Welcome back to the Rio

LAS VEGAS -- The Amazon room was mostly empty as I entered it Tuesday at noon. The banners, the black drapes, the tables and lights were all there, ready for the throngs, but the place was mostly empty of humanity save for a skeleton crew of staffers and a handful of players who were waiting to play the first cash game of the 2009 World Series of Poker. With seats open.

Never one to miss out on historic opportunities, I grabbed a chair as Irishman Mark Davis suggested everyone celebrate the occasion with blind shoves. Never one to gamble that faithfully, I decided I'd look at my hand before making any decisions. As I picked up my pocket eights, the player to his left declared he was going all-in without so much as looking at his cards. Davis promised his stack to the pot also without so much as a glimpse, so I did what any prudent player would do; waited for the action to fold to me and made the call to see Jh-7h from Davis and 9c-4d from the blind raiser.

Fantasy Poker

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Welcome to the World Series of Poker.

Where else in the world do corporation, player, pro, amateur, skill, luck, gamble and gamesmanship converge so beautifully as this? The 40th anniversary of the event promises more of the same and more of the unexpected, with promises of new grandeur and near-infinite storylines to keep we fanatics enthralled. Really, for a poker player, there's nothing better than this.

No one could have predicted Jamie Gold or Jerry Yang or Peter Eastgate before their respective arrivals. To suggest that we know how this year's 57 tournaments will play out and who will emerge the winners and losers would be foolish, but we can certainly dwell on the stories we know to follow now so we might watch as they develop, with so many more still to come. Here's a look at what we'll be helping you look for as the summer unfolds;

The 40th: WSOP has elected to celebrate its 40th anniversary in style, with special tournaments commemorating the milestone. You'll hear more about them in a moment, but rest assured it will be an ongoing theme throughout the summer.

The November Nine: After the November Nine's phenomenal success in the ratings a year ago, it's back with a few tweaks and a lot more acceptance. Once again, the main event will postpone for almost four months after reaching nine players July 15, giving the survivors the opportunity to capitalize on their fifteen weeks of fame.

The Economic Crisis: After a solid rise in attendance a year ago, the WSOP brand had to feel good about the way things were trending until the world plunged into economic hardship late in 2008. Questions about how that will affect this year's numbers in the world's richest competition will be answered only on game day.

The $40,000: No tournament will be more closely watched than Thursday's $40,000 buy-in no-limit hold 'em event. This will be the first no-limit hold 'em WSOP event to exceed the buy-in of the main event, and there are many who feel this tournament was a massive mistake. Whether it's because it may serve to somewhat invalidate the main event or because it could end up running some participants out of money in the first week of the series, many onlookers are worried about the effects this monster. On the positive side, perhaps the strongest no-limit field in history will be playing with more at stake than ever before.

The Legends: A rare few players have had the honor of winning the main event of the WSOP, and that select group will be honored in an invitation-only WSOP Champions Invitational. While it has already (unofficially) been made clear that 1994 champion Russ Hamilton will not be welcome, questions persist about others with dubious pasts, including 1990 winner Mansour Matloubi.

The Race: Phil Hellmuth has 11 bracelets. Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan have 10 apiece. Erik Seidel, after his win in 2007, is tied with Johnny Moss with eight WSOP wins. As a result, any strong showing by any of the above (save Moss) will be admired and discussed with anticipation.

The Player of the Year Candidates: His year has included three major victories, a third-place finish at the WPT Champs and a third-place finish at the National Heads-Up Championship, so Bertrand "Elky" Grospellier will be considered by many the favorite to take player of the year honors this time around. High 2008 finishers Erick Lindgren, Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein look to be strong contenders again in 2009.

The Hellmuth Rule: "I guess it would be fair to call it that," Phil Hellmuth said of the recently announced changes to WSOP's standard procedures where rules infractions and penalties are involved. For the first time, all offenses will be recorded by WSOP staff in order to better punish those who commit them multiple times.

The Hall of Fame: What used to be an invisible process has been revamped, with the public involved in the electoral process. Top candidates include Mike Sexton, Erik Seidel, Barry Greenstein, Jesus Ferguson and Dan Harrington, but it will ultimately be you, the people, who decide who achieves poker's greatest honor. (Editor's note: Go here to place your vote.)

The $4 million, baby: Scotty Nguyen went on the record saying he'll quit poker if he doesn't win $4 million at this year's WSOP. That total was reached by only three men last year: Peter Eastgate, Ivan Demidov and Dennis Phillips, the top three finishers in the main event. It says here Scotty won't make the money and won't quit the game.

The Rookies and Bracelet Virgins: Sorry folks, for the details on these, you'll have to check back here tomorrow.

Oh, the hand? I was good on the flop, but Davis turned a jack to take the main pot. A blank on the river gave me the side pot. Welcome back to the World Series of Poker.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to espn.com. You can hear more of his poker musings on The Poker Beat at Poker Road.