Unlike a year ago, when the outcome of the world poker championship seemed like a foregone conclusion, any of the nine players going into today's final table in the 2007 World Series of Poker has a chance of winning the game's ultimate title and an $8.25 million payday.
Less than $9 million in tournament chips separate the top five players in the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold' em world championship scheduled to begin at noon at the Rio. The other four players are one large pot away from striking distance.
Adding to the drama, only the hardest of hard-core poker fans would be able recognize two or three of the nine remaining players.
"That's the beauty of poker. When the math kicks in you're never sure who or what you're going to end up with at the final table," said Jeffrey Pollack, a Harrah's Entertainment vice president who serves as the World Series of Poker commissioner. Harrah's owns and operates the poker tournament.
"Last year's final table was exciting in its own way. This year's final table will have its own sort of excitement," Pollack said.
Of the nine players remaining from the original field of 6,358 players who began play on July 6, only one player, Lee Watkinson, has more than $1 million in career World Series of Poker earnings. Watkinson, a Washington native, owns one bracelet from winning an Omaha event in the 2006 World Series that earned him $655,746. He has finished in the money nine times in the tournament since 2004, including twice this year.
The only other World Series of Poker bracelet winner in the field is Alex Kravchenko of Moscow. This year he has finished in the money in five events, including a victory in an Omaha hi-low event that earned him $278,844.
Otherwise the field is relatively obscure.
Chip leader Phillip Hilm, a 31-year-old Dane living in England with $22 million in chips, placed 33rd in an event during the 2005 World Series of Poker, winning $6,930. Tuan Lam of Toronto, who is in second place with $21.3 million in chips, has twice finished in the money in World Series events, earning a total of $10,443.
Jon Kalmar of England, who has $20.3 million in chips, finished 82nd in the 2005 world championship event, winning $91,950, his only World Series finish. Raymond Rahme of South Africa, $16.3 million; Lee Childs of Reston, Va., $13.2 million; and Jerry Yang of Temecula, Calif., $8.5 million; have never finished in the money in a World Series event.
Hevad Khan of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., $9.2 million, has finished in the money twice this year, winning a total of $20,255.
"The longer they play, the better chance we have to get to know the players," Pollack said. "Their personalities begin to come out."
Pollack's prediction of lengthy play may be an omen.
Based on how the competition went Sunday, when the remaining 36 players were paired down to nine, the eventual winner might not emerge until sometime Wednesday morning. Sunday's action began at noon and ended around 4:30 a.m. Monday, some 16 hours, 30 minutes later.
Two years ago, Joe Hachem took more than 14 hours to win the world title. Last year, Jamie Gold took 12 hours to vanquish eight players and collect $12 million, with final hand coming at 3:15 in the morning.
Gold, who was eliminated on the first day of play this year, was the chip leader a year ago for almost 70 percent of the tournament. He entered the final table with almost $10 million ahead of his second-place rival and two and three times more than the other six players.
The lack of a large chip leader and the absence of any of the big-name professionals adds to excitement, Pollack said.
"This final table will write its own finish," Pollack said.
The 1998 champion, Scotty Nguyen, just missed reaching the final table, finishing in 11th place.Steven Garfinkle of Bellingham, Wash., was the last player eliminated Monday morning when he was ousted by Rahme, who had made three queens. Garfinkle and Nguyen won $476,926.
In total, 621 players will divide the $59.8 million prize pool in the world championship event. The 38th World Series of Poker featured 55 events that attracted 54,288 registrants, the most in the tournament's history, generating a total prize pool of $159.8 million.