A college student, six poker professionals and two white-collar card hobbyists are back in Las Vegas and set to settle a World Series of Poker main event prize worth $8.53 million to the winner.
Seven players will earn seven-figure paydays at the no-limit Texas Hold 'em final table that runs Monday and Tuesday nights, with the loser settling for just the nearly $755,000 paid to all nine finalists in July.
But only one will win the top prize — the money, a $150,000 gold championship bracelet and the glory that comes with joining the names of past winners, including Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and Chris Moneymaker.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players, whittling down to the final nine through seven sessions spread over 11 days at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
The finalists include 21-year-old Jake Balsiger, an Arizona State senior looking to become the youngest main event champion ever, 44-year-old Michael Esposito, a commodities broker from Seaford, N.Y., and Russell Thomas, a 24-year-old insurance actuary who's helping Aetna adjust to new regulations passed under President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul.
The chip leader heading into the final table is 24-year-old poker professional Jesse Sylvia, who will begin the final table with 43.9 million in chips, just over 22 percent of the chips in play.
But chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament, and win all the chips at the table to be crowned champion.
Play stopped in July after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The other finalists are all poker professionals: 33-year-old Jeremy Ausmus of Las Vegas, 57-year-old Steve Gee of Sacramento, Calif., 24-year-old Greg Merson of Laurel, Md., 27-year-old Robert Salaburu of San Antonio, Texas, and 30-year-old Andras Koroknai of Debrecen, Hungary.
The finalists will play Monday night until only three players remain, then the three top finishers will settle the title on Tuesday.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/oskargarcia .