LAS VEGAS (AP) – Only seven players remained at the frenzied final table of the World Series of Poker’s main event, each hoping to win the grandest prize in the game – $7.5 million accompanied by unrivaled poker fame.

Friday’s final group of nine emerged from a field of 5,619 gamblers. They had survived eight days of mind-numbing poker, overcoming unlucky cards, bad beats and Darth Vaderesque stares. When the first cards were dealt Friday at Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, each player was capable of taking poker’s most coveted bracelet – if he was willing to make some of the toughest calls of his life.

As law student Brad Kondracki was eliminated, Aaron Kanter of Elk Grove, Calif., had $11.1 million, followed by Tex Barch ($10.4 million) and chip leader Andrew Black ($13 million). Filling out the rest of the table: Steven Dannenmann ($5.3 million); Joseph Hachem ($6.5 million); Daniel Bergsdorf ($3.2 million) and Scott Lazar ($6.4 million).Every man who began the day at the table was guaranteed at least $1 million when the 36th annual no-limit Texas Hold em tournament ends sometime into the night.

Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, the most well-known and, in some circles, the most hated professional player, had been considered a favorite.

But on the second hand, Matusow lost more than half of his stack after Lazar called his all-in. Lazar doubled up, beating Matusow’s king-high flush with an ace-high flush. Matusow, who finished sixth in the main event in 2001 and 87th last year, was stunned by the outcome. Still he maintained his composure and avoided one of his infamous meltdowns.

Shortly after, Matusow couldn’t withstand a better hand and was the first finalist to leave the table. Dannenmann caught a straight to top Matusow’s pocket 10s, relegating one of the tournament’s favorites to ninth place.

“I played the six best days of poker in my life,” Matusow said. “I’m going to bed happy.”

Kondracki finished eighth.

Kanter is another dangerous poker pro who busted out six players, including Phil Ivey in the penultimate round. He also crippled Greg “Fossilman” Raymer, the 2004 champ, who was knocked out later and finished 25th. Barch, though, might be the bravest of the survivors. Facing elimination shortly before round six concluded, Barch mustered some Texas-sized courage and called Black after he went all-in. He beat Black’s king-jack with pocket jacks.

Barch won the $10 million pot, the biggest of the tournament, allowing him to build an intimidating stack of chips and secure second place at the final table. The modest Barch left spectators and the other players in awe with his bold call.

“I figured I had the best hand,” Barch said calmly. “I was just sweating taking a bad beat. You gotta make the call.”

AP-ES-07-15-05 2245EDT

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