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Battle of the titans!

May 20, 2003 4:31 AM

The World Series of Poker began its final and most prestigious event on Monday, the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold ’em World Championship.

More than 700 poker players were signed up to compete for the WSOP gold bracelet, $2 million in cash and the coveted crown as world champion.

The championship event will play through Friday at Binion’s Horseshoe, host of the 34th annual World Series. The no limit game continues until one person wins all the chips.

The prestigious poker tournament has attracted the best players from around the world. Entered on Monday were formal world champions Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Amarillo Slim Preston, T.J. Cloutier, Men "The Master" Nguyen, Chris Ferguson and Carlos Mortenson, to name a few.

But because of the tournament’s "open" format, anyone with $10,000 to enter can win it all.

Even without the $10,000, players qualified by winning smaller tournaments or "satellites," which have been held at Binion’s as well as poker rooms across the country for the past several weeks.

The story line for this year’s World Series of Poker has to be the re-emergence of the big time poker players.

In the tournaments leading up the championship event, the former world champs have thrown their weight around in winning numerous gold bracelets.

For instance, Johnny Chan captured his eighth and ninth gold bracelets for winning the $5,000 No Limit Hold ”˜em and the $5,000 Pot Limit Hold ”˜em events, respectively.

Good-naturedly known as the "Orient Express," Chan said the money and bracelet are great, but playing the game is supreme.

"I play because I enjoy the game," Chan said. "No Limit Hold ”˜em is the most skillful poker game, and that’s why I enjoy playing it the most."

Earlier in the World Series, Doyle Brunson captured his ninth gold bracelet by winning the $2,000 H.O.R.S.E. event.

Since then, the tourney has emerged as a kind of "battle of the bracelets." Brunson led everyone with nine, but Chan’s two wins put him even with "Texas Dolly."

Not far behind was Phil Hellmuth, who had seven gold bracelets to his credit before he won the $2,500 Limit Texas Hold ”˜em last week.

Hellmuth said afterward that it’s been too long since he last enjoyed a tournament victory.

"Since 2001, I haven’t had any natural feel for the game," Hellmuth said. "It’s like I lost the power or something.

"Friday, I woke up and told my wife that I had the power back!" Hellmuth continued. "I’m going to get to the final table again his year, and I’m going to make at least two final tables."

Another player to land in the winner’s circle after a considerable absence was Men "The Master" Nguyen, whose victory in the $5,000 buy-in seven-card stud event brought Nguyen his first gold bracelet since 1996.

But perhaps the biggest story of the tournament so far was Doyle Brunson’s win. For poker fans, it was like watching Jack Nicklaus win the Masters in the twilight of his career, or watching Babe Ruth hi a home run in his final at bat.

Brunson’s presence at the final table was enough to guarantee a standing-room only crowd. Brunson was making his first final table in five years.

When it was over, Brunson had cashed 23 times in the legendary tournament, with two world championships — in 1976 and 1977 — under his considerable belt. Between 1987 and 1979, Brunson made it to six final tables, and won all six!

After the game, Brunson fielded questions from reporters and fans alike. Determined to win a 10th gold bracelet, Brunson declared he "won’t retire until I stop winning."

Poker lovers hope that won’t occur any time soon.