For a few days, the poker universe was focused on Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte and his group of friends, CEOs, hedge-fund millionaires and poker professionals who took over the Rio's Amazon Room for a $1 million buy-in tournament.
Today, the focus is back on the game's ultimate prize, winning the World Series of Poker's $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold'em World Championship.
Three days of starting flights begin at noon today at the Rio. By July 16, the field will be sliced and the final table of nine players will be determined. Those players will return to the Rio at the end of October to play for a multimillion-dollar payday and the most expensive gold bracelet ever awarded to a Main Event winner.
Last year's Main Event drew 6,865 participants - third largest in tournament history. Pius Heinz, a 22-year-old college student from Cologne, Germany, walked away with more than $8.7 million.
Last year's prize pool was $64.5 million. Tournament officials are hopeful this year's field and prize pool will surpass 2011.
"Every year the skeptics predict the sky is falling, until thousands of poker players seem to fall from the sky just in time to register," World Series of Poker Executive Director Ty Stewart said. "I think we've proven this summer that the golden age of poker is far from over."
The World Series of Poker expanded its presence inside the Rio convention area this year, taking over three massive ballrooms and giving the tournament enough space for 5,000 poker players at one time.
The expansion allowed the tournament to slice the four starting days in previous years to three.
The winner's bracelet was also improved. Designed by world-renowned jeweler Jason of Beverly Hills, it has more than 160 grams of 14-karat gold and more than 35 carats of diamonds.
First-place money and other prize payouts for the Main Event will be determined late Monday once it is known how many players kicked in the $10,000 entry fee.
The largest Main Event was in 2006 when the field topped 8,773 players. Hollywood producer Jamie Gold won $12 million that year.
In addition to Heinz, the last three Main Event champions, Jonathan Duhamel of Canada, Joe Cada of Michigan and Peter Eastgate of Denmark, are expected to participate, along with other poker notables and celebrities. As of Friday, actors Kevin Pollak and Ray Romano, Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter George St. Pierre and Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo were scheduled to participate.
Antonio Esfandiari, who won $18.3 million - the largest poker jackpot ever - in the "Big One for One Drop" tournament Tuesday, topping Laliberte and the 48 players who paid the $1 million entry, is scheduled to play in the Main Event on Monday.
Through 59 events, the 2012 World Series of Poker has attracted 68,067 entries and more than $155 million in prize money. With events on Friday and the Main Event, the tournament will come close to cracking last year's record 75,672 entries. The prize pool record of $192 million is expected to be exceeded.
"We can't obsess about the numbers each year," Stewart said. "We just want to keep defying expectations."
The 2012 World Series of Poker had the largest single-day starting field - 4,128 players for the Seniors No-Limit Hold'em event. Also, 4,620 players entered a $1,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold'em event Thursday, the largest non-Main Event field since 2009.
The Main Event will be this year's 61st bracelet tournament at the World Series of Poker.
Through 56 events completed by Thursday, players from 12 countries had won individual event championship bracelets, including the first player ever from Japan.
Two women, Allyn Jaffrey-Shulman and Vanessa Selbst, won individual event bracelets in mixed-gender events. It had been four years since a woman had done so. Noted poker professionals Andy Bloch and Ylon Schwartz won their first individual event championship bracelets, while Phil Hellmuth Jr., won his record-setting 12th career title.
Meanwhile, the 2012 World Series of Poker marked the return of Phil Ivey, who sat out 2011 to protest the U.S. government crackdown on Internet poker.
Through Friday, Ivey had cashed in six events, reaching five final tables. However, his second-, third-, fifth-, seventh- and eighth-place finishes left him short of achieving his eighth gold bracelet. But the cashes put Ivey above $5.8 million in career World Series of Poker earnings.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.