Nine card players from seven countries are returning to Las Vegas this weekend in search of life-changing riches, the spoils of winning as much as $8.71 million at the World Series of Poker main event.
Some of the finalists hope the millions won will be enough to make poker simply a just-for-fun pastime, rather than a bankroll boost to launch them into poker's most expensive games.
"I hope that I will not need to play poker for (income) after the 8th of November," said 21-year-old Anton Makiievskyi, an aspiring poker professional from the Ukraine who said he has been supporting himself with poker since 2008.
"I like this game, but for three years I needed to play it. In case of winning first place, I will play only for pleasure and results of my poker sessions will not make any changes to my life," Makiievskyi told The Associated Press.
"Poker is just a card game," he said. "It's cool but I don't want to be addicted to it."
Makiievskyi starts the final table eighth in chips, the second fewest among players.
Three Americans, plus finalists from Belize, Ireland, Germany, England, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, topped a field of 6,865 entrants at the no-limit Texas Hold `em main event in July and are returning Sunday to settle the title over two days of play. A champion will be crowned Tuesday night.
The finale will play out nearly live on television for the first time, with ESPN airing the action with just enough of a delay to satisfy Nevada gambling regulators that the players won't have any way to tell what their opponents are holding.
Stripped to its most basic level, the no-limit Texas Hold `em played at the main event couldn't be simpler as a variant of poker. But play the game between nine high-level thinkers, give them 3 1/2 months to prepare and stage the televised game in front of a live crowd of hundreds of spectators, and the game suddenly becomes far more difficult.
"They're going to know immediately if I'm doing something stupid," said Phil Collins, 26, of Las Vegas, a poker professional starting the final table fourth in chips. "That kind of pressure, those kinds of things make it a lot more unique than just a simple one-table tournament."
Matt Giannetti, a 26-year-old poker professional from Las Vegas who won the World Poker Tour Malta in September for 200,000 euros, said if it weren't for that win during the break, he'd have rather finished the series in July.
Now, he says he has to try to recapture that psychological comfort and hope the players haven't changed too much. He sits third in chips as play begins.
"I hope it doesn't affect my play," Giannetti said.
Badih Bounahra, 49, of Belize City, said he doesn't think players will stray far from the tendencies they showed in July that got them to the final table. He said he's been practicing with several of the best poker players in Belize, simulating scenarios in which he holds a chip lead, is short or has an average stack. He starts play sixth in chips.
"It's still just poker, no matter how high the stakes," Bounahra said.
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 get into the tournament in July. A player must lose all his chips to be eliminated from the tournament, but must win all the chips in play to win. The top eight finalists will get at least $1 million in total prize money; each was given a ninth place payout of $782,115 in July and is playing for the difference paid to higher finishers this weekend. The ninth place finisher will get no more money.
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. The final table will begin with each player holding an average of 22.8 million in chips _ Martin Stazko of the Czech Republic leads with 40.2 million chips while Sam Holden is ninth with 12.4 million _ but the average stack equates to only about 46 minimum bets given the blinds and antes, which will go up after the first 35 minutes of play.
"Players just can't sit back," said Tournament Director Jack Effel. "Guys are going to make some moves, they're going to try to chip up really quickly, and I think it's going to be a good final table."
Also competing in the tournament are 26-year-old Eoghan O'Dea of Dublin, Ireland, 26-year-old Ben Lamb of Las Vegas and 22-year-old Pius Heinz of Cologne, Germany.
Holden, 22, of Sussex, Britain, said he has to be realistic as the shortest stack at the table, but plans to fiercely compete to get a higher finish.
If he doubles his stack once _ a common attempt in no-limit Texas Hold `em _ he'd be roughly average in chips.
"For me, it's all about playing as well as I can," Holden said.
He said he hopes to keep his finish in the tournament in perspective, noting that it took considerable luck to reach the final table.
Holden said that while he's had early success as a poker professional, he's open to other things and doesn't want to limit his interests to an industry that's still relatively "in its infancy."
"This year's been incredibly good and I'm still enjoying it. That may change," he said. "The games online may get way tougher. ... I might find another calling."
Collins said there's a distinction between a life of playing poker _ going after titles and the prestige that comes with being a champion because of a love for the game _ and having to play poker to make ends meet. He said he'll keep playing poker no matter how things turn out for him at the series, though if he wins millions of dollars he'll make sure he puts less financial pressure on himself.
"I think a lot of the money that I'll get, I'll be setting aside to put myself in a comfortable situation for the rest of my life," Collins said.
Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia