This weekend marks the return of the BetMGM Poker Championship to the Aria in Las Vegas amid the excitement of the Aria Poker Classic. It’s the second iteration of the BetMGM Poker Championship, and it was announced in March, and this year it includes two special events — a mystery-bounty tourney beginning on Thursday, June 8, and the $3,500 BetMGM Poker Championship itself, which starts on Friday, June 9 and runs through Tuesday, June 13.
The Championship’s final table will be filmed in the PokerGO Studio that sits just outside the Aria’s front doors, and the finalists will have to survive a talented field that’s likely to be twice the size of the event’s 2022 debut. Last year’s event carried a $1 million guarantee, and that’s been doubled to $2 million this time around.
Part of the expected record turnout for 2023 is an increased focus on sending online qualifiers to the Aria for the Championship. BetMGM Senior Manager of Poker Marketing Will O’Connor detailed the expansion to PokerOrg in this way: “We’re going to be sending in total about 148 players to the property that’ll be playing in the championship.” Then O’Connor added, “And the mystery bounty,” as online qualifiers also receive a free entry into Thursday’s $800 preliminary event.
A ‘marked improvement’ from 2022
O’Connor and BetMGM brand ambassador Darren Elias were on hand Tuesday during an informal online media scrum to discuss the upcoming mini-series, Elias’s own poker background, and a handful of other topics during a loosely formatted chat. The focus, of course, is the upcoming BetMGM Poker Championship, which O’Connor described as a “marked improvement” from last year’s debut effort.
“Last year, we sent 66 players to Vegas,” O’Connor explained, which is how 2023’s online qualifiers will more than double that number. “And that’s just a credit to not only having just a better handle of the planning and execution of all of this, but also a better promotional suite and a better tournament schedule than we did last year. Like I’ve been saying, it’s just a marked improvement from a year ago when we first partnered with Aria for this event.” Players from BetMGM’s platforms in New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ontario are among those who’ve won their way to Vegas
Elias will be one of the star players in the two-event festival. He’s is coming off a win in March in a US Poker Open event, where the finale was held in the PokerGO Studio, and he’ll be one of the favorites at the Aria. Elias might enjoy a home-field confort zone at the Aria — even though he lives in New Jersey — but part of his brand-ambassador role is to help BetMGM wed the live and online poker experiences for its players.
Bringing nearly 150 players to Las Vegas and Nevada, where BetMGM has yet to launch its own online-poker product, is a part of that. As Elias explained, “Since they brought me on one of my main focuses has been using the relationships with both MGM’s casino and hotels, which are some of the best properties in the world.
“They have great poker rooms and merging our online product with these live rooms and trying to build these premier live poker tournaments, like we have going on this week, [it was] kind of a dream and didn’t really exist. We didn’t have these relationships. We didn’t have these teams where we could put together these tournaments and it would go smoothly with the packages and the hotel.
“Over the last couple of years that’s really came to fruition and it’s looking a lot better these days. And I think it’s only going to grow from here, running more of these big championship-style events at the Borgata, at Aria, at MGM National Harbor. We have all these MGM properties across the country and giving players the chance to win these packages, or just drive down and fly over and play these events has really been my focus.
A moderated summer schedule for Elias
Elias also explained that he’s in town for the BetMGM festival, but he’ll be returning to his home in New Jersey before coming back for other major tourneys, such as the WSOP Main Event. “I’ll go out for a week or two, I’ll play I’ll come home, I’ll be home with the family for a week or two.” Then the process repeats for Elias, who expects to play in 50 to 60 events over the course of a normal year. “I don’t really think about poker that much, maybe play a little bit online on that MGM, but [I’m] really not not super poker-focused when I’m home, taking these breaks recharging.”
For Elias, those family responsibilities play a big factor. He has two daughters, ages six and two, and he tries to keep his poker and personal lives somewhat separate. “I like to be 100% fully invested, like either I’m playing poker on there, that’s all I’m doing. Or I’m home and I’m a dad, and I’m with my kids. And I’m 100% invested in that, where when I split my energy, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m as effective as a poker player or a father really, to be there. So I like to be all in on one or the other.”
Elias himself has never really done much for “work,” career-wise, other than poker. He began playing serious around the time of Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Main Event win, though that was after several years of enthusiastically playing in small-stakes games with high-school and college classmates. By his senior year in college he was making serious cash online, into the six figures.
“I was going to Vegas, I was playing EPT Monte Carlo, I was in Australia. I was taking all these trips in college to chase my poker dream.” To appease his parents, however, he stayed in school for a fifth year to complete his degree as a fallback, though he’s never specifically put that degree to use. Instead, over more than two decades, Elias has emerged as one of the most consistent and successful players in the game.
Featured image source: BetMGM