Nine finalists at the World Series of Poker main event have begun their final table run to settle a title worth $8.53 million to the winner.
The finalists, including six poker professionals and three amateurs, started play Monday before a crowd of several thousand people at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Seven of nine finalists will take home seven-figure paydays in the no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament that cost $10,000 to enter. Ninth place will settle for the nearly $755,000 paid to each of the finalists in July.
The players tested each other from the start, re-raising chips back and forth in moves that will ultimately result in opponents gambling their stacks against one another.
On the first hand of play, 57-year-old poker professional Steve Gee of Sacramento, Calif., bluffed 24-year-old Russell Thomas on a pot worth several million chips, though Thomas held just nine high and wouldn't have been able to consider playing the hand to the end.
Michael Esposito, 44, of Seaford, N.Y., played while uncertain about the status of his waterfront home as Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.
His son, James Esposito, said neighbors have said the streets are flooded, but the family is focused on the card game in the Nevada desert.
"Odds are likely that it's flooded," he said. "I know I saw a picture of the house three doors down — the streets are totally flooded."
Michael Esposito, a commodities broker, is one of three remaining amateurs at the start of the final table.
They include 21-year-old Jake Balsiger, an Arizona State senior looking to become the youngest main event champion ever, and Thomas, a 24-year-old insurance actuary who's helping Aetna adjust to new regulations passed under President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul.
The chip leader heading into the final table was 24-year-old poker professional Jesse Sylvia, who began the final stretch with 43.9 million in chips, just over 22 percent of the chips in play.
The other finalists are all poker professionals: 33-year-old Jeremy Ausmus of Las Vegas, 24-year-old Greg Merson of Laurel, Md., 27-year-old Robert Salaburu of San Antonio, Texas, and 30-year-old Andras Koroknai of Debrecen, Hungary.
Chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament, and win all the chips at the table to be crowned champion.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players and was chopped down to nine through seven sessions spread over 11 days. Play stopped after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The finalists will play Monday night until only three players remain, then the three top finishers will settle the title on Tuesday.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia.