At the halfway point of the 43rd World Series of Poker, several storylines have developed.
Popular poker professional Andy Bloch won his first-ever individual championship bracelet in a Seven Card Stud event, ending an 18-year drought. On the flip side, Phil Hellmuth Jr. captured his record-setting 12th bracelet by winning a Seven Card Razz event.
Former Wall Street equity-derivatives trader Andy Frankenberger earned his second bracelet in as many years. He pushed his career earnings beyond the $1 million mark when he won the $10,000 buy-in Pot-Limit Hold'em crown.
The storyline that has dominated the tournament and has everyone buzzing throughout the Rio, however, concerns Phil Ivey, who skipped the World Series of Poker last year and hasn't won anything since 2010.
In a span of five days, Ivey reached final tables in three events, placing seventh, second and third. Couple that success with a fourth in-the-money finish and Ivey was at the top of leader board for the 2012 World Series of Poker Player of the Year title.
Ivey often plays in multiple events on the same day. He's not showing any signs of slowing the pace.
"It seems like he's left behind everything from last year and is more focused than ever," Bluff Magazine Editor in Chief Lance Bradley said. "The excitement is that the best player in the game is back."
Reportedly, there is also additional incentive. The poker community believes Ivey has high-stakes side wagers under the table with friends and other players on him winning bracelets.
"It does seem like he has something to prove," Bradley said.
Ivey, 36, who is considered one the game's best players, sat out the 2011 World Series of Poker in a self-imposed exile to protest the U.S. government's "Black Friday" crackdown on Internet poker.
Full Tilt Poker, one of three websites that found their access to the American market blocked by the Justice Department, was Ivey's online sponsor. Full Tilt lost its European gaming license, its top executives were indicted in the U.S., and the website is out of business.
Ivey said a year ago he was staying away from the Rio to protest Full Tilt's decision not to repay American poker players some $150 million on account with the Internet site in Europe.
Ivey filed a lawsuit against Full Tilt, saying the company's troubles damaged his reputation. Full Tilt countersued, claiming Ivey wanted to get out of repaying millions in loans he received from the website.
In September, federal prosecutors added well-known poker players Howard Lederer and former World Series of Poker champion Chris "Jesus" Ferguson to the civil action against Full Tilt, alleging they unlawfully profited from the website.
Ivey was never charged, but his name was still linked to Full Tilt's troubles.
Last year, his divorce became highly publicized when he and his representatives were accused by his ex-wife of making campaign contributions to the Las Vegas judge handling the case in exchange for favorable treatment. The Nevada Supreme Court scheduled the matter for a hearing this year.
Ivey laid low.
He reportedly spent his time playing high-stakes cash games. He appeared at a PokerStars tournament in Macau late in the year. In January, Ivey won the Aussie Millions $250,000 Super High Roller event in Melbourne, collecting $2 million.
He quietly returned for the World Series of Poker and re-established his presence, looking to add to his eight championship bracelets - tied for fifth on the all-time list - and $5.8 million in career earnings.
The steely persona and the cold Ivey stare are back. Gone are the caps and shirts adorned with the Full Tilt logo. Ivey's appearance is subdued. He is usually dressed in a plain shirt or sweatshirt.
"People are both intrigued and intimidated by Ivey," one longtime poker observer said. "He doesn't really talk to people and the poker media don't really approach him."
Other former Full Tilt-sponsored poker professionals - Bloch, Jennifer Harman, Erik Seidel and Mike Matusow - were welcomed back last year. The Rio doesn't have a large enough security force, however, to quell the violence if Lederer or Ferguson were to walk back into the room.
A few out money from Full Tilt haven't forgotten the debacle.
"Sometimes when we write about Ivey, we'll hear through Twitter how players thought he wasn't going to be back until everyone had been paid," Bradley said.
Ivey is the most watched player at the tournament.
When he faced Frankenberger in heads-up play for the Pot-Limit Hold'em crown, more than 250 people crowded around the ESPN feature table in the Amazon Room.
At the same time, Hellmuth was playing heads-up in the Razz game for his 12th bracelet on the secondary feature table in the Pavilion Room in front of roughly 50 spectators.
In fairness, Razz is an obscure lowball version of seven-card stud while hold'em is the most recognized poker game.
Still, Ivey's return has given the tournament a spark.
"Ivey is one of the four or five players who draws an audience," Bradley said. He added, in jest, "It's like last year didn't happen. Maybe last year's bracelets should come with an asterisk."
Howard Stutz's Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.