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WSOP Main Event begins with champs squaring off

The doors to the Amazon Room at the Rio Convention Center opened at 11:45 a.m. Saturday, and spectators filed in hoping to watch some of poker’s biggest stars in action.

They didn’t need to look far.

Thanks to a fortunate — and entirely coincidental — draw, Ryan Riess and Greg Merson, the past two winners of the World Series of Poker’s $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship, were seated across from each other at the featured table to start the Main Event.

“It was all random,” said Riess, the defending champion. “It’s fun playing with him.”

Riess and Merson were two of the five former Main Event winners in action on Day 1A, along with Tom McEvoy (1983), Johnny Chan (1987 and 1988) and Chris Moneymaker (2003). Jay Farber, Marc-Etienne McLaughlin and David Benefield, who all made last year’s final table with Riess, also were in the field as the WSOP’s signature event began, though Benefield was eliminated before the dinner break.

The first day of the Main Event is typically the smallest of the three starting flights, and the buzz was noticeably absent for much of the afternoon. Officially, 771 players registered for the first flight, down from the 943 who played the opening day in 2013.

The Main Event continues at noon today at the Rio with Day 1B. The majority of players will be in action Monday when Day 1C begins. The tournament runs through July 14, and the nine remaining players return Nov. 10 at the Rio’s Penn &Teller Theater to battle it out for the $10 million guaranteed first-place prize.

ESPN will broadcast the tournament on Sundays starting Sept. 28 and will air the final table live.

Last year’s Main Event attracted 6,352 entrants, and Riess took home nearly $8.4 million.

“It’s always slow the first day,” Merson said during one of the afternoon breaks. “I usually try to play Day 1A, especially if it’s right up against Fourth of July. So, it doesn’t feel like the Main Event yet. But it will pick up, especially if you make Day 2 and then you see the floodgates open over the next couple days.”

The fans who were at the Rio before the first cards went in the air were greeted with a festive atmosphere as DJ AL3 spun music before the 10-minute opening ceremony. With the WSOP celebrating its 10th year at the Rio, 2005 Main Event champion Joseph Hachem of Australia made the traditional “Shuffle up and deal!” command to signal the start of play.

“It’s awesome. I absolutely love the atmosphere, and they just moved my banner into the room,” Riess said in reference to the banners of all the Main Event champions that hang from the ceiling. “This is what we all dream about every year.”

Merson was scheduled to start play in the Brasilia Room, but his table broke almost immediately as many of the tables started out short of the maximum nine players. Merson drew a card that assigned him to the featured table and was surprised to learn he would be playing with Riess.

“I thought there was two tables here. I thought there was no way,” Merson said. “But we’re sitting across from each other, so we won’t really be involved, most likely, in too many hands.”

The featured table included businessman and amateur player Bill Perkins, who finished third in the $111,111 buy-in One Drop High Rollers No-Limit Hold ’em tournament in 2013.

Riess took an early hit when his opponent made quads, and Merson also got off to a slow start. Riess rebounded and was slightly above the 30,000-chip starting stack at the dinner break, while Merson was near the 20,000-chip mark.

One former Main Event champion not expected to enter this year is Doyle Brunson. The 80-year-old Las Vegas resident tweeted Saturday, “To everybody who keeps asking…I’m not playing the Main Event. Hours are just too damn long.”

Contact reporter David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.

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