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Howard Stutz

Different paths to survival

16 July 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Paul Spitzberg and Billy Baxter were a stark contrast in both style and experience Friday at the World Series of Poker.

Spitzberg, a retired executive from Tenafly, N.J., was playing in his first tournament. Baxter, a Las Vegas resident and longtime fixture in the city's poker rooms and sportsbooks, has been playing in the World Series of Poker since 1975. He owns seven gold-and-diamond bracelets for winning events at the annual tournament.

As the field was whittled down in the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold'em world championship event, the animated Spitzberg and the quiet Baxter both found ways to stay alive, hoping to reach Tuesday's final table of nine players.

Spitzberg admitted that he was playing close to 80 percent of the hands dealt, sitting one seat away from an equally talkative Scotty Nguyen, the 1998 world poker champion. Spitzberg beat Nguyen for several large pots and by the early afternoon, he had added about $200,000 in tournament chips to his starting stack of $629,000.

"I owed Scotty that. He beat me bad a couple of times," said Spitzberg, obviously enjoying his moment in the spotlight.

The somewhat subdued Baxter entered Friday's play with just over $100,000 in tournament chips. By midafternoon, however, he had more than quadrupled his total.

No matter how Friday ended, both men will finish in the money. Play began Friday with 337 players from the original field of 6,358. The payouts began at 621st place. When the champion is crowned between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the winner will collect $8.25 million.

Spitzberg, normally a cash game player, never expected to last so long in the tournament. His success caused him to change his plane flight home, originally scheduled for Thursday.

"I think I can handle that," Spitzberg told World Series of Poker public relations director Nolan Dalla, when asked if changing the plane ticket came with a cost.

Normally, Spitzberg financially sponsors players in the World Series' main event, paying a portion of their entry fee.

"I just retired, so I have the time play," Spitzberg said. "This time, I decided to sponsor myself. I've been playing poker for more than 50 years. I'm having fun."

Baxter, sitting at a separate table from Spitzberg, played in the World Series when the entire field didn't equal the number of players who began Friday's round. He said if the federal law that effectively ended Internet poker is ever repealed, the World Series could see a field of more than 20,000 players.

For Baxter, his showing so far in the main event is his best since 2001, when he finished 37th.

"The game is really different and television also had a big role in that change," Baxter said. "I'm normally a lowball player, so I'm happy with my game."

While Baxter has never won a world poker championship, four former champions had survived through Friday evening: Berry Johnston (1986), Huck Seed (1996), Nguyen and Robert Varkonyi (2002).

"Spiderman" star Tobey Maguire survived play through day three of the event, but was eliminated about an hour into Friday's competition. He lost most of his chips when his pocket kings were beaten by pocket aces and was eliminated a short time later.

A blind player remained in the field Friday.

Las Vegan Hal Lubarsky, who has a degenerative eye disease that caused him to lose most of his eyesight except for blurred colors, found himself at one of the featured tables during the afternoon. Lubarsky uses a reader, a person who sits behind him at the table and whispers the hole cards into his ear. Afterward, all table decisions are dictated by Lubarsky.

Lubarsky said he can make out about two different colors of chips, and places his own bets, but needs help separating out chips when he wins. Even without the stare-down, Lubarsky said he can figure out what other players are holding.

"My whole 25-year career, I never really worried about tells," he said. "I've just learned how they play, what hands they play, what bets they make and how they play the hand."

He was eliminated late Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.