LAS VEGAS (AP) - Nine card players from five countries are playing the biggest game of their lives in Las Vegas.
The final table of the World Series of Poker got underway under the heat of blue and red stage lights Monday night, with last year's champion, Greg Merson, giving the dealer the go-ahead to get things started. By the time play breaks in the wee hours of the morning, only two or three players will remain.
Some finalists hope the prize money will allow them to turn poker into a hobbyist's pastime. Others hope to fatten their bankroll for future games.
J.C. Tran, the chip leader going into the final table, plans to retire as a professional grinder if he wins and turn his attention to raising his children. His wife, weeks away from giving birth to a second child, watched him from the audience Monday.
Five Americans, plus finalists from France, the Netherlands, Israel and Canada, topped a field of 6,352 entrants at the no-limit Texas Hold `em main event in July. They returned to the table on Monday, donning sunglasses and walking like prizefighters into the 1,600-seat theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, where magicians Penn and Teller regularly perform. A champion will be crowned Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.
Players were visibly tense as the first hands were dealt, a contrast to the last time they were all in one place in Las Vegas, toward the end of a marathon 14-hour day that established the finalists. By then, they were regularly stretching their legs, and sometimes trash talking across the table.
Marc McLaughlin ?spent Sunday playing trampoline dodgeball to get the nerves out.
Each player has a sizable cheering section. Fans of Las Vegas resident Ryan Riess, the youngest of the finalists at 23, sported ''Riess the Beast'' t-shirts. Supporters of Amir Lehavot, who went into the final table with the second largest chip count, held signs reading ''Fear Amir.''
All the fractions broke into squeals of anticipation and uncoordinated cheering when the players made big raises.
The finale is broadcast nearly live on ESPN, airing with just enough of a delay to satisfy Nevada gambling regulators that the players don't have any way to tell what their opponents are holding.
The no-limit Texas Hold `em played at the main event is a game familiar to most casual poker players. But raise the stakes, give elite players four months to prepare and stage the game in front of hundreds of spectators and television cameras, and it becomes a different animal.
Chips mean everything and nothing in poker tournaments. They have no direct tie to the amount of money won or lost; each player already staked $10,000 to enter the tournament in July.
A player must lose all his chips to be eliminated from the tournament, and must win all the chips in play to claim the top prize of $8.4 million and the glory that comes with joining the names of past winners, including Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and Chris Moneymaker.
The top seven finalists will get at least $1 million in total prize money. The ninth-place finisher will get no more money than the payout of $733,224 each player received in July.
As the tournament progresses, minimum bets creep higher every two hours, tightening the pressure on players who continually find their chips weren't worth as much as before.
Tran, 36, is the best-known of the finalists. Six of his competitors are in their 20s, with a 32- and 38-year-old rounding out the pack.
Only one of the finalists, Las Vegas club host Jay Farber, doesn't consider himself a seasoned professional.
Before play began, Farber, wearing a baseball cap advertising his club and sporting heavily tattooed forearms, said he hoped to use his opponent's low expectations for him to his advantage.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier