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World Series of Poker kicks off in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — The 45th Annual World Series of Poker kicked off seven weeks of play in Las Vegas on Tuesday, promising the tournament champion at least $10 million and enticing tens of thousands of players with a prize pool estimated at $200 million.

The 65-event series at the Rio resort begins with a $500 casino employees' game, a sort of warm-up for organizers, and will culminate July 5 with the start of the No-Limit Hold'em Main Event. That event narrows the playing field to nine people over the course of 10 days before finalists break for several months and reunite in November for the finals.

An estimated 80,000 players will enter the tournament, and organizers expect they'll cross the $200 million prize giveaway threshold for only the second time in their history. Last year, the World Series of Poker gave out $197 million in prize money.

This year's tournament includes a $1 million charity buy-in game held every other year. Capped at 56 players, the June 29 event typically attracts poker professionals and amateurs used to making high-stakes bets.

About 10 percent of the proceeds will benefit The One Drop Foundation, a nonprofit created by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte and dedicated to providing clean water to developing countries.

Other niche contests include a senior event for players age 50 and up, and a women-only game.

Conceived as an event to attract tourists to Las Vegas as the weather heats up and convention activity slows down, the series draws players from more than 100 different countries and has a ripple effect on hotel, restaurant and entertainment business in the city.

Some 30 percent of participants hail from Nevada and California, and 74 percent are from the United States. The rest come from abroad, with large pockets from Canada, Australia and Europe.

Ninety-four percent of participants are male, and the average player age is 38.

"It's a very mentally tiring game, which is why you see this kind of younger age demographic," said series spokesman Seth Palansky.

The tournament has been boosted by the expansion of online poker, which gives players a less-intimidating space in which to learn and practice their game. Online play also moves faster than the in-person game, giving players more experience more quickly.

"It's totally built the numbers that we have," Palansky said.

At any given time in the next seven weeks, 5,000 players might be sitting at the tournament's poker tables at the Rio. Events — which have buy-in levels as low as $500 — average about 1,300 players each.

Winners of each event take home the signature WSOP gold bracelet. Last year's top poker player, Michigan native Ryan Riess, outlasted 6,351 players to win his title and $8.4 million at the age of 23.

Players to watch this year include Canada native Daniel Negreanu, the reigning WSOP Player of the Year. Negreanu previously took the title in 2004 and is the first to win the coveted ranking twice.