The surest way to leave a casino with a small fortune, the saying goes, is to enter with a large one. That wasn't necessarily so last week at Binion's in Las Vegas, where a record field of 5,619 for the World Series of Poker's no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament meant that nine players left with at least a million bucks. The winner, Joseph Hachem of Melbourne, Australia, pocketed $7.5 million. "A million dollars changes my life," Hachem, 39, a former chiropractor, said after winning just after sunrise last Saturday. "It's almost too much to comprehend."
Pros like Hachem were a minority at the WSOP, which was overrun by neophytes inspired by the Internet poker boom and 2003 champion Chris Moneymaker, who had never before played a live tournament hand. "It was a thrill for me just to meet Doyle Brunson," said one novice, Shannon Sharpe of Atlanta, who won three Super Bowl rings in his previous job as an NFL tight end. "I only wish I'd had his book with me for him to autograph." Sharpe, who took up poker this year, lost on the first day.
Another recreational player, 38-year-old Steve Dannenmann, had a slightly better run. The accountant from Severn, Md.--goaded into entering after a few beers with a golf buddy, who paid half his entry fee--seemed better-suited for a barstool at Cheers than the final table at Binion's. It was common to spot Dannenmann with a Bloody Mary in his hand. Late last Friday evening he entered a Binion's men's room and announced, "I am the worst poker player who ever made it to the final table in this event."
That was a bluff. Dannenmann, behind several bullish all-in bets, stayed alive for nearly 14 hours--the longest final table ever--before falling in his sixth heads-up hand against the more-cautious Hachem, who at one point had the fewest chips of the seven players remaining. He rebuilt his stack by taking small pots and avoiding all-in showdowns until the final hand, when he went all-in behind a 7-high straight.
Dannenmann won $4.25 million for finishing second, but he has no plans to give up his day job. "What would I do all day?" he asked. "Play poker? Too boring." -- John Walters