LAS VEGAS -- The winner at the World Series of Poker main event this year will get $8.71 million, slightly less than last year but more than many players and industry followers expected given recent legal problems for online cardrooms.
Series officials said Sunday night that 6,865 players -- 6.2 percent fewer than last year -- entered the no-limit Texas Hold `em tournament between Thursday and Sunday, generating a $64.5 million total prize pool. Each entry costs $10,000.
The top 693 finishers will win at least $19,000, while each of the top eight finishers are guaranteed at least a seven-figure payout.
Ty Stewart, executive director of the series, said he was "ecstatic" with the turnout even as the summer began without a clear sense about whether players with significant holdings online would choose -- or be able to -- play.
"Let's hope that once and for all, people stop underestimating poker," Stewart told The Associated Press. "It's a beautiful game."
Stewart said that there were certainly players with bankrolls affected by online sites, but many still found ways to make it to Sin City.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," Stewart told The Associated Press. "Players were going to bring any bankroll they had to Las Vegas."
A group of 2,809 players entered the tournament in Las Vegas on Sunday -- the final day entrants could register for a shot at glory in poker's most prestigious card event.
Tournament officials opened new tables on the tournament floor that went unused during each of the first three starting days, and kept registration open through the first four hours of play. Throughout the day, players asked anyone they could about where the final number would fall, speculating that it might hit 7,000.
Cheers rang through the tournament rooms when Tournament Director Jack Effel announced the final numbers.
Last year's winner, Canadian professional Jonathan Duhamel, beat 7,318 opponents for $8.94 million, while 2009 winner Joe Cada bested 6,493 opponents for $8.55 million. Only the main events last year and in 2006 topped this year's tournament in terms of entrants. Peter Eastgate won $9.1 million in 2008 even though he faced fewer opponents than Duhamel, but tournament officials have since flattened the payout structure to spread out the prize pool.
Mike Sexton, a World Poker Tour commentator and professional player who has won one tournament at the series and cashed for more than $1 million since 1984, said many players were expecting well below 6,000 players.
"Most guys I know were betting over 5,200, 5,400, 5,600 or betting under that number. Those were the over and under numbers in the games that I played in that everybody was expecting for the main event," Sexton told the AP. "It's certainly surpassed that and all the guys that have bet over have won."
The series held smaller, last-minute tournaments to qualify entrants for the main event, hoping to help plug a void filled in past years by online operators -- unconnected to the series itself -- who awarded thousands of $10,000 entry fees online.
The series, owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., stopped letting outside companies buy players in several years ago, after a 2006 law made it illegal to offer Americans real-money gambling on Internet poker. The law went largely unenforced until this year, when federal indictments unsealed in April accused people associated with Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Absolute Poker of bank fraud, money laundering and other crimes.
Prosecutors froze the sites to Americans, and said company officials funneled money for online poker through shell websites to disguise what the payments were for and trick banks into processing them.
The indictments caused widespread uncertainty in the poker world, with many -- including series officials -- questioning whether players would be able to access funds kept online to enter the series or build up enough money to enter through smaller tournaments and cash games.
On Sunday, the series passed its four-year average of 6,753 entrants to the main event. The series also established a new record with 75,672 total entries for the entire 58-tournament series, which started in May.
Stewart said he thinks the series still has lots of room to grow, and plans to significantly increase its capacity next year.
Sexton said the entries in the main event showed that poker is still growing, despite the lack of a place for Americans to play online.
"It shows you these people really putting up the money and coming in to play. Poker is growing -- it's expanding," Sexton said. "Obviously this is the mecca event that everybody wants to play in, and you see the turnout we're having here."
After two hours of play on Sunday, Sexton was up roughly 1,000 chips from his starting stack of 30,000.
A long list of players who began the tournament on its final starting flight included a who's who of big poker names, including professionals Tom Dwan, Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, John Juanda, Huck Seed and Vanessa Rousso. "American Pie" actress and poker player Shannon Elizabeth also played, along with rapper Nelly.
Dwan was eliminated less than 90 minutes into play, when he found himself with two pairs against an ace-high flush.
"Out of the main," the 24-year-old high-stakes player known as "durrrr" said on Twitter. "Such a frustrating WSOP."
"You probably have the same trouble I do. It's impossible to pick up a pot because you get called every time," poker legend Doyle Brunson responded on Twitter. Brunson was eliminated on the tournament's first day on Thursday.
At the start of play, notable absences included Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, three professionals sponsored by Full Tilt who have been fixtures at the series for years. Neither Ivey, Lederer nor Ferguson were named in the complaint, but all would have likely faced questions about the company from players at the tournament.
While the full extent of their roles with Full Tilt have not been publicly disclosed, players have at times expressed anger, sadness and confusion over some $150 million in player deposits that have not been refunded since the indictments. Full Tilt also had its gambling license suspended by casino regulators in the British Channel Islands -- stopping all real-money play at the site around the world. A hearing on the suspension is set for later this month.
Ivey pledged to not play as the series started, saying he was angry with how Full Tilt, his sponsor, had treated players. He also sued to be let out of his sponsorship agreement, saying he was in the prime of his poker career and wanted to be able to pursue opportunities.
PokerStars executives still face indictments in the United States, but the operator says it has paid back at least $120 million to players.