LAS VEGAS -- Hundreds of poker players began a trek toward potential card-playing fame as the World Series of Poker main event started in Las Vegas on Thursday.
The $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold `em tournament kicked off with the first of four starting days, expected to attract thousands of players to combine for millions in prize money for the winner.
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The field already included many well-known players, including poker icons Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson, as well as 2007 champion Jerry Yang, 2004 champ Greg Raymer and "Seinfeld" actor Jason Alexander.
"World Series of Poker, day one, my journey to glory," Alexander said on Twitter before play started. "Heaven help me. Here we go."
Brunson wished players good luck as he gave the famous order to start play: "Shuffle up and deal."
The tournament comes at the end of a 58-tournament series on pace to set new highs in registrations and prize money. But even as poker's most prestigious tournament begins, it's unclear whether the main event will grow given legal turmoil affecting websites that awarded entry fees in past years.
"This past spring, many critics speculated that poker was going to fade and die, but then a funny thing happened -- you all showed up at the 2011 WSOP day after day after day," tournament director Jack Effel said in welcoming players.
"All is right in the world," he said.
Alexander said he's not sure whether the series will be affected, though he believes it's clear American players are angry about not being able to play poker online.
"It's been a boon for the card rooms, but everybody walks in with their jaws around their knees," he said. The actor is sponsored as a celebrity by PokerStars, one of several online poker operations whose executives are facing federal charges of running an Internet gambling business illegally.
The first two flights of starting players were expected to be lighter than the final two, as players in the past have tended to play later to shorten trips to Sin City by a few days. Series spokesman Seth Palansky said that over the past few years fewer than one-fifth of the entrants in the main event started during its first two days.
To win the event, players would have to make it through 10 hours of play on their starting day, then navigate seven additional marathon sessions in hopes of becoming one of nine final players. The final table, to be determined July 20, will take a four-month break before settling the title in November, allowing episodic television coverage of the tournament to catch up.
Canadian professional Jonathan Duhamel won the tournament last year, topping a field of 7,319 players to win $8.94 million.