LAS VEGAS -- The best poker player in the world quickly does the math and doesn't like his odds at this week's World Series of Poker.
Thanks to a poker craze created by TV, the Internet and last year's remarkable storybook victory by a young unknown, a staggering 2,576 people are competing this time for a record $5 million first prize.
"When I started playing in 1987, I had a vision that if you became one of the top players you could expect to win the championship," said Howard Lederer, 40, a man with a lead-piercing stare and a number-crunching mind that have led others to regard as the best in the game. "Even if I'm the favorite, I'm still 200-to-1."
The days of several hundred pros and a smattering of amateurs competing in the grandest of poker events are over. Everybody from "Spider-Man" actor Tobey Maguire to a former Oklahoma beauty queen were betting they would be crowned the next poker king on Friday in the 35th annual World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe Hotel & Casino.
"It's Everyman's tournament," said World Series co-director Matt Savage.
Last year, 839 men and women played in the No-Limit Texas Hold'Em event, in which players are dealt two cards each and make the best poker hand they can using those plus five additional common cards that are turned face up on the table. An aptly named accountant from Spring Hill, Tenn., Chris Moneymaker, won the top prize of $2.5 million.
Moneymaker was considered "Dead Money" in poker circles, someone destined to lose early. Instead, his Cinderella story is credited with transforming the game.
"He had the single-biggest impact on poker history. Period," said Dan Goldman, vice president of marketing for PokerStars.com, an Internet poker site.
Moneymaker advanced to the finals after paying $40 in a qualifying Internet event. For those who do not get lucky in the satellite tournaments on the Internet or at Binion's leading up to the World Series, the buy-in fee is $10,000.
Since his astonishing victory, the 28-year-old Moneymaker has become a poker celebrity. His face appears in poker magazines and people ask for autographs.
Lederer also points to the Internet in creating the groundswell of interest in poker. He said it helps that people like Moneymaker have successfully jumped from the Internet to "brick-and-mortar" tournaments.
Poker player Andy Bloch, a 34-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Law School graduate, believes there is another ingredient: "Two letters: TV. It's a great game for television."
ESPN covered the finals in 2003 and has been replaying Moneymaker's performance again and again. This year the network plans to air 22 hours of coverage.
Other networks also have capitalized on the craze. The Travel Channel offers "World Poker Tour," and Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" has everyone playing along with their favorite stars.
Forget taking a job with The Donald or surviving weeks in the jungle for a paltry $1 million. The potential stakes at the World Series dwarf those of other popular reality shows, with the prize money for all the games in the tournament surpassing $41 million, compared with $22 million a year ago. Even second place in the finals is a whopping $3.5 million.
The World Series of Poker has come a long way since cowboy gambler Benny Binion began a poker tournament to crown the world's best player and winner Johnny Moss took home $30,000 in 1971.
Today the World Series comprises more than 30 events that involve different variations of poker, such as pot-limit Omaha and seven-card stud.
Those high-stakes games wrapped up last week before the much-anticipated No-Limit Texas Hold'Em finals began Saturday.
In no-limit betting, a player can risk all his chips with every turn of a card, guaranteeing high-stakes action and big-time losers. And another person's misery makes for great reality TV.
On Monday, hundreds were scrapping at Binion's, trying to win with a combination of skill, psychology and other tactics that include wearing impenetrably dark sunglasses.
"No matter how good you are, you have to get lucky," said Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California at Los Angeles and won the 2000 World Series title.
Moneymaker found that out after the event kicked off Saturday. He lasted only three hours before losing his stack of chips to an opponent who landed one of only two cards that could have beat him.
"You have to catch those breaks to win tournaments," he said.
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