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2,576 enter finals

May 25, 2004 6:43 AM

The World Series of Poker’s championship event, the $10,000 No Limit Hold ”˜em finals, kicked off Saturday with a staggering 2,576 contestants, more than triple last year’s 839 players.

Because of the record number of players, half the field began play on Saturday and half on Sunday.

By Monday, the field was cut in half and by the end of play on Wednesday, there will be just 36 players remaining.

On Thursday, the remaining four tables (nine players at each) will be cut to one, and the final table competition will begin at noon on Friday.

Because the prize pool is worth $24,214,400, the overall champion will take home $5 million, double the amount won by last year’s champ.

Moreover, the top five finishers will receive at least $1 million, and cash awards in excess of $10,000 will be paid through 225th place.

Virtually every big time poker player and former champion were in the field when play begun. They include Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, Scotty Nguyen, Erik Seidel, Maureen Feduniak and "Amarillo Slim" Preston.

As of press time Monday, a few former champs had already been eliminated — Phil Ivey, Humberto Brenes, Antonio Esfandiari, Mike Sexton, Daniel Negreanu, Men "The Master" Nguyen, T.J. Cloutier, Sammy Farha and last year’s champion, Chris Moneymaker.

The world championship event is the 33rd and final event in the 35th World Series of Poker held at Binion’s Horseshoe.

The number of players who competed in earlier events, about 12,400 of them, also set records for number of entries and total prize money generated, about $42 million.

"The response has been astounding," said Howard Greenbaum, a WSOP tournament executive. "All of the top players from around the globe are here and more rising stars are arriving every day. There’s no question the 35th annual World Series of Poker will be the greatest poker event ever organized."

The unprecedented interest in poker has been fueled in part by television coverage, such as the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, and celebrity poker events on ESPN and Fox.

In addition, the explosion of poker on the Internet has generated a legion of players who can hone their skills while playing online, without the need for every entering a card room or casino.

About one-fourth of the nearly 2,600 contestants in the championship event won their seats in an online event. One site, pokerstars.com, sent more than 300 players to the event.

This was the first year the WSOP was hosted by Harrah’s Entertainment, which bought the rights to the tournament earlier this year.

But it will probably be the last time the WSOP will be hosted by Binion’s. Last Friday, Harrah’s officials said the tournament will be moved to the Rio hotel next year, with only the final round of the championship event held at the Horseshoe.