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Best of Vin Narayanan

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Second-largest WSOP provides grand stage for Griffin, Wells and Azinger

7 July 2008

LAS VEGAS -- Day 1D at the World Series of Poker Main Event was one for the record books. A group of 2,461 players took to the felt Sunday, swelling the Main Event field size to 6,844. Only the 2006 Main Event, with 8,773 players, had a larger field. This year's champion will win $9,119,517 and the total Main Event prize pool is $64,333,600.

"Considering the economy and gas prices and all of those things, we're very happy to beat last year's number (6,358) by about 500," said WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel. "Our goal all along has been to make this year's World Series of Poker the biggest and best in the history of the event and we're well on our way."

The tournament will pay 666 places, with $21,230 going to the player finishing 666th.

The announcement of the prize pool and first-place money generated buzz and excitement throughout the Amazon Room at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. But it paled in comparison to events earlier in the afternoon.

room

More than 2,400 people played on Day 1D of the WSOP Main Event. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

When cards hit the air Sunday afternoon, Phil Ivey, Chris Ferguson, Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Paul Azinger, Annie Duke, Shannon Elizabeth, Howard Lederer, Antonio Esfandiari and Jen Tilly were among the dozens of well-known players trying to win a bracelet. But for most of the fans, the only person in the room that counted was Forest Griffin.

On Saturday night, Griffin upset light heavyweight UFC champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson with a unanimous decision in a five-round fight. And on Sunday afternoon, Griffin, still sporting a black eye and raw face from the fight, was sitting at table "Blue 40," just insides the ropes, and just feet from the fans stacked five-deep in the aisle trying to catch a glimpse of their new hero.

Seated at Griffin's table was another big fan of the newly minted UFC champ -- Johnny Chan. And the two-time Main Event champion made it no secret that he was an unabashed Griffin fan.

Griffin

New UFC champion Forest Griffin is still sporting the bruises from his fight. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

"I was there last night," Chan told Griffin. "The way you took Jackson down was amazing."

As the crowd and the TV cameras swarmed Griffin, an All-In Energy representative slipped in and placed a patch on Griffin's shirt.

Griffin told Casino City that he had never played in a tournament before. "I've played in basements for beers and nickels, but that's about it."

And his inexperience at the table showed. Griffin played in just about every hand. Once, he called every bet to the river without looking at his cards.

"Is that how Patrik (Antonius) coached you how to play," Chan asked with the needle out.

"No," said a smiling Griffin in response. "This is a new style of play."

Midway through Griffin's day, the UFC champ rivered a full house, and Chan rushed over to congratulate the fighter and pose for a picture.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, playing at a nearby table, wandered over to checkout the commotion. He spent a minute watching Griffin play before returning to his seat.

Chan

Johnny Chan and Forest Griffin mug for the camera. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

A few minutes later, a WSOP supervisor stopped by the table to tell Griffin he had outlasted MMA legend Chuck Liddell.

"If you had a last-longer bet with him, you won," the official said.

Jeffrey Dewitt, one of the players at the table, asked Griffin for his autograph. But the pen he handed the fighter didn't work. So he dug up a working pen, sent the paper back to Griffin, and the champion signed it for him.

"I don't know how you do this," Griffin told the players at the table. "I can't imagine playing for a week."

"You have something inside of you that I just don't have," Griffin said after he continued to get involved in pot after pot.

"You have something inside of you that we don't have," joked another player.

Griffin's day came to an end when Chan eliminated him, and the entire table stood to shake his hand.

"You're the best," shouted the fans behind the table. "You're the champion," bellowed others.

Griffin was escorted to a side exit away from the fans. Before he left, he posed for one more picture with a WSOP official, and then disappeared in the hallways of the Rio -- another poker player eliminated from the Main Event.

While Griffin was basking in the glow of his fans and a new crown, another sports great, David "Boomer" Wells, was getting his first taste of poker at the game's highest level.

The two-time World Series champion pitcher, looking noticeably slimmer, had a bit of a chaotic start to his day. The paperwork for his entry wasn't in order, so he wasn't sure where he was sitting. And when asked whether the new slimmed-down look meant he was attempting a baseball comeback, Wells answered with an emphatic "No!"

Wells

Even though he was eliminated, David Wells said he was pleased with his play. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

"I want to win another kind of World Series," he said laughing.

The WSOP staff placed Wells at table "Blue 26" -- a table that quickly became a favorite of the dealers.

The gregarious Wells didn't hesitate to share his feeling or thoughts at the table. And the cast of characters he was playing with loved it.

"How are you doing?" Wells was asked by a reporter. "Just chillin'," Wells responded. "Hanging like a sack of nuts."

After finding out that Liddell and Griffin had been eliminated, the pitcher laughed.

"It looks like all sports guys are going to be done. My turn might be coming soon," he said as checked into possible tee times on his cell phone.

Wells' turn did come, but it didn't come soon. The big pitcher pushed a couple of times to pick up some chips. But he didn't when any big pots in those hands.

"Sack up," he told the players when he pushed all in, trying to get some action. "Roll the nuts," he said, referring to the pair of plastic peanuts Ronald French was using as card protector.

But he wasn't finding any takers, and a cold deck was clearly frustrating him.

"These flops are killing me," Wells lamented.

Wells did have plenty of fun at the expense of the ESPN cameras. The camera crews had been hovering over the table when it looked like Wells was ready to bust out of the WSOP. But as he picked up chips to get out of the danger zone, the camera crews wandered away to cover other tables.

In the course of a few dozen hands after the camera crews had left the table, Wells went all-in four or five times. And each time, he shouted "I'm all-in. Where are the cameras! Hurry. Hurry."

When a camera man came running in through the side doors, Wells joked "Where were you? On break?"

The camera man sheepishly acknowledged he was on break, and the table broke out into laughter.

Bobby

"Jolly" Bobby sent David Wells packing and kept the table entertained. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

Wells' nemesis at the table was rotund comedian Bobby Egidi. "Jolly" Bobby kept the table, and Wells laughing, while taking some of his chips.

The self-proclaimed "sit-down" comic told the table the reason he was so large was so he could have room to smuggle in drugs in his stomach.

Egidi was also generous with his food at the table. He shared his pickled-flavored Pringles with the entire table, and the reporter watching it.

In Wells' final hand, the pitcher bet big into Egidi. Egidi thought about it for a moment, and then asked "Should I rush the mound, David?"

Wells laughed. "Nobody ever rushed the mound on me," Wells said. "But I'll go all in if you do."

Egidi thought about it for a second and then moved all in. Wells called, lost the hand and was eliminated.

"You watch these guys on TV you get the 'jones' to play," Wells told Casino City after his elimination.

"You see them play and you watch them walk out, and you realize you don't want to be one of those guys walking out. But I can't complain."

Wells said he would be back next year before leaving the Amazon Room through one of the side exits.

The fun didn't end at "Blue 26" when Wells exited the tournament. A new player arrived at the table, and raised Egidi's bet. Egidi asked the new player to take his sunglasses off.

"I need to get a read on you," Egidi said.

"They're prescription glasses," his opponent said.

"You mean to tell me you can't see me without those glasses," Egidi demanded. "The TV cameras have to back up to get me in the picture," Egidi said as the table started laughing. "They just keep going back and back and back."

Egidi's opponent chuckled and said he could see him without the glasses, but he still refused to take them off. And Egidi decided to fold.

While Griffin and Wells were struggling, and Egidi was cracking up his table Azinger was holding his own.

Azinger flopped quad kings early in the day, and sent home an opponent who was betting into him. "I checked like champion in that hand," Azinger told the table when reminded of that hand later in the day.

Azinger's competitive side showed up when he folded pocket fours, and the flop came out 4-5-5. Azinger got up from the table in disgust and told friends that he had folded pocket fours and returned to the table to tell one of the players at the table he had folded pockets fours. Even after winning the next hand, Azinger was still talking to the table about the pocket fours he folded.

Azinger

Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger made it to Day 2. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

Checking in on Azinger's progress on regular basis was Sam Minutello. Minutello, who was featured-table announcer for Harrah's in 2006, recently decided to try and take some time to become a professional player. Minutello has been helping Azinger with his poker game. And Azinger has been helping has Minutello with his golf swing. And for Minutello, the work has been paying off.

"I hit my first hole in one last week," Minutello said. "I've announced final tables and been on TV, but the hole in one was the most gratifying feeling I've ever had."

"He's (Azinger) played well today," Minutello added. "He's made some nice lay downs."

Azinger's love of poker showed throughout the day. In addition to walking over to Griffin's table, he turned his head to check out the action at other nearby tables whenever someone moved all in. And he reveled in talking poker strategy with different players.

Azinger continued to play well throughout to day, but a "bad luck" omen dropped into his lap, and he started to lose chips.

Azinger's luck took a hit when one of his buddies was knocked out of the Main Event. He dropped his "raccoon" good luck charm off with Azinger. The charm, which requires stroking for luck, brought more bad luck than good, and Azinger's stack began to decline.

Late in the night, Azinger rallied to get back to about 21,000 chips. Without about 20 seconds left in the day, Azinger had some fun with the table.

"Let me see, how long should I take to make this decision," Azinger said. Then Azinger took his hand, put it to his face and pushed his head in the direction of a tournament clock. "How about 20 seconds."

Azinger's table busted out in laughter as the golfer waited out the clock. Then safely into Day 2, he folded his hand and looked to get some sleep prior to his 6 a.m. tee time.

Overheard
Annie Duke discussing Humberto Brenes' shark routine with a fellow player: "If I ever sit at the same table as him, I'm going to take that shark and shove it somewhere. It's such a horrible breach of etiquette. I've been seated near his table, but never at it."

After last year's champion Jerry Yang lost a sizable pot early in the day, a new dealer arrived at the table. Jerry asked Lewis the dealer for some good cards. "I'll give you two cards. What you do with them is up to you," Lewis said.

"I need a miracle," Yang responded.

"All you need is a chip and a chair," Lewis said. And he was right. Yang rebounded to build a decent sized stack of chips.

Notable elimination's: Phil Ivey, Andy Bloch, Annie Duke, Jennifer Tilly, Layne Flack, Cyndy Violette, Michael Mizrachi, Todd Brunson, Dario Minieri, Karina Jett, Chris Ferguson, John Phan, Maria Ho, Doyle Brunson and Vinny Vinh.

Second-largest WSOP provides grand stage for Griffin, Wells and Azinger is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.