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Arnold M. Knightly

She holds all the cards

8 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Lori Jensen's name will not ring out with even the most hard-core of poker aficionados, but she has used the professional poker circuit to pay her way through school and travel the country.

Jensen has sat at the same table with champions, hopefuls and characters -- but as a dealer, not a player.

Jensen's story is just one among the 158 stories of white-shirted, black-vested dealers in the Amazon ballroom preparing themselves for the first wave of players vying for the millions and prestige that accompany being champion of the main event.

Jensen, who began dealing in 2000 while at University of California, Los Angeles, is one of an unknown number of dealers who travel tournament-to-tournament to earn steady cash in between school and life.

She has traveled to tournaments in Mississippi, Missouri and her hometown of Reno over the years.

"It's just convenient to do tournaments in between school," she said.

Entertainer Wayne Newton kicked off the main event at noon by leading the packed ballroom through a version of "Viva Las Vegas," accompanied by the UNLV Marching Band.

"Shuffle up and deal," hollered Newton, who was flanked by tournament officials and showgirls, to begin play.

Players from Thursday's round, which was scheduled to run until approximately 1 a.m. today, will return Tuesday to continue play.

More than 1,000 players started out Thursday, among them comedian Ray Romano, actors Jason Alexander and Makhi Phifer and poker pros Scotty Nguyen, Barry Greenstein and Dan Harrington.

The rest of the opening round will be held through Sunday, when the number of players and this year's prize package will be finalized.

The first phase of the main event will run through July 14, when the final table of nine players will be determined.

In a new, made-for-TV and publicity hype twist, those nine players will return Nov. 9, when the field will be cut to two players.

The final two will return the next day to decide the champion in a final game.

A two-hour prime-time special will run on ESPN Nov. 11.

Last year's main event drew 6,358 players who competed for a prize pool of $59.8 million.

Jerry Yang of Temecula, Calif., won the world championship last year and collected $8.25 million.

Prize pools are funded by player entry fees. Series owner Harrah's Entertainment collects a percentage of the entry fees, depending upon the size of the buy-in.

For $10,000 buy-in events, Harrah's takes 6 percent.

Players from a record 104 countries have played in this year's series of 55 events, which kicked off May 30.

So far, this year's event has set at least one record.

Moscow-based Nikolay Evdakov extended his record Sunday of cashes in a single year to 10 by placing 28th in the $10,000 buy-in Omaha event.

The previous record was eight cashes set by four players in 2006 and 2007.

Evdakov has earned $228,527 this year, finishing as high as 12th in a single event.

To earn money, players must finish in the top 10 percent in a tournament.

While Jensen's day at her fourth main event was just beginning, Fort Worth, Texas, resident Barry Clancy's dreams of poker greatness came to an abrupt end about 30 minutes after play began. His pair of aces -- the best starting hand in Texas hold 'em -- was beaten by Rocco Lazazzaro and his jacks when a third jack came on the river, the final card of the hand.

"Total luck, bro, total luck," said Lazazzaro, 50, of Las Vegas. "No master pokermanship here, right?"

The 54-year-old Clancy, who was the first player eliminated Thursday, apparently made a hasty exit from the ballroom while tournament officials and television sponsor ESPN searched for the player.

Harrah's Entertainment purchased the World Series of Poker in 2004 from the Binion family, moving the event in 2005 to the Rio, away from the tournament's original home at Binion's in downtown Las Vegas.

Jensen said the tournament has changed a lot over the years since Harrah's took ownership, with more opportunities to work around the country.

However, she seemed resigned on Thursday that she will deal her final hand by the middle of July.

"This is probably my last tournament, anywhere," she said.