Early this morning (by poker standards), the first quarter of the estimated 8,532 entrants began streaming into the Rio Casino, ready to take on the poker world and emerge as the next Big Thing. By the time noon rolled around and James "Maverick" Garner joined Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack at the microphone for the traditional "Shuffle up and deal!" the Amazon Room and its surroundings had turned into a bona-fide circus.
Crowds jammed the hallways mingling with scantily-clad promotional girls and harried-looking tournament staff. Former Main Event winners Joseph Hachem and Greg Raymer were both on hand, even though neither man was scheduled to start today. Their presence leant encouragement and a license to dream to the masses that streamed by, clutching their entry tickets and trying to quell the knots in their stomachs.
A massive line formed outside the poker room even as play was getting underway. These were the "alternates" - a rumored 500-person-strong contingent of players who would take the seats of those eliminated in the first few hours of play. Until the alternates took their seats, organizers allowed no spectators into the Amazon Room, and so it wasn't until one- or two-o'clock that spouses, family members and friends were able to see their loved ones living the dream.
And what a dream! Everywhere one looked players who had won their seats through online satellites or promotional tournaments rubbed shoulders with poker professionals like Clonie Gowen, Andrew Black, and Andy Bloch, and with movie stars like Tobey Maguire, Norm MacDonald, and Mekhi Phifer. In every corner of the room, drama played out as bets were called, hands were folded, and chips were raked, with every single $25 chip bringing its bearer that much closer to greatness.
At 7 p.m. the organizers announced a dinner break, and the 1,600 who'd managed to stick around that long flooded the halls again, able to let the tension dissipate for an hour or so and to revel in the fact that they'd survived this long, at least. Privately, though, you could catch the glimmer of belief in the eyes of everyone who streamed out of that room that they had what it takes, that this was just the first step on what would eventually be their two-week long journey into poker immortality.
If you're playing in this tournament or know someone who is, good luck. There will be 23 new millionaires minted by the time the action ends, and hopefully you and yours will be able to partake in the largest tournament prize pool ever. Who knows? Maybe in two-weeks' time we'll all be writing your name, marveling at the champion who emerged from a sea of poker stars, movie stars, and nobodies to claim the big money and poker's most sought-after bracelet.
And if you don't win? Well, at least you'll be able to say you saw Joe Sebok in a "Robin" costume.