% confirm WSOP will take place at the Rio in Las Vegas in 2020," Palansky tweeted in September, a point he reinforced in an interview with CardPlayer in which he also addressed the following year's situation.
"People should feel confident that the 2021 WSOP will be at the Rio as well," he said.
Once the news became official that Dreamscape would be Rio's new owner — a deal that involves Caesars' operating the Rio for two more years — PokerNews reached out to Palansky again and learned that for the WSOP, there's only one home and that's the Rio.
"Rio has been a terrific home for us and we are excited to be able to return to the Rio for the 2020 WSOP. The good news is we [Caesars/Eldorado] continue to own the WSOP, so we control where and when it will be held in future years, too," he says.
"People should feel confident that the 2021 WSOP will be at the Rio as well." ~WSOP's Seth Palansky
With the majority of convention space booked out years in advance — sometimes even up to ten years — as well as contracts being in place, Palansky is convinced a move for the WSOP brand away from the Rio is not happening for the next two years, at the very least.
"The one that fits the best for us and the WSOP in its current form is the Rio," he confirms. "We have the entire convention center to ourselves. We have invested heavily in all the infrastructure we need to run it. There is ample parking and is very easy to get in and out of the venue. Hard to think we will find a better situation."
"So if we were to move, the likelihood is there will be trade-offs to make. We will cross that bridge if the time comes," adds Palansky.
How Do Players Feel About the Rio?
While the Rio is more or less a perfect fit from the WSOP's perspective, over the years, the players have generally held diverging opinions in regards to the venue. The aging property, with all its built-in flaws (that one alarm that always goes off), the lack of quality food offerings at the venue itself, as well as congested lines at the restrooms and the cashier, are among elements drawing the ire of quite a few.
Even so, there are several aspects of the Rio that will be sorely missed if it becomes repurposed or, in classic Vegas fashion, is blown to shreds to make room for the next behemoth.
"I will miss the overall convenience of the Rio," 12-time WSOP Circuit Ring winner Josh Reichard chimes in. "Its location works well for getting in and out on dinner breaks without having to deal with strip traffic," he explains. "The ample parking availability is going to be hard to match anywhere on the Strip. I foresee that being hard to do with a move to the Strip. That, and the overall amount of convention room space in once area are great parts of the Rio."
"Pretty much everything else about the Rio I won't miss," he added.
Veteran WSOP reporter, two-time WSOP Circuit ring winner, and PokerNews senior contributor Mo Nuwwarah is in the same boat as Reichard. "As a venue, everything is at least adequate for an event the size of the WSOP," he says.
"The Rio is overall a good place to host the WSOP despite all of its warts — and there are many — because the size of the event means it's probably best held off the Strip. I like how close it is to a number of quality restaurants that I can get to on dinner break for a great meal to interrupt an otherwise interminable reporting shift."
"That being said, if they found a different spot for it, I'd probably be eager to see if it would be an improvement, as the Rio in general is kind of a dump," Nuwwarah says. "I won't miss the ice-cold temperatures or the awful food options for employees and customers alike."
One of the UK's top mixed game specialists Adam Owen, a frequent visitor of Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker for many years (and a two-time ring winner like Nuwwarah), touted the atmosphere something he would miss should the WSOP move away from the Rio.
"I'd miss the smells of walking in through the top entrance by the casino poker room and sitting around the mothership railing friends on the final table. The truly massive conference space with adequate parking is the biggest draw. As a venue, everything is at least adequate for an event the size of the WSOP," says Owen.
2018 WSOP bracelet winner Julien Martini voices more or less the same opinion. Martini had a stellar breakout year in 2018 and 2019, winning a WSOP bracelet as well as finishing runner-up in the PokerStars Players Championship for nearly $3 million.
"Only the smoke and Texan top hats are missing." ~Julien Martini
"The Rio will always be a special place for me, it will always be the place where I won my bracelet and met Kate," says Martini. That's Kate Hoang, his now-fiancee,
whom he started dating after he defeated her heads-up to win the $1,500 Omaha Hi-Lo Event.
"The atmosphere, very dark and old school is exactly how I imagine people playing poker when I was young," he grins. "Only the smoke and Texan top hats are missing."
"For now, I can't imagine WSOP in another place. I will miss being able to park that easily, I will miss that five minutes walk of shame between the poker room and the casino. I will miss this shade lights," says Martini.
What's Next For Dreamscape, Rio's New Owner?
Positives and negatives aside, one thing is for sure: the 2020 WSOP will 100% take place at the Rio, and the 2021 WSOP is all but certain to be hosted there as well. For 2022 and beyond, though, things are up in the air to what investor Dreamscape's plans with the building are.
"We think the time and location affords us the opportunity to consider our plans," Dreamscape Companies owner Eric Birnbaum said when speaking to CDC Gaming Reports, keeping the door open regarding any possibilities.
"We have a long runway ahead of us and we're not ready to give away all the secrets," Birnbaum added. "Suffice it to say, whatever we do, we will reimagine the property."
Despite the Dreamscape cloud looming over them, reimagining is not what's on the WSOP's mind in the short run, with 2020 and (likely) 2021 WSOP being business as usual. And even if push comes to shove and the moving boxes have to be being loaded into the trucks, Palansky isn't worried about what's next for the world's most popular poker series.
"Suffice it to say, whatever we do, we will reimagine the property." -Dreamscape CEO Eric Birnbaum
"The reality is anywhere that can accommodate our needs can be a good location and host. It doesn't have to be a Caesars/Eldorado property per se. We license many WSOP Circuit events domestically and internationally at non-Caesars properties and we do the same with WSOP Europe," says Palansky.
"As long as the right financial and operational agreements can be struck, we've proven that we are malleable," he continues. "This event does require a gaming license to be operated, thus we would need to find a home that has an approved Nevada regulatory license to do so," he notes in regards to legislative issues that come with any movement.
The Brand-New Caesars Forum Convention Center: WSOP's New Location?
For years, there's been plenty of gossip surrounding that Caesars Forum Convention Center — slated to be opened in 2020 — is carved out specifically to become the new home to the WSOP.
At first glance, it seems like a shoo-in: a shiny, brand-new, Caesars-controlled property with over 300,000 square feet ready to house every needed poker table under the sun, right in the heart of the Strip.
What's not to love, right?
Well, according to Palansky, moving to the Forum is far from a formality, if happening at all.
"The reality is, we're not the most lucrative business, by any stretch, to be tied up in a convention center space for 60 days," he admitted in an interview back in September. "When you look at the economics of the business, having three, four days [for] conventions in and out all the time is a better model for the operators of these venues. So the forum was never a realistic choice for us."
While Palansky didn't comment on the Forum situation specifically when PokerNews followed up, he did speak generally about the special requirements needed to host poker's prestigious tournament series.
"The reality is Las Vegas is ideally suited as a destination to hold the World Series of Poker. Convention/ballroom space and affordable lodging are the key considerations. While typical conventions last 2-5 days, the WSOP is 50+ days and when you add load in and load out requirements; we need our hands on the footprint for 65 days to run the current iteration of the WSOP," he explains.
"So that alone makes it difficult to find an available location if we were to move."
"That said, there is a lot of convention space coming online in the next several years across Las Vegas and as long as we have the footprint to get the poker tables down and the ancillary requirements, we're confident we'll always be able to find a home in Las Vegas for the WSOP," he concludes.
World Series of Poker-purists, therefore, don't have to fear. Even when taking the economics into account, the WSOP won't be leaving the scorching Nevada desert any time soon in search of a new home.
Where Would Players Like To See The WSOP Go?
With the rumors circling for years about an impeding Rio-sale — one that has now become a reality — players have been daydreaming for years about what's next for the biggest poker brand in the world. Reichard wants, above all else, the new location to be enjoyable for everyone.
"Something more modern with a nicer hotel and better food options would be great," he suggests. "If we could get that, while also keeping the positive aspects of the Rio with the convenience and space it would make the WSOP a more enjoyable experience for everyone."
"I will always remember the wind on the face of Stu Ungar when he won the Main." ~Julien Martini
Nuwwarah followed suit, suggesting a place like Reichard mentioned.
"I think a space like Red Rock that combines accessible parking with nicer amenities than are available at Rio would be ideal. I'm skeptical that a move to the Strip would improve things, as I find it hard to imagine getting enough parking to accommodate," says Nuwwarah.
Reichard, instead, seems some potential in the company's biggest property, Caesars Palace, across the Forum's street. "As far as Caesars properties go, I think Caesars Palace would be the best option for the amenities but have a hard time envisioning being able to incorporate the convenience that the Rio provides."
Meanwhile bracelet winner and unapologetic poker romantic Martini dreams of going back to the old days.
"In a perfect world for me, we go back to play the WSOP at the Horseshoe and make final tables outside like in 1997," he reminisces.
"I will always remember the wind on the face of Stu Ungar when he won the Main."
No matter what's next for the WSOP, one thing is for sure — memories like "The Kid" winning his third Main Event title will always be made, regardless of location.
PokerNews interviewed the following players and industry staff members for this article:
- Seth Palansky, Vice President of Corporate Communications, WSOP
- Josh Reichard, 12-time WSOP Circuit Ring winner
- Mo Nuwwarah, veteran WSOP-reporter, PokerNews senior editor, and two-time WSOP Circuit Ring winner
- Adam Owen, WSOP-veteran, mixed games specialist and two-time WSOP Circuit Ring winner
- Julien Martini, 2018 WSOP gold bracelet winner, 25K PokerStars Players Championship runner-up
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Earlier PokerNews reporting from Martin Harris and Mo Nuwwarah contributed to this article
Where would you like to see become the next location for the World Series of Poker? Let it know in the comments below.