The TOC is a free roll event, which means that players do not have to pay any entry fees to participate. The top prize for the event is $1 million, with $325,000 going to the second place finisher, $250,000 for third, $250,000 for fourth, $100,000 for fifth, $75,000 for sixth, $50,000 for seventh, and $25,000 apiece to eighth and ninth.
Players in this year’s TOC qualified through a point system that awarded seats to the top 20 players from each $10,000 buy-in main event in Harrah’s 2005 WSOP Circuit. Over the course of the year, Harrah’s hosted a total of five of these $10,000-buy-in Circuit tournaments - one each at Harrah’s Atlantic City, Harrah’s Rincon (near San Diego), the Rio in Las Vegas, Harvey’s Lake Tahoe, and Harrah’s New Orleans. Each of the five tournaments aired on ESPN, so viewers of those events will be familiar with many of the faces to be seen when ESPN televises the TOC. The telecast will occur on December 24, 2005 from 1-4 PM Eastern time. In addition to players who qualified by participating in the Circuit events, there were six “sponsor exemptions” - players who did not qualify directly through the points system but were invited based on their standing in the poker world. These include Annie Duke, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, and Phil Hellmuth.
"This is poker's All-Star event," said Jeffrey Pollack, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Harrah's Entertainment. "Some of the top names in the game will travel from around the globe to Caesars Palace for a chance at a huge payday and bragging rights."
In addition to featuring an exciting lineup of seasoned poker talent, the TOC represents the best efforts of Harrah’s Entertainment and ESPN to capitalize on poker’s longest-running branded event. With its series of tournaments across the country throughout the year, the goal of the WSOP Circuit was to generate increasing interest and participation, particularly among high-stakes and professional players, in the ramp-up to the WSOP main event, making the WSOP a year-round series of events instead of exclusively an annual Vegas happening. The idea was that players would continue to follow the circuit in an effort to earn points toward qualifying for the $2 million free roll.
Referring to the TOC, Gary Selesner, senior vice president and general manager of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, noted, "Caesars Palace has a long history of hosting world-class sporting events, and this one-of-a-kind tournament will continue that legacy. This promises to be a spectacle no poker fan can afford to miss."
"The Tournament of Champions will be a great culmination of our World Series of Poker coverage this year," added Fred Christenson, director of programming for ESPN Original Entertainment. "With its high-stakes action and some of the best known players in the game, we expect this event to draw very strong ratings."
In all, nearly 120 players earned invitations to the Tournament of Champions. Among the first qualifiers, at Harrah’s Atlantic City last January, were Nick Frangos, Mimi Tran, Erick Lindgren, Ron Rose and Barney Boatman. Top finishers at Rincon in San Diego included Ferguson, David Levi, Robert Williamson III and Chad Brown. Among the top 20 who qualified at the Rio Circuit event were Jennifer Harman, Russ Hamilton and Hoyt Corkins. The Tahoe Circuit tournament produced entries for Ivey, Pham, Joe Awada, Scott Fischman, Jeffrey Lisandro, and Eric Cloutier. Esfandiari qualified at Harrah’s New Orleans, the final Circuit event before the WSOP, along with 19 others including Lederer and David Williams.
The Circuit, along with the TOC, is now in its second year. "In 2005 the World Series of Poker [began] its evolution from a month-long special event into a year-round sport," said Ginny Shanks, senior vice president of acquisition marketing for Harrah's. "The road to the World Series of Poker Championship will be a challenging and arduous one. But unlike professional football, basketball, golf or auto racing, even the greenest of amateurs can mount a challenge for the title."
Harrah’s hosting of the Tournament of Champions contrasts with earlier efforts and reflects the influence of TV coverage on poker’s explosive popularity. In 1999, Mike Sexton founded the first Tournament of Champions, which was held for three years at The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Other successful tournament players selected the participants and there was often a heated debate about whom to include on the list of invited players. Lack of advertising, along with a buy-in of $2000 hurt the event. Chuck Humphrey, the principal owner of the original TOC, finally made the decision to end the event due to its inability to attract sufficient corporate sponsorship.