LAS VEGAS --- When a 21-year-old Internet poker player beat a Maryland logger for the World Series of Poker title last year, it showed again how unpredictable poker's richest tournament can be.
And as a fresh crop of an expected 6,000-plus entrants starts Monday pointing toward a multimillion-dollar score, previous winners of the no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event say those who manage to survive until the tournament's final rounds will share a few things in common -- poker smarts, stamina, focus, patience and chip management.
But it all starts with luck -- and attempting to control it.
"You have to play really good and you have to run really good" by getting strong hands, said Greg Raymer, who won the main event title and $5 million in 2004.
Luck comes in a few forms, Raymer said, not just watching a tournament-saving card turn up in an unlikely situation. It also involves minimizing bad fortune -- the inevitable times when poker hands that have the best chance of winning don't hold up against the odds.
"I've seen really good players get extremely unlucky," said Jack Effel, tournament director.
Last year, Joe Cada was already devoted to poker full-time when he became the game's youngest champion and won $8.55 million. His final opponent, Darvin Moon, was a self-described amateur with a simple playing style developed offline in his spare time. Moon won $5.2 million for second place.
Nobody could have possibly predicted their heads-up match before the tournament started with nearly 6,500 players. Even forecasting them for a showdown with nine gamblers remaining at the final table was out of the question.
But that doesn't mean they -- and others who have found success in the tournament -- weren't worthy, Raymer said.
"They're actually a lot better than people realize," Raymer said.
The fresh crop taking the felt on one of four starting days beginning Monday will sit down with well-developed -- but wide-ranging -- ideas about how to parlay their $10,000 buy-in into riches.
The World Series of Poker has grown into an international spectacle as card lovers from around the world flock to Las Vegas to compete or watch their favorite gamblers. The scene looks little like it did in 1970 when downtown casino owner Benny Binion played host to 30 players who voted for a winner after a few days of high-stakes gambling.
Poker's popularity has boomed in the past decade. Chris Ferguson's main event win was worth $1.5 million in 2000 when 512 players entered, while Jamie Gold was awarded $12 million in 2006 with 8,773 main event entries.
Effel said he thinks players today know vastly more than they did 10 or even five years ago, because they have more opportunities to play and learn the game.
That means players shouldn't write off opponents enjoying newfound success, Ferguson said.
"They may not have been very well-known names, but that doesn't mean they're not amazing poker players," he said. "There's an amazing number of just fantastic poker players that nobody's heard of, because of the online world."
The main event is structured to give players a strong opportunity to maneuver through the massive field, Effel said. Players start with 30,000 in tournament chips, which have no monetary value, with minimum bets at 50 and 100 chips.