LAS VEGAS -- Nine smiling but bleary-eyed finalists at the World Series of Poker have been paid more than $782,000 each for topping the main event, and sent off for a 3 -month break to prepare for the final table in Las Vegas.
And just hours after the winners from seven different countries secured places in the final early Wednesday, debate has already begun over who's playing well and who will win come November.
"I wish the final table was today. I mean, give me the sleep and not going out last night, and I wish the final table was today," said Matt Giannetti, a 26-year-old poker professional from Las Vegas who ended up third in chips going into the finale despite being on the brink of elimination with 10 players left.
"I feel like I'm super in the zone right now -- I hope I don't lose my sharpness by then," Giannetti said. "I just feel really focused right now."
Giannetti -- saved twice by pocket jacks after the no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament reached 10 players Tuesday night -- said the feeling of making the final table is surreal, even for a live-game cash player who routinely travels the country to play in the most profitable games possible.
"When you first get into poker, this is what you want the most," he said. "You see this as so wildly unattainable and then when you're so close to it, it's just really an incredible feeling."
In poker, large sums of money getting thrown around is routine -- even the $10,000 buy-in for the main event isn't much of a dent in the bankrolls for many professional players. But the $8.71 million top prize, along with million-dollar-plus scores for each of the top eight finishers on poker's biggest stage, makes it all but certain that the 109-day break won't be a vacation for the finalists.
Martin Staszko of the Czech Republic leads the finalists in chips and was considered the betting favorite to win the $8.71 million title, with the Wynn Las Vegas casino taking bets on the 35-year-old professional at 3-1 odds to win.
"I still don't believe that I am here," Staszko said. "I have more chips so I might be a little bit favored but I think the opponents are great."
But Ben Lamb, a 26-year-old Las Vegas pro who's been on a bigger run this series than any other player, said he'll gladly take himself at 6-1 odds given his experience.
"If I get in there and play like a donkey, I'm going to get more crap for it than maybe some of the other players," Lamb said. "That's not to say not everyone's good, because everyone at this final table is a great poker player. Everyone's got a different style, but everyone's good at poker."
Lamb, who ran well for most of the final session before doubling up Giannetti's chips, said it's tough to anticipate how each player might prepare for the final table.
"When we get there, I feel like everyone's going to have a completely different mentality. They're going to have four months to think about how they're going to play and how they're going to play against every other player," he said. "They're going to have plans, and they might get there and not be able to stick to their plans because they're going to realize they're still playing for $8 million."
The $782,115 payments on Wednesday are the equivalent of ninth place money. When the finalists play in November, they'll be playing for the difference between that prize and their finish, with the first player eliminated winning nothing more.
The final table was set after 23-year-old John Hewitt of Costa Rica busted out in 10th place, losing with pocket threes to Eoghan O'Dea's broadway straight. O'Dea, of Dublin, Ireland, had a king-jack, and caught an ace on the turn to complete his hand.
"I think at the end, it was a little bit of relief," said O'Dea, the 26-year-old son of an Irish poker player who made two main event final tables and won a bracelet at the series in 1998.
Hewitt lost the bulk of his chips minutes before his ouster after calling an all-in wager from 49-year-old Badih Bounahra of Belize with an unsuited king-queen. Bounahra had pocket kings, which doubled him to nearly 19 million in chips.
The blunder -- Hewitt was likely at best a less than 50-50 shot to win the hand given Bounahra's tight play at the time -- put Hewitt extremely low on chips and opened him up significantly to attacks from other players with mediocre hands.
Besides Staszko, Giannetti, Lamb, O'Dea and Bounahra, the finalists include Pius Heinz of Germany, Anton Makiievskyi of the Ukraine, Sam Holden of Great Britain and Phil Collins of Las Vegas.
Collins, 26, who is named after but not related to the "Genesis" frontman, was rooted on by a large cheering section that included friends singing the opening lines of the musician's 1980s hit, "In the Air Tonight." Collins said the final table is a culmination of several years of trying to make it as a poker player and prove he's among today's card playing elite. He said that after winning the final table seat, he went home with his wife and watched ESPN2 coverage, reliving the moment -- but also picking up tips to use against his opponents.
"I was doing a little work," Collins said.