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The pandemic’s proven the World Series of Poker (WSOP) can exist in some form without a physical location. It won’t be the same without one, however, and at the moment, its long-term future home is up in the air.
In December 2019, Caesars Entertainment Corp. sold the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino for $516 million. That aging property has been the home of the series since 2005, but Caesars elected to take the series with it when it left.
The plan was to have one or two more WSOPs at the Rio even after the transfer of ownership, while Caesars figured out its next move. Just now, however, on Mar. 18, Rio’s buyer announced the Las Vegas hotel will be rebranded into a suite of Hyatt Hotels Corp. facilities.
Hyatt and Caesars representatives didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment Friday.
Caesars’ announcement in September 2019 that an entity would purchase the Rio listed the buyer as “a company controlled by a principal of Imperial Companies.” Imperial Companies is a real estate investment, development and management company.
The March 18 announcement about Hyatt listed the owner as “an affiliate of” Dreamscape Companies. Dreamscape is known to “(re)develop residential, retail, hospitality, entertainment and gaming properties.”
What Imperial and Dreamscape have in common is Eric Birnbaum. He co-founded Imperial and is the founder and CEO of Dreamscape.
The March 18 announcement about the Rio’s future said Dreamscape will lead a multi-hase renovation. Following its completion, what is currently the Rio will be rebranded to house “multiple Hyatt full-service offerings,” starting with a Hyatt Regency hotel.
As of now, the Rio’s website is still managed by Caesars, which leased the property back following its sale. For now, it still calls the Rio “the home of” the WSOP.
Caesars representatives stated after the sale that the 2020 poker series would remain at the Rio. But pandemic restrictions barred the Rio from hosting anything but the final table of a special main event that began at the end of the year and extended into early 2021. It’s up in the air whether there will be a live series at all this year due to COVID-19, but if there is, it will probably still be at the Rio.
From 2022 onwards, things are less certain.
For players who got into poker during the boom period, WSOP and the Rio seem inseparable. However, the series has moved once before.
But the poker series began in 1970 in Binion’s Horseshoe. Sold in 2004 and now named Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel, the venue had outgrown hosting the event. The Main Event was now drawing thousands of players and growing every year.
Harrah’s Entertainment owned the series by that time, having purchased it in 1998. It elected to move the series to the Rio, and acquired Caesars for nearly $12 billion the same year. Harrah’s took on the latter company’s name five years later.
It’s important to note that Caesars hasn’t said when, where or if there will be a 2021 WSOP. Ordinarily, Caesars would have announced dates in December, and we would have a full schedule by now.
Realistically, it’s impossible that it won’t happen at all. However, it could be back to normal, or fully online like last year, or something in between.
Even in a world free of COVID-19 worries, WSOP participants and attendees will need a lot of space for the poker series. If capacity limits and other precautions are still in effect this summer, things become all the more complicated. Even if Dreamscape’s remodeling plans don’t interfere with hosting the series at the Rio, Caesars may have to scale it down.
In the long run, it’s still an open question where it will end up. Hosting it at a conventional casino is out of the question because it is simply too large, and requires a convention space.
Fortunately, Caesars now has one of those, the Caesars Forum. It was ready to open last year, had COVID-19 not put a temporary halt to conventions. The usual assumption is that this is where the WSOP will end up.
Other possibilities exist too, such as splitting the series up across multiple venues. That’s something the company floated as a possibility last year. It was still unclear at that time whether the live series had to be cancelled or merely postponed.
Whatever happens, the iconic series won’t disappear. If anything, it will simply continue to grow, just in a new home and a new form. Its online component should continue to expand as well, as the Wire Act case has now been laid to rest, and states like Pennsylvania and Michigan could soon join in the fun.