LAS VEGAS (AP) — A club promoter and eight poker professionals, including one with a sideline as a tattoo artist, are back in Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker main event and lay claim to the $8.4 million prize that goes to the winner.
Seven players will become millionaires at the no-limit Texas Hold 'em final table that runs Monday and Tuesday nights. The first player eliminated will take home only the $733,000 paid to all nine who made the finals in July.
That's when the tournament began with 6,352 players, before whittling down to the final nine through seven days of play at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
The bad beats and roller-coaster chip swings weeded out the one-in-a-million dreamers, poker personalities such as Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey and celebrities including sitcom stars Ray Romano and Jason Alexander, who took seats at the green felt. Defending main event champion Greg Merson was eliminated during the fifth day of play.
When the dealing was done, nine skilled, mostly professional players were headed toward the final table with three months to plan their strategy and hone their skills.
On Monday evening, they will again don hoodies and sunglasses and take their seats amid the blue and red lights of an ESPN set crafted within the off-Strip casino.
"This may be the most skilled nine players at the final table," spokesman Seth Palansky said. "You expect that after the initial jitters, these guys will not be making amateur mistakes"
The chip leader is 36-year-old poker professional J.C. Tran, a longtime grinder from Sacramento who slowed down to raise his family, and is hoping to retire after one last run at glory.
Tran is the best known of the remaining players. It was he who eliminated the 10th player in July, and he might have reason to think he can beat the other finalists to take the diamond-encrusted bracelet. After all, many of them are tournament newbies who came up through the ranks of online poker.
The finalists include 29-year-old Las Vegas VIP Host Jay Farber, with just $2,155 in recorded tournament winnings at the time he made the final nine, and 26-year-old Englishman Sylvain Loosli, who says he's won more than $1 million online, but had just $3,198 in recorded earnings.
Also among the challengers is Marc-Etienne McLaughlin, a Canadian who identifies himself as a tattoo artist and ping pong aficionado.
Play begins Monday evening and will continue until all but two or three players are eliminated. ESPN will broadcast the tournament with a 15-minute delay.
Caesars Entertainment, which controls the series, has listed Tran as an 11-5 favorite to win the event.
Palansky expects a long session stretching into the early hours of Tuesday morning, with everyone playing conservatively. Tran, for instance, has said he will adopt a patient stance at the final table.
"At first, I wanted to come down and be a little aggressive, but then I lost a couple of pots and decided you know what, I'm just gonna let it come to me, I'm not gonna force anything," he said after finishing as the leader in July.
The survivors will return Tuesday night and play until one player has all the chips.
Several players left in July with precariously low chip counts. David Benefield will sit down on Monday with 6,375,000 in chips and Marc Newhouse will start with 7,350,000 in chips. Five of their competitors have more than 25,000,000 in chips, and Tran is playing with 38,000,000.
Players with dwindling stacks generally play more conservatively to avoid being forced out before they make it to the next level, which at the final table could mean an extra $1 million. Chip leaders generally play more aggressively, leveraging their position to push out weaker competitors.
The nine men will play a game that has capped the World Series of Poker since 1970, when seven players gathered at Benny Binion's casino to determine the best poker player in the world.
In no-limit Texas Hold 'em, each player is dealt two cards face down (these are sometimes called "hole cards"). Then, the dealer places three community cards face up on the table (these are called "the flop"), followed by one more card ("the turn") and then a final card ("the river"), with rounds of betting each time cards are dealt. Players use a combination of their hole cards and the five community cards to form the highest five-card hand.
In no-limit Texas Hold'em, there is no cap on the amount players can bet; they may push all their chips in at any time.
The World Series of Poker, the world's richest poker tournament, benefited from the online poker boom of the early 2000s. The competition's popularity later waned as Congress and federal officials cracked down on online sites. Entries in the World Series of Poker's main event took a tumble in 2007, falling by 28 percent from a high of 8,773. Entries have topped 7,000 only once in the years since.
Now, some states have begun to legalize and regulate online gambling. This fall, the World Series of Poker launched a real money online gambling site in Nevada.
The organization is hosting nine online tournaments ahead of the start of play at the final table, culminating in a two-day championship among the nine winners at the Rio casino with $100,000 in prize money.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier
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