The richest single event prize-money in world sport goes to the winner of the main event at the World Series of Poker. It’s richer than Wimbledon, richer than any golf tournament, and richer than the world’s richest horse race. Last year’s unpopular and controversial winner, former Hollywood talent agent Jamie Gold, took home a whopping US$12 million. The total prize pool was a staggering US$87 million, paid out to the top 10% of the record breaking 8,773 entrants, each of whom forked out the US$10,000 entry fee.

Last year’s entire 46-event schedule drew more than 42,000 entrants from 56 countries and distributed more than US$171 million in prize money.

Ever since Aussie Joe Hachem won the big one in 2005, poker in Australia has boomed in popularity. And a contingent of Aussies, including yours truly, have made the trek to gambling’s mecca for the biggest show in town.

The 2007 World Series of Poker has been underway since June 1, at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, owned by the world’s biggest casino company, Harrahs. This year’s 55-event schedule has not been without controversy, mostly generated by the pressure put on the venue by the sheer number of events played, and the enormous starting fields in those events. The gargantuan Amazon conference hall has been bursting at the seams at all times of the day and night. But all these gripes have been forgotten, now that the main (and final) event for 2007 is underway.

The scale of the main event is mind-boggling. Sixteen-hour days of intense play, day after day, with very few breaks and very few rest days. Players receive $20,000 in tournament chips, and by the time it is over, one player will have all the chips, and that will be well over $100 million in tournament chips. To force play, blinds and antes are progressively increased, with each level lasting two hours.

Six levels of play, taking 12 hours of play, are played on day one. It’s expected that the entire tournament will take around 35 to 40 levels. Players have to contend with the psychological pressure of knowing they can be busted out of the tournament at any moment. Indeed there will be a few poor souls who get eliminated within minutes, losing their entire US$10,000 entry fee in seconds. The general pattern is that more than half the field gets eliminated every single day.

The event is scheduled to take seven days to eliminate the thousands of players one at a time until the last player is left standing, late on 17 July, after perhaps 75 hours of gruelling poker. The field is so huge that “day 1” has to be split into four: days 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D, due to the fact that there are “only” 229 tables at the tournament. A standard regulation table accommodates 10 players, and therefore only 2,290 players can play at once.

The number of registrants is a closely guarded secret at this stage, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that at a rate of say 2,000 players a day, the announcement of a day 1D indicates that more than 6,000 players are expected. It isn’t until day three that the numbers still alive in the tournament are expected to be low enough that a “day” actually becomes able to be played in a single day.

The enormous Amazon convention room houses 168 of those tables, including the specially made-for-TV ESPN feature table surrounded by a stadium with four enormous big screens above the table just like the basketball stadia in the US. There is a second “made for TV” table just outside that area, and another 166 tables in the main part of the room. A further 63 tables are in the “Poker Pavilion”, a temporary construction which has been dubbed the “The Tent” by the players.

I’ll be filing updates regularly throughout the tournament. It will be a life-changing event for the winner, and hopefully it will be me! Yes,  I’ve decided to stump up the US$10,000 entry fee and take my shot. Hey, someone’s got to win, right?

Day 1A: Friday 6 July

1,287 people started day 1A at 12 noon , and by the time the dust had settled at approximately 4am the next morning, 842 of them (65%) had busted out, leaving only 445 players left alive.

Living legend of the game, 1976 and 1977 champion Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson entered the room to a standing ovation, but was eliminated after a few hours. Ray Romano of Everybody Love Raymond fame also played, but also didn’t make it. 1978 champion and former Bellagio Casino President and CEO, Bobby Baldwin also played today. He is still alive at the end of the day, having turned his $20,000 starting stack into $16,800.

The top five chips stacks at the end of day 1A were:

1st Timten Olivier $270,500

2nd John Dutchak $209,600

3rd Steve Austin $205,000

4th Michael Tureniec $203,900

5th Aurelio Arcano $166,000

Day 1B: Saturday 7 July

1,545 people started day 1B at 12 noon Las Vegas time, and again play ended around 4am the next morning, with only 587 players left alive.

The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon played today, and was still alive with $44,400 in chips at the end of the day. An amazing story of the day was that of blind player Jason Holbrook. He has a female assistant who whispers in his ear what his cards are and provides a commentary as every hand (including the hands he is not involved in) unfolds. Jason did not make it through the day, but he certainly won the admiration of all who watched him.

Australia’s own Joe Hachem played on day 1B, on the ESPN feature TV table. It was a tough day for Joe, but he is still alive having turned his $20,000 starting stack into $35,300 in tournament chips. He survived a very scary moment when his Ace-King was up against a pair of Aces, but the flop came 10-Jack-Queen giving him a very lucky straight.

Aussies Gary Benson and Sam Khouiss also played today. Benson struggled for most of the day, getting up to $55,000, dropping back to a mere $8,000, but managing to finish the day with a respectable $41,900. I watched Gary for over an hour, he was clearly frustrated but played his usual strong and tight game. I also watched Sam for a while, and his usual endless patter was in overdrive.

1998 champion Scotty Nguyen and the lovely Evelyn Ng were playing on the second TV table. They both survived the day with $129,000 and $70,800 in tournament chips respectively. Other big names still alive include 1995 champion Dan Harrington. 1988 runner up Erik Seidel has been eliminated.

Chips stacks at the end of day 1B:

1st Dag Martin Mikkelsen $236,000

2nd Jeff Banghart $186,200

3rd Albert Strickland $180,700

4th George Dunst $168,900

5th Lewis Pilkington $166,000

Some Australians still alive that played on day 1B:

87th Sam Khouiss $88,900

312th Gary Benson $41,900

369th Joe Hachem $35,300

Day 1C: Sunday 8 July

1,743 players are playing today (Las Vegas time), the biggest day 1 field so far. Today player’s include 1991 winner Brad Daugherty, poker pros Phil Ivey and Allen Cunnigham, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander, Celine Dion’s husband Rene Angelil, 2000 winner Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, former NHL player Rick Tocchet, Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, 2003 winner Chris Moneymaker, poker author and veteran T.J. Cloutier, poker pros Phil “The Unabomber” Laak and Men “The Master” Nguyen and American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth amongst many other celebrities and poker professionals and amateurs alike.

Due to the larger field some players did find themselves in the poker tent, including T.J. Cloutier, but by the end of the first two levels enough players had busted out to consolidate all play into the main Amazon room.

At the time of filing this report, the day 1C was into the third level for the day. Highly regarded poker pros Phil Ivey, Andy Bloch and Mike “The Mouth” Matusow have all just been eliminated. Chris “Jesus” Ferguson is up to $44,000 in chips. George Costanza (sorry, Jason Alexander) is master of his domain with $34,000 in chips. The chip leader at the moment is David Mitchell-Lolis with $82,000.

Tomorrow’s day 1D is expected to be the largest field of the four days 1s. Your intrepid reporter is playing tomorrow, starting on table 227, sitting in seat number 3, at 5am Tuesday Eastern Australian time. Wish me luck!

Live minute-by-minute updates of the tournament are available here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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