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Pros not intimidated by $1 million buy-in tournament at World Series of Poker

Sold-out The Big One For One Drop starts after more than a year of anticipation

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Stephen R. Sylvanie

Players in the Big One for One Drop poker tournament gather prior to the start of the World Series of Poker event in the Rio Convention Center on Sunday, July 1, 2012.

Big One for One Drop

Players in the Big One for One Drop poker tournament gather prior to the start of the World Series of Poker event in the Rio Convention Center on Sunday, July 1, 2012. Launch slideshow »

End of Day 1 Chip Leaderboard

  • Brian Rast — 10,710,000
  • Phil Hellmuth — 8,395,000
  • Fredric Banjout — 7,070,000
  • Antonio Esfandiari — 6,880,000
  • Gus Hansen — 6,800,000
  • Sam Trickett — 6,700,000
  • Guy Laliberte — 6,550,000
  • Ben Lamb — 5,770,000
  • Mike Sexton — 5,740,000
  • Tom Dwan — 4,810,000
  • Brandon Steven — 4,770,000
  • Mikhail Smirnov — 4,680,000
  • Bobby Baldwin — 4,225,000
  • Jason Mercier — 4,210,000
  • Bob Bright — 3,880,000
  • Players Remaining: 37

When Guy Laliberte began recruiting participants for the World Series of Poker’s $1 million buy-in The Big One For One Drop tournament last year, he told them he expected to persuade 18 players to join.

The 52-year old founder of Cirque du Soleil severely underestimated. Laliberte, as it turns out, attracts card sharks as proficiently as he does acrobats.

The Big One For One Drop got under way Sunday at the Rio with a capped field of 48 players and an alternate list of “several” more.

The biggest tournament in poker history officially carries a prize pool of $42.66 million with $5.53 million going to Laliberte’s One Drop charity, which provides access to water in poverty-stricken countries.

The winner will make $18.34 million, putting him at the top of the all-time money list regardless of previous results, and eight others will receive payouts.

Professional poker players’ willingness to fork over seven figures proved higher than anticipated. Out of the 48 hopefuls, 28 of them play cards for a living.

“I’m surprised by how many played in it,” said poker pro Antonio Esfandiari. “I’m surprised that I’m playing in it. But when I heard all these guys were playing and it was close to the wire, I was like ‘how can I not play in the greatest tournament of all-time?’ I decided to man up.”

“Those raised eyebrows have been replaced with dropping jaws,” said WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel.

The convenient reason pros cite is the allure of the tournament. The whole truth is somewhat more complicated.

Poker pros weren’t the only people to register to the event in handfuls. Businessmen — many of them billionaires like Laliberte and Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin — started committing months ago.

Twenty of them signed up, which was the catalyst in enticing the card players. Despite the price tag, professionals saw value in a tournament with so many amateur players.

“They figure there are 10 to 12 guys that really, in their minds, don’t have a chance to win,” said Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton, who like Esfandiari committed to play less than a month ago. “That’s $10 or $12 million on the table added to the prize pool. That’s why poker players are playing in this tournament.”

Funding wasn’t as much of an issue as it may seem. Backers and poker pros who couldn’t afford $1 million were eager to pay small percentages of others’ buy-ins with a portion of potential prize money promised in return.

Noted pros Phil Hellmuth, Jason Mercier and Ben Lamb all openly sold shares of their action at as small as 1.1 percent for $11,000.

Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi decided he wanted to play in The Big One two weeks ago, and it only took a few inquiries to secure enough outside money to make him comfortable.

“Before I knew it, I rounded up $900,000 in four days,” Mizrachi said after he won the Poker Players Championship for $1.4 million last week. “I’m sure everyone wants a piece now, but we’re sold out.”

Professionals selling portions of their stakes was so widespread at The Big One that one prominent player guessed Gus Hansen was the only one who stood to keep all of his prize money to himself.

Hansen, a well known Danish pro, earned the final seat in the tournament by outlasting 95 other players in a $25,300 mega satellite at the Rio late Saturday night.

“I’m sure some players are extending themselves more than they probably should,” Sexton said. “When it’s over with, they’ll scratch their heads and say, ‘ what was I thinking?’ ”

The capacity field prevented one such scenario. For evidence of how badly card players wanted in this tournament, look no further than veteran Josh Arieh.

Arieh, who has career earnings of more than $6 million and two WSOP bracelets, announced through Twitter that he would play The Big One last week. Arieh said he took all of his money out of the bank — $916,855 — and sold the rest of his action.

But before Arieh could register, the last player paid his $1 million to make The Big One a sellout.

“Maybe a blessing in disguise,” Arieh tweeted.

He may have rather sat out than play with the table draws dealt to Sexton and Esfandiari on the first day. Three of the five top earners in tournament history —Mizrachi, Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu — were at Sexton’s table.

The top two, Erik Seidel and Phil Ivey, were seated with Esfandiari.

“This, for me, is a huge risk,” Esfandiari said. “But if I don’t take this risk, then why am I a professional gambler? The reward is worth it.”

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

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