<
>

PokerCon makes debut this weekend

Quick. Name the company that operates the largest poker site in the world?

Nope, it's not PokerStars or Full Tilt. Did you really just say UB or AP? Come on. ESPN Poker Club? I wish. The answer is actually a company that has never hosted a live tournament or had players battle for real money on its virtual felt. It's a company that has been hidden below the poker industry's radar due to its lack of live involvement. It's been the sleeping giant of the industry for years and finally, it's waking up. Introducing Zynga Poker.

With 38 million players, Zynga Poker is the largest poker site in the world and for the first time this weekend, the massive online brand will take to the live felt for the first Zynga PokerCon at the Palms Casino. If you follow this space regularly, you've noticed that there has never been a Zynga Poker tournament update or anything even partially relating to the online action that 7.6 million players participate in every day. The competition on Zynga Poker is focused merely on pride and play chips, and PokerCon is a way for players to branch out from behind the computer screen.

"So many fans are so passionate about Zynga Poker and we wanted to reward them and give something back to their community," said Lo Toney, Zynga Poker's general manager. "[It's a way to] have our fans meet and interact with us; interact with each other. A lot of our fans are serious poker players, but for a lot of people, this is new."

PokerCon will feature a tournament for which fans have had the opportunity to buy $125 tickets online over the past few weeks. A total of 500 tickets were sold for the event, which will not only include the tournament (with a $100,000 prizepool), but also a poker clinic led by Annie Duke, a party with pros like Mike Sexton and David Williams (and more), and a performance by B.o.B. Yes, Zynga has gone all out with this event with hopes that its efforts will resonate with the poker industry in a big way.

"Our first focus is to provide the best experience as we have the largest audience," said Toney of the event. "Give back to the fans, get feedback and ... incorporate their feedback into the game. [PokerCon is a] great way for Zynga Poker to reach out and embrace the poker community. Many people who have played against each other [online] haven't had the opportunity to meet. This will be an opportunity for them to meet in person at [the tables] and some of our exclusive parties."

As expected from any online site, there have been qualifiers online for PokerCon. Most winners will get free entry into the event, but one champion has earned a spot to skip all the early action and jump right to the final table. That is most definitely something you'll never see happen in an actual poker tournament ... but then again, Zynga Poker is simply different and isn't looking to offer just another poker experience.

"We created an environment that is very welcoming, not intimidating, fun and social," said Toney. "We have a lot of people playing who don't have to feel that they need to know that much about poker. All the other sites are intimidating. ... It's really important for us that we keep our games social and fun. That's what keeps people coming back. That's retention, the ability to retain our users and come back to the game."

If you've played any games on Facebook, including ESPN's College Town, you've noticed that sometimes, play dollars can only get you so far. That fact remains the same on Zynga Poker, but in fact, only a small percentage of players opt to purchase more chips for their account. Real money gaming isn't on the minds of Toney and Zynga Poker at the moment. Instead, they're focusing on creating a better, localized experience, something they've been working toward in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

For one weekend, Zynga Poker will be local in Las Vegas. It's locked in some of the biggest names in the game to meet its most loyal players and is offering a unique poker experience. Looking at the schedule, it would seem that the tournament is designed to crown a quick champion and get fans to the VIP party. That detail stays true to the typical Zynga Poker experience: Enjoy the poker, but provide a social, welcoming atmosphere.

Competing with the WPT, NAPT and WSOP isn't yet in the plans, but based on the enthusiasm this year, Zynga expects to run another PokerCon in the future.

"We would like to continue to have more PokerCons," said Toney. "We want to make sure we can continue to reach out. People have been yearning to have this opportunity to meet with each other. We've had hundreds of people sending us unsolicited e-mails saying how happy they are and excited they are for this event."

At Zynga Poker it remains to be all about their players and supporters. It might not be the online site where the most money changes hands, but it is a place for friends to challenge friends and earn what really matters against certain people at some times in life -- bragging rights.