LAS VEGAS – The World Series of Poker creates legends and changes lives, makes instant millionaires and megastars, pits world-class rounders against online amateurs, brings together Hollywood celebrities and red-eyed denizens of backroom games.

It’s a sport without athletics, a marathon that doesn’t move. It takes skill and luck, math and feel, and it’s captured an audience of millions of players and TV viewers of all ages.

Once the province of a small cadre of pros, poker’s most renowned affair has burgeoned into the world’s richest spectacle – some $100 million worth of games that go on for six weeks of day and night sessions.

The no-limit Texas Hold ’em main event starts today with a record number of players paying the $10,000 entry fee – between 5,000 and 6,000 are expected – and a record top prize that may approach $7.5 million for the winner of the final table that begins July 15.

Clacking chips and low chatter send a constant cicadalike hum through the 60,000 square foot convention center at Harrah’s Rio, up to 200 oblong tables going at once, 10 players at each table, the stakes in terms of money and reputation almost unfathomable. There are 450 dealers, the best in the business recruited from around the country, working three shifts round the clock.

In Texas Hold ’em, each player is dealt two cards. Five cards are dealt on the table and whichever player can make the best hand from his two cards and the five on the table wins. No limit means precisely what it sounds like – a player can risk all the money they have at any point in the game.

The aptly named Chris Moneymaker, a young accountant, emerged from anonymity and a $40 investment in a tournament on two years ago to win $2.5 million against a field of 829 players. Greg Raymer, a patent attorney with a penchant for fossils and goofy holographic sunglasses, walked away with $5 million last year when 2,576 players entered the main event.

It’s a good bet that similarly obscure players will sit at the final table this year and that one of them, rather than the many touring pros competing from around the world, will capture the largest prize in the game’s history.

Phil Ivey may be the favorite – sports books in Las Vegas list him at about 400-1 – but there are too many players and there’s too much luck involved over a relatively short span to pick anyone with much confidence.

“I could pick 20 players and, mathematically, it’s much more likely than not that none of them are at the final table,” Raymer said.

That would include Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, Howard Lederer and sister Annie Duke, Poker Hall of Famers Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan and other top players such as 2000 champ Chris Ferguson and the man he beat at the final table, T.J. Cloutier, along with young guns Daniel Negreanu and Antonio Esfandiari.

Those who have won the coveted championship bracelet are lucky and good, and for some the World Series has forever altered their lives. Moneymaker’s life has changed dramatically since he won in 2003.

He quit his job nine months after winning the World Series, then went through a divorce. “My wife didn’t marry a poker player,” he said. He fell in love with another woman and remarried. He bought a new house in Nashville, Tenn., and started two companies, Moneymaker Gaming, a chip company, and the Chan-Moneymaker Academy, a chain of poker schools with the former champion.

Now, at 29, Moneymaker says “there are days I wake up and I can’t believe what’s happened.”

The burly, 41-year-old Raymer, too, has seen his life shift in good and bad ways. He also left his day job behind to follow the poker trail, making a career out of what had been a semiprofessional passion.

“All the travel is the biggest change I feel on a daily basis,” he said. “I’m on the road 75 percent of the time, traveling from one major poker tournament to another, representing, doing appearances at various charity and corporate events. I like everything except the time away from my family. I don’t get to see my wife and 8-year-old daughter as much as I would prefer.”

On the scarier side of fame and fortune, Raymer found himself the target of an attempted robbery at gunpoint at the Bellagio in Las Vegas last December.

“They grabbed me as I was entering my room and were trying to push me in,” he said. “They had duct tape, so they were presumably going to tie me up and rob me. The way it played out, I had no choice. I couldn’t cooperate. My whole decision was what was most likely to keep me alive.”

Like a true poker champion, he considered the odds of the bad hand he’d been dealt and decided to fight back until his assailants fled. Two suspects have since been arrested and are scheduled to go on trial in September.

That incident aside, the affable Raymer has enjoyed his sudden rock star-like status, signing autographs and chatting with fans wherever he goes.

The same could happen to any of the players, even those with no serious hopes of winning, such as Bill Barnett, the 64-year-old mayor of Naples, Fla. He also qualified on, winning a $160 double shootout against 80 other players. His prize was a seat at the World Series, worth $10,000, plus $1,000 in his online account and hotel expenses for nine nights.

“It’s doubtful I’m going to make it through nine nights,” he said. “It’s just a thrill to be able to say, ‘Hey, I was there and I got to play in it and I earned my seat.’ My kids and grandkids all think it’s hysterical.”

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