Former champion Scotty Nguyen stayed alive Sunday as the seesaw battle for the chip lead and a spot at the final table at the World Series of Poker was down to its final two tables.
"It's rough, baby," said the 1998 main event winner, who had 5.4 million in chips by the dinner break. "It's rough, but I'm still here. Skill takes you here, but now you need a little luck to go deeper."
At midnight, the top eleven chip leaders were listed on the Web site cardplayer.com as Jon Kalmar, Tuan Lam, Lee Childs, Raymond Rahme, Lee Watkinson, Nguyen, Alex Kravchenko, Philip Hilm, Steven Garfinkle, Jerry Yang and Hevad Khan.
Nguyen was as low as 17th of 18 players left when he got involved in a large pot with Hilm, a 31-year-old Dane making a living playing poker online in England.
Hilm bet enough to put Nguyen all-in when the board showed two fives, and a 10 and nine. Nguyen counted out the last of his 1.9 million in chips and said, "You think I'm laying this down?"
Nguyen called and Hilm revealed a semi-bluff with a king and queen and needing a jack for a straight, while Nguyen flipped over pocket nines for a full house and the lock on the hand.
"Yeah, baby!" Nguyen shouted as the TV studio audience erupted.
Childs, a 35-year-old software engineer who quit his job a month ago to play poker, vaulted into the chip lead with 16 million when his ace of clubs and queen of spades hit a miracle four clubs for a flush against a player with ace and king of spades.
"I made the wrong read, but we got there," Childs said later.
Lam, a 40-year-old professional poker player from Toronto was second with about 15 million in chips.
Two tables of players were all that was left from a field of 6,358 who began to play in stages on July 6 for $10,000 apiece. Everyone remaining was gunning for the top prize of $8.25 million.
Those who busted out early on Sunday still went home with a small fortune.
John Armbrust, a 26-year-old high school teacher from Los Angeles, left in 18th place with $381,302.
Ron Kluber, a 46-year-old intelligence analyst for U.S. Forces in Seoul, South Korea, came in 29th. Kluber said his $285,678 prize would help put two daughters through college.
"It's perfect timing," he said.
Jason Koshi, a 33-year-old certified public accountant, said his identical payday was "a big score" compared to his salary and what he made playing $10-$20 no-limit games in Los Angeles.
"This is more than I make in a year, definitely," he said.
The remaining players were to play down for as long as it took to get nine final table participants. Unlike previous years, when getting there meant becoming an instant millionaire, ninth place this year paid $525,934.
The U.S. crackdown on online gambling, which is believed to have shrunk the field from last year's record 8,773, and the flatter payout structure were seen as contributing to the more modest payouts.
Last year's champion, Jamie Gold, won $12 million for first, but had to share an undisclosed amount with an acquaintance after a brief court battle.
The Review-Journal contributed to this report