LAS VEGAS — Each summer, actors and athletes who are stars in their own right compete alongside professional gamblers and wannabes for the world’s biggest poker prize.
This week, sitcom star Ray Romano and comedian Kevin Pollak are among the glitterati donning caps and ear buds at the World Series of Poker at the Rio hotel-casino off the Las Vegas Strip.
The $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold ‘em main event started Saturday and runs through July 15, when the field will be cut to a final nine. Play then pauses until November, when competition at the final table airs live on ESPN.
Entries are slightly down this year, with 6,352 players from 83 nations anteing up. The winner takes home $8.4 million and a gold-diamond-drenched bracelet — the Super Bowl ring of gambling.
Players trickled in Tuesday for the 44th annual main event dressed in tracksuits and T-shirts, sporting baseball caps and looking bleary-eyed in the oppressive afternoon sun.
Inside, they played in silence at closely clustered tables, where game-day cologne scented the air (women constitute about 5 percent of entrants). Hundreds of stacks of clicking chips sounded like locusts.
Wearing a black cap, Romano chatted with eight-time bracelet winner Eric Seidel about his days at the Comedy Cellar and his upcoming shows at the Mirage casino as a steady stream of chips flowed from around the table into the professional’s stacks.
The comic said he was learning from Seidel’s patient style, and hoping to stay in the game for as long as possible.
“When I want to do something that I suck at but I’m obsessed with, it’s golf for 11 months out of the year. So I like to switch it up,” he said. “Believe me, when I bust out, it’s as devastating to me as everyone else,” he said.
The tournament comes a decade after a 27-year-old amateur with the fortuitous name Chris Moneymaker claimed the grand prize. On Monday, World Series of Poker officials presented Moneymaker with a bronze bust commemorating the moment in 2003 when he bluffed the best players in the world.
After that, every poker player with a pair of mirrored sunglasses thought they could take on the pros, and the popularity of the annual marathon event exploded.
Professionals quickly point out that novices can pose a bigger danger than expected because they play unpredictably, and there is little room in the live tournament to learn their style.
Steve Lillenhaug, 43, was hoping his relatively untested style of play helps him face down poker legend Doyle Brunson, who showed up Tuesday wearing a blue button down shirt and his signature white cowboy hat.
Lillenhaug, who has been playing poker for five years, downed two screwdrivers at the hotel bar as soon as he heard he would be playing at the same table as the 79-year-old master.
“I’m probably the most nervous person you’ve ever seen,” Lillenhaug said in a flat Minnesota accent. “But then again, he’s just another guy with chips and cards and a seat. Win or lose, it will be a great story.”
Poker’s popularity began to fade a bit in 2007 when the federal government started cracking down on the semi-legal world of online wagers.
Now, thanks to a new interpretation of federal law, online poker is returning state by state, starting in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware.
The World Series of Poker brand is getting in on the action with its own real money website that could debut before the conclusion of the main event.
Celebrities continue to flock to the poker marathon in the desert, albeit in smaller numbers, and their presence is a boon to marketers and sponsors.
But an early exit can beg the question of whether they are just here for fun and a quick TV sound bite or willing to grind it out through hours of play.
“Seinfeld” actor Jason Alexander busted out early, as did actress Jennifer Tilly, of “Liar Liar” fame, Mixed Martial Arts champion Georges St. Pierre, “Everybody Loves Raymond” star Brad Garrett and actor James Wood.
Among those still in the hunt Tuesday afternoon besides Romano and Pollak were Norwegian snowboarder Torstein Horgmo, NHL goaltender Roberto Luongo, FC Barcelona soccer player Gerard Pique and cricket star Shane Warne.
Most high-level professionals also remained in the game, including defending champion Greg Merson, previous winner Jonathan Duhamel of Canada, and poker personalities Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey, sometimes called the Tiger Woods of poker.
Amateur Larry Kagan, 25, clutched a baseball cap signed by several of the professionals as he made his way past massage chairs set up around the tournament area.
“I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it,” he said of his proximity to the greats. “It’s awe-stirring.”
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier.