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Pair pursue poker prestige

For the most part, the nine players who reached Sunday’s final table of the World Series of Poker main event didn’t mind the 117-day wait between hands.

Poker observers believed the best two players reached the heads-up final after more than 12 hours of play in the $10,000 buy-in World Championship of no-limit hold ’em. The final two began heads-up action at 10 p.m. Monday at the Rio. It’s expected the winner — either 27-year-old Russian Ivan Demidov or Peter Eastgate, a 22-year-old resident of Denmark — will have been determined in the early morning hours of today.

Eastgate was the chip leader with more than 80.3 million in tournament chips. Demidov has 56.6 million in chips, and World Series of Poker officials said they were settling in for a long affair.

Demidov, who had said before the start of the final table that Eastgate was his toughest challenger, isn’t sure what to expect.

"I wanted to face him at the final table, but I don’t have much experience against

him," Demidov said early Monday morning after qualifying for a shot at a grand prize of $9.15 million and the title of world poker champion. The runner-up wins $5.8 million.

Eastgate is trying to become the World Series of Poker’s youngest main event champion, eclipsing a 19-year-old record held by Phil Hellmuth, who won the event in 1989 at the age of 24.

Eastgate admires Demidov.

"We didn’t know each other before this summer, and I watched him awhile," Eastgate said. "I think it will be an interesting battle."

Both players will come into the event with boisterous supporters. Demidov’s friends dressed in Russian military uniforms Sunday and waved both Russian and Soviet flags. Eastgate’s friends sang songs loudly in Danish when he prevailed. They also wore dark shirts with the slogan "It’s in the stars."

Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old truck salesman from St. Louis, who finished third Monday morning, winning $4.5 million, said Demidov and Eastgate deserved to face each other. Eastgate eliminated Phillips on the 169th hand of play at the final table with the best cards, a set of threes.

"My own personal opinion is that Ivan has the advantage because of his experience," said Phillips, who turned the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater into his own home court Sunday.

He was backed by some 300 friends and family members all wearing matching red replica St. Louis Cardinals baseball caps and white work shirts like Phillips wore. They cheered loudly every time he won a hand.

"I think Peter, in five years, will be one of the top-notch poker players around. Period," Phillips said. "He gets better every time I see him. Ivan is very good now."

Regardless, the World Series of Poker will have its first foreign champion since Australian Joe Hachem won the title in 2005. Last year, Jerry Yang, a Laotian immigrant who lives in Temecula, Calif., won the event. Although Yang is not a U.S. citizen, he has been a resident of the United States since the mid-1970s.

"Poker is not that big in Russia yet," Demidov said. "Maybe I can help."

A field of 6,844 players began the main event in July. After the event was cut to the final nine players July 15, the tournament took a 117-day break. ESPN will televise the event today.

Most players said they changed their style of play from July on Sunday. It was just the nature of trying to get a handle on players they hadn’t seen in four months.

"I played really tight at the start," said Toronto native Scott Montgomery, who placed fifth and won almost $3.1 million. "It was such a jump from the first couple of elimination slots. You could really double your money."

Demidov used the time off to better his game. He traveled to London and played in several World Series of Poker-Europe events. He placed third in the main event, winning $608,995. Now, he has a chance to multiply that figure more than 15 times.

"I changed my game a little. I had much more confidence in the way I played," Demidov said.

Eastgate said his game changes consistently, and the layoff helped him.

"I’m always adjusting my game based on my opponents," Eastgate said. "I’m always changing my style."

Phillips, who came into Sunday as the chip leader, almost busted out twice within the first few hours. At one point, he had lost more than 80 percent of the chips he arrived with.

Nevertheless, he was not upset by the four-month break because it allowed him to gain sponsorships, work with charities and become an ambassador for poker in the St. Louis area.

"I had a blast and a hell of a lot of fun for four months," Phillips said. "It was truly a positive thing. I came in to win this thing, and I got a little nuts at the beginning. I tightened up. I finished third, and that’s not bad."

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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