Thursday, May 28, 2009 | 3 p.m.
Top poker professionals and amateurs with deep pockets put up US$40,000 apiece Thursday to square off in the first major tournament at the World Series of Poker.
The series kicked off seven weeks of poker tournaments at the Rio hotel and casino, where thousands of players will gamble against one another for millions of dollars and one of 57 gold bracelets awarded to winners of the various games.
The series culminates with its US$10,000 no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event, a tournament that crowns the World Series of Poker champion each year. Last year, Peter Eastgate topped a field of 6,844 to win US$9.15 million and the coveted title.
The first of thousands of hands of poker took place Wednesday when a tournament for casino employees was held.
On Thursday, Eastgate called "Shuffle up and deal" to start the first open tournament before taking his seat at the US$40,000 no-limit Texas Hold 'em event.
He and the others around him were greeted by poker stars packed into 22 tables.
There were 201 entrants, with 27 players to be paid at least US$71,858. The total prize pool for the tournament was US$7.72 million, with the winner to be paid US$1.89 million.
"Please don't let me be at this table," said four-time bracelet winner John Juanda - who was later eliminated - as he passed the green felt where Daniel Negreanu and Dennis Phillips sat side-by-side.
Negreanu has won four tournaments and cashed 34 times at the series, winning US$2.2 million since 1998. Phillips charged onto the poker scene last year by taking third place in the main event, winning US$4.5 million.
"This is going to be pretty special," Phillips told The Associated Press.
Phillips said the extra-expensive buy-in for the tournament means play is starting without weak players at the table.
Huckleberry Seed, a Las Vegas poker pro with four gold bracelets who won the main event in 1996, said the US$40,000 buy-in tournament is almost the opposite of the main event.
"Smallest and toughest field, as opposed to the largest and easiest field," Seed said.
Tournament officials are hoping for a star-studded final table to begin its 40th series.
Players began with 120,000 chips and a slow, deep structure that gave them the chance to manoeuvre without being forced into bad decisions early.
Poker professional Phil Laak said he was "on cloud nine" after more than doubling his chip stack during the first hour of play.
Laak had 282,000 chips when players took their first break, but he lost nearly two-thirds that stack within two hours.
The no-limit format of the game means that players can risk all their chips - and their place in the tournament - at any time.
Chips have no monetary value and are used to show each player's position in the game compared with each other. To win, a player must win all the chips.
The US$40,000 buy-in event is the highest buy-in for a no-limit Texas Hold 'em event at the World Series of Poker, and was added this year for the 40th anniversary of the series.
The series also has a mixed-game H.O.R.S.E. event each year that costs US$50,000 to enter.
But the poker world points to the main event, which begins July 3 and continues until July 15 when the field of thousands is reduced to nine players.
As it did for the first time last year, the tournament will then take a nearly four-month break until Nov. 7, when the nine remaining players will reconvene at the final table and play off for poker's biggest prize.