The final nine players of the World Series of Poker reach for the tournament bracelet held by Jack Effel, center in Las Vegas on Sunday. The players are from left, Jason Senti, Joseph Cheong, John Dolan, Jonathan Duhamel, Mike Mizrachi, Matthew Jarvis, John Racener, Filippo Candio and Soi Nguyen. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)
LAS VEGAS -- When 26-year-old poker professional Jason Senti recently got a cold, he did something he wouldn't normally do -- he planned a visit to the doctor. Given that he's in the running to win $8.94 million at the World Series of Poker Main Event, he was being extra careful.
Senti and his eight opponents have had nearly four months to think about, prepare and recover from the series in Las Vegas, where they outlasted 7,310 players in the game's richest no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament.
But two more sessions starting today await the so-called November Nine, who've waited with increasing anticipation as weekly television coverage catches up to this moment.
Eight professionals and one amateur. A well-known pro who won one bracelet in July looking to cap off an incredible series. Hundreds of thousands of hands played, hundreds more to go in front of a theater crowd at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. And the youngest final table in series history, rearing to get things restarted.
"In the few weeks leading up to the final table, everything is just a little heightened," Senti said. "I'm finding myself staying up because I'm thinking about all these scenarios."
The series will start exactly where it left off when Kansas auto dealer Brandon Stevens was eliminated in 10th place after sunrise July 18. That halted play for 112 days, ending a nutty day when the tournament field trimmed from three tables to one.
It took nearly six hours to go from 10 players to nine. Nobody wanted to budge and two players, 23-year-old Jonathan Duhamel and 24-year-old John Dolan, aggressively bet to build dominating chip stacks.
Duhamel, a Boucherville, Quebec-native who starts the final table as chip leader with 30 percent of the total chips in play, said he built up his stack by raising with mediocre hands, betting that opponents wouldn't want to gamble all their chips. He was right.
"I think they knew what I was doing but the thing is, even if they know that, they still can't risk it," Duhamel said.
Duhamel said he expects play at the final table to be far different, even though the game conditions will be exactly the same from where they left off.
"There should be a lot of action in the first hours, that's for sure," he said.
The extended play in the session leading up to the final table leaves the last nine players with an average of fewer than 49 big blinds -- minimum bets used to dictate the betting. The blinds go up every two hours, and players will start today with nearly one hour and 15 minutes left at the current minimums.
Players generally need 50 to 70 big blinds in their stack, or more, to comfortably maneuver and play hands without feeling pinched, tournament director Jack Effel said.
Effel said everyone plays with different strategies, but if they're low on chips, they can't always wait to bet until they're dealt pocket aces, the game's best starting hand.
"At this point, I'd be trying to get some chips however I can get them," he said.
Only Duhamel and Dolan have above-average chip stacks.
Senti is shortest with 7.6 million chips, 3.5 percent of the chips in play and just over 15 big blinds. Duhamel leads with just under 66 million chips and Dolan has 46.3 million.
Chips have zero monetary value -- each player already spent $10,000 to enter the tournament and the top 747 players were paid -- but they give players an indication of where they stand in the tournament. A player must lose all his chips to be eliminated or win all 219.6 million chips in play to take the title.
While the winner gets $8,944,310 and the gold bracelet, each of the top eight finishers will win at least $1.04 million. Payouts get progressively richer for higher finishers.
Also competing are 26-year-old Filippo Candio of Cagliari, Italy; 24-year-old Joseph Cheong of La Mirada, Calif.; 26-year-old Matthew Jarvis of Surrey, British Columbia; 29-year-old Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi of Miami; 37-year-old Cuong "Soi" Nguyen of Santa Ana, Calif.; and 24-year-old John Racener.
All players besides Nguyen, who manages 23 employees at a medical supply company, identify themselves as poker professionals. Mizrachi is the most famous card player, having won the $50,000 buy-in mixed game tournament that opened the series this summer for $1.56 million.
"Everybody wants to hope somebody else does the duty of hopefully busting people out," Nguyen said. "My own personal prediction is it's going to be really tight in the beginning and then once the first person busts out I think between eighth and sixth or fifth is going to go by pretty quickly."
Each player was paid ninth-place money, just under $812,000, in July. The atmosphere on Saturday -- when players will determine the two who will square off Monday night for the title -- should prove to be far different from then.
Series officials decided to make the final table opening even more of a spectacle, with each player getting his own entrance music like a prizefighter.
"It should be good for TV," Duhamel said.