LAS VEGAS (AP) – The nine players reaching the final table at the World Series of Poker main event can bet on one thing: They’re taking home at least $1 million.

But at least five former champions won’t be around for the final table on Friday after being knocked out of the event.

The winner of the 36th annual tournament, which started Thursday, will win $7.5 million, a big increase from last year’s $5 million, which was double what 2003 champion Chris Moneymaker made.

“The big surprise is the final table,” tournament director Johnny Grooms said Saturday. “Only three to four years ago it was a big deal for a tournament to guarantee a $1 million first place.”

The first person knocked out in the final table of the no-limit Texas Hold’em event will receive a $1 million consolation prize.

The main event began Thursday at the Rio hotel-casino with a record 5,619 players, more than double the 2,576 participants in 2004 and almost seven times the then-record 839 players who entered in 2003.

Carlos Mortensen, the 2001 World Series of Poker champ, busted out on Thursday, as did 1987-88 winner Johnny Chan. Chris Ferguson, who won in 2000, was knocked out Friday, followed by 1989 champ Phil Hellmuth and 71-year-old Doyle Brunson, the 1976-77 winner, on Saturday. Other top players such as Daniel Negreanu, Annie Duke and T.J. Cloutier have also exited.

Greg Raymer, the 2004 champion, made it past the first cut and held $39,525 in chips. Sam Fahra, who finished second to Moneymaker in 2003, also advanced with a $156,600 chips count.

Moneymaker also advances, but will be short stacked with $7,575 in chips when the second round starts Sunday.

The total prize pool is $52.8 million, minus the house cut of $3.37 million. According to tournament officials, 560 players will finish in the money. Second place will collect $4.25 million; third $2.5 million; fourth $2 million; fifth $1.75 million; sixth $1.5 million; seventh $1.3 million; and eighth $1.15 million.

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AP-ES-07-09-05 2200EDT

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