720 players remain as final weekend begins in World Series of Poker

Now comes the fun part at the World Series of Poker.

The preliminaries have been dispensed with and the real action began Thursday at the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em World Championship as the event heads into its final weekend.

Shortly after midnight, the Main Event field was sliced to 720 players who will head into action today at the Rio. By the time the weekend is done and Monday rolls around, no more than 27 players will still have a shot at the $8.5 million first prize.

The final table of nine will be determined sometime Monday night and the winners will return to the Rio at the end of October.

On Thursday, the first-day survivors from the three starting flights were merged into one field, four players reached the 1 million tournament chip mark.

The leader is Dave D’Alesandro with 1.1 million. Who is Dave D’Alesandro? He has never cashed at the World Series of Poker and tournament officials didn’t list a hometown for the player.

Of the other leaders with more than 1 million in chips — Sean Rice of Cherry Hill, N.J. (1.076 million), Jacob Balsiger of Temp, Ariz. (1.065 million) and Leo Wolpert of Fairfax, Va. (1.003 million) — the best known is Wolpert.

Wolpert has cashed 12 times in World Series of Poker events. He won a gold bracelet for first place in a $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em Heads Up event in 2009, earning $625,682.

There are some better-known names still in competition.

Two-time bracelet winner Vanessa Selbst is in 12th place with 814,000 in chips and is trying to become the first woman to reach the Main Event final table since Barbara Enright in 1975. Gaelle Baumann of France, who was the chip leader heading into play Thursday, sits in 46th place with 599,000 in chips.

Former World Series of Poker Main Event Champions, Johnny Chan (1987 and 1988) and Huck Seed (1996) will play on Day 4, but former winners Dan Harrington (1995), Robert Varkonyi (2002), Jerry Yang (2006), Peter Eastgate (2009) and the defending champion, Pius Heinz, were all sent to the rail.

Among the notables eliminated Thursday was 2011 Player of the Year Ben Lamb.

Meanwhile, notable professional poker players still in competition are David "ODB" Baker, Marcel Luske, Maria Ho, Daniel Negreanu, Shaun Deeb and “Big One for One Drop” winner Antonio Esfandiari, who is 94th place with 485,000 in chips.

Vancouver Canucks hockey player Robert Luongo will play on Friday, but his chip stack is low. Luongo sits in 639th place with 92,000 in chips. One of the top goalies in the National Hockey League, Luongo is no stranger to pressure-packed competition. He was sponsored in the tournament by the British Columbia Lottery Corp.

His brother, Fabio Luongo, is still alive in the Main Event, sitting in 186th place with 360,000 in chips.

Actor Kevin Pollak, who is representing social gaming website HollywoodPoker.com, took a stint at the ESPN feature table Thursday and still remains in strong contention. Pollak, who starred in such films as “Casino,” “The Usual Suspects” and “A Few Good Men,” is in 364th place with 233,000 in chips.

One of the key moments Friday will breaking the Main Event’s cash bubble. The top 666 players will be paid with places 595 to 666 earning $19,227. The player who finishes 667th and just outside the money, earns a free entry into the 2013 Main Event.

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