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Jul 8, 2008 7:05 PM

By David Stratton | The World Series of Poker’s Main Event kicked off this past weekend, and although the number of entrants failed to set a new mark, WSOP officials were basking in the glory of a record-setting tournament.

"This has been an incredible season and we’re not done yet," said Jeffrey Pollack, WSOP commissioner. "So far, players from 56 countries, every state in the U.S. and every Canadian province have cashed at this year’s WSOP. When all is said and done, we’re going to award more prize money to more players than at any other point in our illustrious 39-year history."

For the entire 55 event tournament, there were more than 60,000 registrations, easily surpassing last year’s mark of 54,288 registrations. And the total prize pool grew to over $179,000,000, eclipsing last year’s mark of $159,796,000.

The $10,000 buy-in championship event, which was broken into four "first days" this past weekend, attracted 6,844 players, up slightly from last year’s total of 6,358. The 8,773 players who anted up in 2006 remain the all-time, main event record.

Even though this year’s tournament attracted more players, several factors may have contributed to keeping the main event from growing exponentially. First, the slumping economy may have deterred the number of players willing to spring for the $10,000 buy-in.

Also, beginning last year, online poker rooms are no longer able to award seats directly into the championship event. Instead, they award WSOP packages – usually worth about $12,000 each – directly to players, who are responsible for registering on their own. It’s not inconceivable that many players simply kept the money, rather than risk it for a shot at millions.

Finally, the WSOP this year changed its format so that the final table of nine players won’t be contested until November. When the change was announced two months ago, many poker players grumbled that delaying the final table for four months was akin to playing the first three quarters of the Super Bowl on Feb. 1, then playing the final quarter on the Fourth of July.

Nonetheless, this year’s main event winner won’t walk away lacking. First place will pay a whopping $9.1 million, with all final table players becoming instant millionaires.

The nine finalists, who will be decided on July 14, will receive ninth place money – about $1 million – to tide them over until they resume on Sunday, Nov. 9.

For now, the players who survived the first round of action – about 62 percent of the total – will resume play on Tuesday, July 8. The field will continue to pare itself down on a daily basis, until the final table is determined next Monday.

The opening round action provided some interesting and eyebrow-raising moments. Several former champions made early exits, including Bobby "the Owl" Baldwin (1978), Tom McEvoy (1983), Berry Johnston (1986), Dan Harrington (1995), Greg Raymer (2004) and Jamie Gold (2006).

Former champ Huck Seed (1996) had the dubious distinction of being the fastest bust-out of any former winner when he hit the rail after just 17 minutes.

Previous champions who survived the first round include Jerry Yang, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Carlos Mortensen, Scotty Nguyen, Brad Daugherty, Chris Moneymaker, Joe Hachem and Robert Varkonyi.

That’s not to say it was easy sailing. Hachem, a crowd-favorite from Australia, was nearly all-in with a pair of 10s against an opponent who had flopped a set (three of a kind) of 8s. With his tournament life hanging in the balance, Hachem spiked a 10 on the river to take the pot and keep his tourney hopes alive.

Other notable players who made the cut include Robert "The Grinder" Mizrachi, Erick Lindgren – who was awarded the all-around Player of the Tournament award – Hoyt Corkins, Sammy Farha, John Juanda, and GT poker columnist Joe Awada.

Of the approximately 125 femme fatales still in the running for a first-ever female Main Event winner, the most notable are Evelyn Ng, Clonie Gowan, Isabelle Mercier, Liz Lieu, Jennifer Harman, Shannon Elizabeth and Kathy Liebert.

This year’s Main Event also attracted several celebrities. Actor Jason Alexander took a bad beat and busted out when his pocket aces were cracked by an opponent’s straight, and baseball great and Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser suffered a tough beat early and played a short stack until finally busting out.

Ray Romano, however, who has played in the Main Event for two straight years, survived the first round and, when asked what he liked about playing poker, he responded with a his patented deadpan expression, "You bond with people at your table."

Perhaps that’s why "Everybody Loves Raymond."