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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

A well-earned break

16 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- If Dennis Phillips had his way, he would have retreated to his hotel room early Tuesday morning and caught a few hours of sleep. The 53-year-old commercial trucking company manager would have then got up, put on a clean shirt, returned to the Rio and sat back down in his seat behind a growing stack of tournament chips at the World Series of Poker's final table.

Instead, Phillips is heading home to St. Louis. The tournament's current chip leader has about four months to contemplate his next hand.

The World Series of Poker's main event, the $10,000 buy-in no limit Texas Hold'em World Championship, cut the initial field of 6,844 to nine players early Tuesday morning after six rounds of competition, including some 131/2 hours Monday and Tuesday, which included a 90-minute dinner break and several 20-minute rests. The 10th competitor busted out shortly before 3:30 a.m.

Now, the nine finalists, a collection of mostly unknown amateur poker players and little-known professionals, will return to their respective lives until the second week of November, when the eventual champion claims a $9.12 million payday.

Until that time, the players -- five Americans, two Canadians, a Russian and a Dane -- are free to cut deals with prospective sponsors and promote themselves. The can also better their poker skills by engaging a coach, studying their play as it is televised over the summer and fall by ESPN, and play in some additional low-level poker tournaments and events.

The nine players will be promoted extensively over the coming months by Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the World Series of Poker. The gaming company changed the format for the main event's final table earlier this year so ESPN can televise the results in a two-hour prime time special on a same-day taped coverage basis. The champion will be determined in the early morning hours of Nov. 11.

ESPN is also planning to air a one-hour special on the nine final table participants on Nov. 4.

In other words, the final nine won't be unknown for long and their bank accounts could be a bit fuller.

"This year, all nine players who made the final table will become household names, and are guaranteed life-changing prize money to go with their fame and place in poker history," said World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack.

Poker insiders said the players near the top of the chip count might earn endorsement deals that, combined, could entail a six-figure payday. Internet gambling sites, energy drinks and other gambling related products are already lining up to find space on the players' clothing, which could amount to some valuable hours on cable television.

But the question is will the four-month hiatus disrupt any kind of rhythm in the competitors' play? Most of the remaining players questioned early Tuesday morning said they would have preferred to continue on as the tournament had in the past, with a day off followed by the final table.

"I'll evaluate my play, but I think I'm just going to find a hammock, a beach and a good bottle of tequila," said Ylon Schwartz, 38, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is currently fifth in the chip count. He has the most World Series of Poker experience of any of the final table competitors, with 11 event cashes since 2005.

"Sure, I would have liked get back at it, but that's the format," Schwartz said.

Phillips, who has almost 26.3 million tournament chips, would have also liked to keep the play going.

"I'm hyped up, I'm on a roll and I'm ready to go," Phillips said. "I would love to get back out there today, but I understand the format. Everybody is talking about getting coaches, but I've never had one. I think I'll just sit and watch the (ESPN coverage) and memorize every play. There are some pretty good players left in the field."

Phillips, who is the oldest player remaining, may also be the least experienced. He's been playing poker for four years and earned his way into the main event by winning a $200 buy-in satellite tournament at Harrah's casino in St. Louis.

He entered the event's sixth day of play Monday as chip leader. By early Tuesday morning he was still on top after an up-and-down ride that saw him sink no lower than fifth in the chip standings.

The St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap Phillips wore during the tournament was adorned with autographs from some of the game's biggest names. His newfound fame may allow him to add his own signature to the hat. On a break early Tuesday morning, he was stopped by some of the crowd watching the play inside the Rio and was asked to pose for pictures.

Phillips, who was already wearing endorsement logos from several sponsors, including Internet gambling sites, said he hadn't thought yet about other potential lucrative endorsement possibilities.

"It's just amazing to make it to the final table," Phillips said.

Craig Marquis, a 23-year-old college student from Arlington, Texas, does have his eye on the future. He was one of the few players willing to take a risk during the nearly three hours it took to bust out the 10th player. Twice he either called or went all-in with 10th place finisher Dan Hamrick of East Lansing, Mich., finally busting him out with a pair of queens.

He's trailing Phillips by about $16 million in chips. Still, Marquis is excited about the earnings potential over the next four months.

"Everybody was scared about not making the final table," Marquis said. "I was willing to take some risks. I'll do some things that will make me a better player. This is just such a tremendous opportunity. I don't mind the time off. I might be able to better my game."

The difference between payouts for the final table and 10th place was dramatic. Hamrick won $591,869 for his effort. Ninth place will pay $900,670 while all other finishers will win more than $1 million, in addition to the potential endorsement opportunities.

Kelly Kim of Whitter, Calif., entered the round of 10 players at 12:30 a.m. in 10th position with 4.3 million tournament chips. He will enter the final table extremely short-stacked, $2.6 million and trailing his nearest competition by almost 8 million tournament chips.

During the three hours of 10-handed poker, Kim protected his dwindling stack of chips, playing just two hands. He went all-in twice without being called, once with a pair of jacks and the other time with a ace-king off-suit.

Still, he's happy to be part of the final table and the hoopla that it will entail.

"My goal was to finish ninth, and I can't believe I'm still alive to play another day," Kim said. "I'm a realist. Based on the chip count, things don't look good, but I'm just happy to be part of the final table."

A well-earned break is republished from