It’s that time of year again – World Series of Poker time. Since Australia’s own Joe Hachem won the US$7,500,000 first prize of the 2005 WSOP main event, interest in the tournament by the Australian poker fraternity has been huge.

The first ever WSOP main event for which a cash prize was paid was played in 1971, between a mere six people, in a smoke filled room at the spiritual home of World Poker – the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. It was won by Johnny Moss, defeating Puggy Pearson, pocketing the winner-takes-all US$30,000 prize in the process. And that was serious money in the early 1970s.

But neither Moss nor Pearson could possibly have imagined what the future would hold. This table shows the incredible explosion that poker would experience over the next 35 years. Last year the main event took an incredible 8773 entrants, each coughing up the US$10,000 entry fee the event has had since 1972 (in 1971 the entry fee was “only” US$5000). That’s a total prize pool of US$87,730,000!

It is now played in an enormous hall with a 3000-player capacity at the Rio casino in Las Vegas. It took eight days for the 2006 champion, Jamie Gold, to overcome his 8772 opponents in the main event, and claim the US$12 million first prize. The main event is, of course, no-limit Texas Hold’em, the granddaddy of all poker variants.

The WSOP is now so huge that it takes over a month just to conduct the schedule of 54 lead-up events, before even starting the main event. Although this year’s WSOP started last Saturday, it will not be until 6 July before the main event kicks off. This year “the big one” will be a 12-day marathon, slated to finally end on 17 July (well, if previous years are a guide, it will really be more like 4am the next morning).

There has been much speculation about how many entrants there will be in this year’s main event, with some bookmakers even taking bets on it. While poker is exploding worldwide, it has hit a serious snag with George Bush signing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act last year.

Thousands of last year’s entries won their seats in the main event by winning satellite tournaments at internet poker sites. It’s unclear how the WSOP will deal with such satellite winners this year. Some pundits are predicting as few as 3500 entrants, or as many as 15,000.

A well-known poker website is running a “nearest the pin” competition on guessing the number of entrants. So far, it has taken 334 guesses, with the average guess being 12,992. Most experts are predicting fewer than last year’s 8773 entrants, but last Saturday’s lead-up event shocked them. It had a field of an astounding 2998 entries, the highest ever for a non-main event poker tournament in the world.

In fact, it was the third-biggest poker tournament of all time, after the 2005 and 2006 main events. The Rio can “only” cope with 3000 entrants at a time, and has scheduled three rounds of day one, implying that they expect no more than 9000 will enter the main event. Watch this space.