Posted: Friday July 8, 2005 4:18PM; Updated: Saturday July 9, 2005 1:49PM
Bye, bye, Miss American Pie? Not yet. Actress Shannon Elizabeth survived the first day of play at the WSOP.
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LAS VEGAS -- About halfway down the endless hallway that snakes from the main casino of the Rio to the Brasilia Room, home of the 2005 World Series of Poker -- a stretch I will heretofore refer to as the Green Mile -- there is a 20-foot tall poster depicting the top players sponsored by Full Tilt Poker.
The poster is a black-and-white photograph. Six or seven of the players, some at twice their actual height, are walking toward the camera on a Las Vegas street. It's very Old West-y. As if to say, "Here comes the poker posse."
Leading the posse, wearing his signature black cowboy hat and black garb, is Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. With his long brown hair and beard, and his angular 6-foot-2 frame, the 2000 WSOP No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em champ cuts an imposing figure. But very early this morning -- at about 1:40 a.m. -- the real-life Jesus walked right past that poster. And he was going from the Brasilia room to the casino. Which is to say that on the first day of the 2005 WSOP, Jesus already had left the building. He had been eliminated.
The 2005 WSOP, as you've probably read, is the biggest poker tournament the world has ever seen. Two years ago, 836 people entered the main event, the $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em event. Last year, 2,576 people entered. This year, according to WSOP official Johnny Grooms, 5,661 players are taking their seats. And their beats.
While the tourney is predominantly a refuge of middle-age Caucasian males, it does have all types from all places. Thursday the field contained beauties (American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth) and beasts (6-foot-4, 350-pound Joe Stillman of Staten Island, N.Y. ... who was hardly the largest behemoth seated). There were locals as well as foreigners, such as 25-year-old Camille Sorenson from Denmark. Sorenson is about as unprepossessing-looking as a poker player can be, yet she was among the chip leaders when play wrapped up some time after 2 a.m.
"Don't be fooled," said one of her fellow players at Table 21. "Camille's the buzzsaw. We call her 'Hurricane Camille.'"
Staging the 2005 WSOP sounds like it could be an unnatural disaster for the folks at the Rio. With so many entrants in the field, the first round had to be broken up into three one-day stages. About 200 tables of players -- 10 players per table -- took their seats Thursday at noon. As one official mentioned conspiratorially to another at 9 p.m., "We need to lose two [players] a minute and we'll be outta here by 1:30." The same format repeated itself Friday and will do so Saturday until the field of 5,661 has been whittled down to about 2,000.
A useful analogy: Imagine if the Indianapolis 500 suddenly went from 33 cars to 99. And then imagine the Indy officials running the first hour of the race in three separate stages. At the end of that hour, the first 11 cars in each stage would advance, with each car's lap number being intact. Then they'd start the race from that point with the final 33 cars. That's what's happening here at the WSOP. On Sunday the three "preliminary" stages will be complete, but every player who survived will retain his or her own number of chips.
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Stillman, the aforementioned behemoth, was clad in a Magic Johnson Michigan State retro jersey. Early in the day, it was he who had a chance to take Ferguson out. "I had a King-9," says Stillman, in his early 20s, who lists his profession as poker player, "and I raised. Jesus was in the big blind and he re-raised me. I re-raised him. So he went all in."
Ferguson had a smaller chip stack, so Stillman was not risking his entire stack to stay in the hand. He stayed. "So we turn over the cards," Stillman continues, "and he's got pocket aces."
Jesus was looking more than just alright until the flop came. King-9-4. Now Stillman had two pair to Ferguson's one. The turn card, a queen, changed nothing. "I'm looking at knocking out a world champ," Stillman, who won a $225 satellite to avoid paying the $10,000 entry fee, says. "But the river comes a 4." Ferguson, aces and fours. Stillman, kings and 9. Jesus wins.
"It was the hand of the tournament so far," Stillman says.
It is until about 1:25 a.m. Ferguson, who has not amassed a sizeable chip stack all day, goes head-to-head at Table 124 with an unknown female Asian player (Kalee Tan). Jesus is holding pocket queens and after the flop comes 5-9-10, he raises. She calls. The turn comes a queen. Jesus goes all in, pushing his final $8,750 into the pot. Tan again calls.
He turns over queens. She turns over a Jack-8, which gives her a straight. The river, another 8, cannot save Jesus. Tan takes the pot. Jesus rises ... from the table as Tan, cognizant that she has just knocked out a WSOP bracelet holder, and one of poker's best-known faces, says, "I'm shaking a little bit."
Jesus is more than just all right with being knocked out of the tournament. Gracious and accommodating, he stops for interviews, signs autographs, and lays hands on all well-wishers who want to touch his garment (or just shake his hand) as he walks the green mile. "I'll be fine," he says. "I won't dwell on this. I'm going dancing (Ferguson is an accomplished ballroom dancer) right now over at the Tangerine." And with that, Jesus walks.