Poker in the cards at AOL

Netco bets on World Series with new service

NEW YORK — AOL has anted up for poker in a big way, signing an exclusive deal with the World Series of Poker to create an online service for card players.

The free-play poker games will offer 12 winners in the various online AOL private poker rooms and tournaments a free seat (worth $10,000) to play in one of the main events of the 2006 or 2007 World Series of Poker.

In addition, one visitor to the poker room each year will get a free seat at the annual tournament of champions. One requirement: Winners must be at least 21 years old.

ESPN has exclusive cable rights to the World Series of Poker, which takes place next summer at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Players who get to the main event will end up sharing more than $52 million in prizes.

The AOL service will provide news and behind-the-scenes reports of the various tournaments as well as “poker tutorials for people who want to learn more about the game,” said Jeffrey Pollack, head of programming for Harrah’s Entertainment.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” said Ralph Rivera, VP and general manager of AOL Games. Rivera hopes to draw the masses of people who are hooked on poker into sampling, where they’ll be bombarded with online advertising, which is a $12-billion-a-year business. People don’t have to be monthly AOL subscribers to gain access to the poker rooms, he said.

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