Nearly 800 players with dreams of World Series of Poker glory started a marathon toward poker's richest prize on Saturday - a guaranteed $10 million payday and a place in history among the winners of the main event.
Thousands more were expected to start the no-limit Texas Hold `em main event in Las Vegas on Sunday and Monday, with registrations overall pacing ahead of last year. About 4,000 would-be entrants played in smaller satellite tournaments at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino Saturday in hopes of winning an entry.
''I hope that I can survive Day 1,'' said Michael Musich of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, whose wife rooted him on as he played his first hands. ''They get tougher as it goes.''
Musich played among a field of 771 players with several poker legends, including 1987 and 1988 champion Johnny Chan, who was among the chip leaders after more than six hours. Also playing were 2003 champ Chris Moneymaker, and Antonio Esfandiari, who won an $18.3 million score in 2012 in the series' first ultra-exclusive $1 million buy-in tournament.
From millionaire card sharks to home-game amateurs, players stake $10,000 each for a shot to win millions in poker's most popular variant. The no-limit betting rules mean players can wager all their chips at any time, risking their tournament chances in hopes of gaining more chips.
Those who busted on Day 1 included poker professionals Jean-Robert Bellande and Jason Mercier, as well as MTV reality star Trishelle Cannatella.
Only 10 percent of those who enter the tournament will win any money. Players compete until they bust out or win it all, like Ryan Riess, who won $8.36 million at the main event last year at age 23, topping a field of 6,352 players. Riess played Saturday and nearly doubled his chips after more than six hours of play.
The main event hasn't offered an 8-figure payday since 2006, when Jamie Gold won $12 million for topping a field of 8,773 players. The only other 8-figure top prizes were won by Esfandiari and Daniel Colman, who won $15.3 million in the series' second-ever $1 million buy-in tournament this week.
Series officials hope the $10 million guarantee will draw more entrants, a similar tactic that has worked with smaller tournaments this year at the series.
Phil Hellmuth, one of poker's most famous players who won the main event 25 years ago in 1989, said card players are getting better while the tournament has gone through phases of playing styles. But despite a large number of entries making things tougher, Hellmuth said he still sees an opportunity for the game's best players to finish on top.
''The main event is winnable,'' Hellmuth said.
Poker professional Daniel Negreanu said it's a feat that requires smarts and stamina, plus an ability to perform under the pressure of an atmosphere much different from home games and regular casino games. ESPN films the tournament for 2-hour episodes, and plans to air the final table nearly live in November.
''I'm comfortable under the lights and the cameras. I think it's actually one of my edges,'' said Negreanu, who enters the main event sitting fourth in the World Series of Poker Player of the Year standings, a measure of how players perform over the entire 65-event series. Negreanu said he prepared for this year's series by getting in the best physical shape of his life and sharpening his mental focus and approach.
The last nine players will likely play at least 70 hours to reach the final table, over seven sessions of 10 hours each.
Jackie Glazier, an Australian player who was the top woman in last year's main event, finishing 31st for more than $229,000, said it doesn't pay to make chancy plays early because even quadrupling your starting chips won't matter much as play wears on.
''I think slow and steady to start,'' she said.
A handful of players busted early despite the purposely slow structure, gambling chips unnecessarily in spots where their opponents would surely only call with better hands.
Joe Hachem, the 2005 main event winner who won $7.5 million, said at the start of play Saturday that his first thought back when he started his winning run was that he should just refund his $10,000 ticket and leave.
''But in reality, the only person I have to beat is myself, same as you guys,'' Hachem said.
AP photographer John Locher in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia