The anticipation built as noon approached in Las Vegas. The biggest moment of the poker calendar was rapidly approaching and all eyes were on defending champion Greg Merson as he delivered poker's most famous words -- "Shuffle up and deal!" -- from the center of the Amazon Room to kick off the 2013 World Series of Poker main event. The $10,000 no-limit hold 'em tournament is the game's defining event, and the winner will walk away with at least $8 million and the title of world champion.
Day 1A featured many familiar faces to those who follow the game, and as a result, many tough tables were formed, creating an unexpected dynamic. It seemed that the amateurs were few and far between while Mike Sexton, Mike Matusow, Matt Glantz and other pros joined Merson on Saturday in a small but elite field. Merson thrived early on Day 1A and navigated through a table that included J.J. Liu with ease over the 10 hours of play. He finished the day with 81,600 in chips and is one step closer to making the money once again.
"I was able to open a bunch and take advantage of my table that was playing pretty tight," said Merson. "I feel like people were playing pretty timid against me today."
While his opponents may have been timid, the fans around the Rio were anything but as Merson was approached time after time for photos, handshakes, autographs and the occasional hug.
"Today was the most outrageous thing of my life. I was like a movie star. So weird," said Merson. "I just rolled in with my boys and I figured it was a normal day, walking in with them. I've been coming over here a bit over the past few weeks and it's been nothing like that. ... There was no way that I could ever imagine it would be like that."
Joe Cada and Pius Heinz were the other former world champions in the field on Saturday. Cada finished with 26,000, but he felt that even though he had a tough time, his day was a success since he's moving on.
"The day was a nightmare," said Cada. "But like Willy Wonka, we've got a ticket."
Heinz fell victim to an unfortunate river card and was sent home during the fourth level of play.
Significant eliminations were few and far between on Day 1A, but a few of the celebrities in the field were among them. Jason Alexander had played in the main event in each of the past seven years and although he's never cashed, he also never busted as early as he did on Saturday. "The Sopranos" star Robert Iler finished 275th in 2011, but was denied a repeat appearance in the money this year with a Level 5 elimination. Mike McDonald, Gavin Smith, Lee Childs, 2013 bracelet winner Dana Castaneda, T.J. Cloutier and former November Niners Chino Rheem and Soi Nguyen were also eliminated on Day 1A. Actor Kevin Pollak had an above-average starting stack for most of the day, but finished with 16,000. He finished 134th last year.
The room was a bit quiet throughout the day and most of the talk at night was dominated with discussion of the turnout. The 943 players from Day 1A is down from last year (1,066), but the WSOP staff still remains optimistic it'll see a 7,000-player event. The satellite rooms were packed all day, and while that's a great sign, there haven't been any lines to register, and that's equally a bad sign for those looking for growth.
A total of 584 players advanced to Day 2A. Here's a look at the official chip leaders:
1. Evan Panesis (190,975)
2. Nick Crisp (184,075)
3. Abdulaziz Almashal (180,575)
4. Sergio Castelluccio (175,825)
5. Michael Wehner (170,325)
6. Jason Manger (158,150)
7. Yucel Eminoglu (147,425)
8. Gal Erlichman (146,875)
9. Jonathan Lane (137,075)
10. Scott Wesley (137,075)
All surviving players will return for Day 2 on Tuesday. While both survivors from Day 1A and Day 1B will return on Tuesday, the fields will play in separate rooms.
Small blinds: The highlight of the day came during the final level, when a five-way all-in hand erupted. The hand featured Q-Q (the winner), J-J, A-K, A-10 and ... wait for it ... 4-3. ... Chamath Palihapitiya had his struggles early on during the day, and when he got back to the starting stack, he stood up and celebrated. The Amazon Room reacted with a small laugh, but really it seemed many players were annoyed. Yup, the good old days of poker and fun on Day 1 are gone for good. ... Paul Pierce busted out of the pot-limit Omaha event on Saturday. Many expect him to play the main event as well. ... The main event bracelet is valued at $500,000. ... Phil Ivey is expected to play on Day 1B.