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August 30, 2014

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WORLD SERIES OF POKER:

Three like-minded locals go after poker’s world championship this weekend

Matt Giannetti, Phil Collins and Ben Lamb are the most experienced players remaining

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Steve Marcus

Matt Giannetti of Las Vegas competes during Day 8 of the World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold ‘em main event at the Rio on Tuesday, July 19, 2011.

2011 WSOP Day 8

Eoghan O'Dea of Ireland competes during Day 8 of the World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Tuesday, July 19, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Chip Counts

  • Martin Staszko — 40,025,000
  • Eoghan O'Dea — 33,925,000
  • Matt Giannetti — 24,750,000
  • Phil Collins — 23,775,000
  • Ben Lamb — 20,875,000
  • Badih Bounahra — 19,700,000
  • Pius Heinz — 16,425,000
  • Anton Makiievskyi — 13,925,000
  • Sam Holden — 12,375,000

2011 WSOP Main Event Final Table Payouts

  • 1st — $8,711,956
  • 2nd — $5,430,928
  • 3rd — $4,019,635
  • 4th — $3,011,665
  • 5th — $2,268,909
  • 6th — $1,720,000
  • 7th — $1,313,851
  • 8th — $1,009,910
  • 9th — $782,115

Poker’s unprecedented popularity surge in the past decade created a subset of young men who quickly found success in the game and turned it into a lucrative career.

Three of the best examples meet at noon Saturday in the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio for the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event final table. Matt Giannetti, Phil Collins and Ben Lamb — who are all 26 years old and reside in Las Vegas — enter the November Nine final table as the most notable players left vying for the $8.7 million first-place prize.

“They’re so young and so aggressive,” said event commentator Norman Chad. “Of the last 18 November Niners over the last two years, 15 of them have been in their 20s. It might just be a blip or it might be what the wave of today and tomorrow is in poker.”

The three Americans left in the field share eerily similar backgrounds. They were all enrolled in respected universities at this time eight years ago.

Giannetti was in the computer engineering program at the University of Texas, Collins studied business administration at the University of South Carolina, and Lamb was in his first year at Trinity University in San Antonio.

If college is a place to find a calling, they all succeeded. It just didn’t have anything to do with textbooks. It was all about playing cards.

Giannetti, Collins and Lamb began spending as much time in online card rooms as they did in lecture halls. Giannetti and Lamb lasted less than two years in school before they decided to give poker a shot professionally.

Collins was the only one of the three who earned a degree, but he followed in the others’ footsteps afterward. They all wound up in Las Vegas chasing their poker dreams.

At the top of the list was making a run in the $10,000 buy-in Main Event, which this year attracted 6,865 players, and becoming the game’s world champion.

“Playing this final table is clearly going to be the biggest moment of my poker career,” Collins said earlier this year. “I’m going to make sure I’ve done what I need to do to play my best.”

Before the Main Event, this year’s tournament was a failure for Collins. He played more than 20 of the 57 preliminary events and cashed only once — for $3,780 in a $1,500 buy-in tournament.

For Collins, it was a continuation of a frustrating trend. By all accounts, he had proved himself as one of the top online tournament poker players in the world but had never broken through in a live venue.

“I look for a little vindication in a big live score,” Collins said. “It kind of proves that hey, I am one of the best poker players. I haven’t had that at all. I’ve had no live success whatsoever.”

Giannetti’s summer at the Rio went similarly. Although he played in fewer events, Giannetti only made money in one tournament.

“I knew an opportunity would arise,” Giannetti said this summer. “I just hoped to take advantage of it.”

Lamb enjoyed quite a different experience as Collins and Giannetti. In six weeks at the Rio, Lamb made $2 million and captured the WSOP Player of the Year award.

But no one expected much from Lamb in the Main Event. That’s because it’s difficult to find repeat success in a tournament field of its size.

In 2009, Lamb finished 14th in the Main Event for $633,022. He remembered how upset he was to barely miss the final table.

He was even more annoyed when friends tried to console him by saying things like, “you’ll be back there soon enough.”

“It was so absurd,” Lamb said after making the final table. “There are 7,000 people in the tournament. For you to get here, it’s 1-in-700 roughly if you don’t account for skill. Maybe 1-in-200 or 1-in-300 if you factor in skill, but you can only play for about 50 years. So I was a huge ’dog to get back here ever and I got back here in two years and exceeded it.”

Giannetti, Collins and Lamb come into the final table third, fourth and fifth in chips, respectively. With more than 200 million chips in play, only 4 million separates the three.

If any of them could win, it would be the first time since 1998 that the prized Main Event gold bracelet stayed in Las Vegas.

“This is way cooler than everything else,” Lamb said. “If something stands out, this is it. This is every poker player’s dream to be here.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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