LAS VEGAS (AP) – Amateurs, seasoned pros and celebrities sat down together Friday as the chips were divvied up and the cards dealt for the World Series of Poker.

By 2:30 p.m., there were 8,580 entrants registered for the world’s biggest poker game, pushing the top prize to $11.7 million.

Alternates were waiting in the wings and new players were being accepted until Monday, when the grand prize could swell even larger.

At the very least, the last 12 players still standing when the 37th annual no-limit Texas Hold em tournament wraps up will win at least $1 million. The final table is scheduled to begin play Aug. 10.

“Everybody’s got dreams and aspirations but you’ve got to get through a lot of people here,” said Greg Severson, a 45-year-old building contractor from Upland, Calif., who qualified for his $10,000 seat online.

“One step at a time,” he said. “First break, dinner break, first day. One day at a time.”

By the break after the first two hours, about 80 players already had been eliminated. The first field of 2,140 players was set to play as long as it takes to get down to 1,000. A staggered start over four days will chop the field in half by Tuesday.

Celebrities such as “Spiderman” star Tobey Maguire, Mekhi Phifer from “ER,” James Garner of “The Rockford Files” and boxer Antonio Tarver ponied up to the felt for $10,000 each. Poker pros Gus Hansen, Eli Elezra, Michael Mizrachi, Barry Greenstein and Juan Carlos Mortensen also took to the tables Friday.

Thirty-three days of poker have led up to the main event at the Rio hotel-casino. In earlier rounds, 21-year-old University of California, Santa Barbara student Jeff Madsen became a millionaire, and pro Phil Hellmuth Jr. won his 10th bracelet, tying the record with poker greats Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson and Johnny Chan.

James McManus, a poker player who became famous when Harper’s magazine assigned him to cover the World Series in 2000 and he ended up placing fifth for $247,760, said on Day 1 of the main event, he’s already “kind of pooped.”

“I’ve been here since June 26th,” McManus said. “If I advance, it’ll be seven weeks. It, at least for me, answers the question, How much is too much poker?”‘

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AP-ES-07-28-06 2119EDT

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