LAS VEGAS (AP) — Four finalists in the World Series of Poker busted out in quick succession early Tuesday, leaving a Las Vegas club promoter and a young pro originally from Michigan one heads-up match away from poker's richest prize — an $8.4 million crown.
Ryan Riess, 23, eliminated Amir Lehavot in third place with a pair of 10s, treading past five meaningless community cards to bump his guaranteed payday up by $1.5 million and set the Tuesday night showdown.
Reiss' opponent in the no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament: Las Vegas amateur Jay Farber, who went straight from the final table to rounding his friends up to go clubbing.
"I'm out every night. What am I going do? Sit at home and dwell on the final table? No, I'm going to enjoy myself," he said.
After several hours of pushing chips around with little excitement, the final table came to a close with a flurry of all-ins, sending four people home in just 15 hands played in less than an hour.
Lehavot won $3.7 million for his third place finish.
JC Tran, who came in as the chip leader and was the favorite to win the diamond-encrusted championship bracelet, busted out in fifth place after struggling all night with a string of weak hands.
"I'm not 100 percent happy with the way I played, but when you're put on the tough side of hands, it's tough to overcome it," he said. Tran, the best known of the nine finalists, vowed to come back next year and make another run at the prize he had hoped would float him into grinder retirement.
On Monday evening, nine players from five countries walked like prizefighters into the 1,600-seat theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino where magicians Penn and Teller regularly perform, and sat down to play the biggest game of their lives under the heat of blue and red stage lights.
The finale was broadcast nearly live on ESPN, airing with a 15-minute delay to satisfy Nevada gambling regulators so that players don't have any way to know what their opponents are holding.
Farber took the lead early, a plush panda mascot cheering him on. His friends wore "combat panda" shirts, and shrieked when the mascot rushed the stage only to be escorted out by security.
Riess, the youngest of the nine finalists, also kept well ahead of the pack. His fans cheered "Riess the beast" as he made bold plays that he could back up with strong cards.
"Everyone was playing really solid and the cards ran my way today," he said. "It worked exactly like I envisioned it. I was kind of thinking it would be me and Farber."
Both men sat back and accumulated the chips early, quickly amassing two-thirds of the chips in play. They stayed out of each other's way for the most part, attempting to pick off the weaker players.
The poker marathon began in July with 6,352 players and was chopped down to nine through seven sessions spread over 11 days. Play then paused for four months, giving the men a chance to recuperate and study each other. Or, in the case of Farber, not study.
"I felt like the way I played got me to where I was, and we weren't gonna try and change anything," the heavily-tattooed 29 year-old said during a break Monday.
Poker pro Mark Newhouse was the first to go home Monday. He sat down in eighth place, and busted out after he went up against Riess with a pair of nines. Riess was holding an ace and a king, and caught another king on the flop, when the first community cards were revealed. Newhouse went home with just the $733,224 ninth place prize all finalists were paid in July.
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 enter. 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.
Riess and Farber will sit down Tuesday with 105,000,000 and 85,675,000 in chips, and play until they settle the title, with one player losing all his chips and the other claiming the top prize and the glory that comes with joining the names of past winners, including Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and, most famously, Chris Moneymaker.
Dan Michalski contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier