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Playing poker at its highest stakes creates a vibrant scene

Hour after hour, the poker gladiators battled into dawn inside Benny's Bullpen at the famed Binion's Gambling Hall & Casino. One finalist wiped his eyes, looking severely fatigued. One ate a banana, another some mixed fruit. There would be no dinner break. As betting increased at "the richest sporting event ever," a $1 million raise seemed ordinary, a $5 million pot was merely intriguing. 
The constant changes in the leaderboard were unprecedented. Players went from first place to last and last to first in the course of two or three hands. 
As the final table of the World Series of Poker's Main Event progressed, a $19 million pot set a record. Minutes later, there was a $20 million pot. There were more than $56 million worth of chips in play. Then, with the harsh swiftness of a runner-runner bad beat, it was over - a new WSOP champion was crowned Saturday morning in the most unusual of ways; the winner had played one of the worst possible starting hands. The final head-to-head shuffle, played Saturday at 6:44 a.m. local time, marked the end of a 13-hour, 54-minute session - the longest final table in WSOP history. 
Steve Dannenmann, a CPA from Severn, Md., was on the button and raised $700,000; Joseph Hachem, a father of four (14, 12, 10 and 9) from Melbourne, Australia, called - egged on by a large, loud contingent of supporters who frequently shouted "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy" as they sipped their libations. The flop came six-five-four, the latter two cards diamonds. Hachem checked and Dannenmann bet $700,000. 
The chiropractor-turned-poker pro didn't mind; he raised the bet to $1.7 million, and Dannenmann called. 
After the turn produced an ace of spades, Hachem bet $2 million. Ever so slowly, Dannenmann reraised to $5 million. Hachem had hooked his man; he reraised all-in, and Dannenmann immediately called. Hachem flipped over a seven of clubs and a three of diamonds - one of the worst possible starting hands. "I was jumping out of my pants," he said, adding that he had to hope that Dannenmann improved his hand so he would bet. Allowed to limp into the flop, Hachem chose to do so, especially since he was down to playing against only one other player. 
Hachem's strategy worked perfectly, as Dannenmann hit top pair, an ace on the board and an ace in his hand with a three. "It worked out well when he hit the ace. I was set. And he was hooked," Hachem said. "I got lucky." 
Hachem had been gifted with a seven-high straight from the flop. 
Dannenmann's only hope was for a tie, with a seven on the river. But the final card was a three and Hachem's life will never be the same. 
The crowd went nuts, screaming and yelling at the sudden, surprising ending and the crowning of a new poker superstar. "Can you believe that seven-three off suit got me seven and a half million dollars?" he asked his friends. Presented with the coveted WSOP silver bracelet and the first-place cash, Hachem, whose family moved from Lebanon to Australia in 1972, said that unlike most of the record 5,619 contestants who'd won their way into the tourney through online gambling sites, "I did it the old-fashioned way: I paid $10,000 cash." 
The 39-year-old celebrity-in-waiting has been playing poker for 10 years at casinos in Melbourne, where he lives, and online. Like Dannenmann, this was his first World Series. But he is certainly no rookie when it comes to top-level poker competition. He placed 10th in a prior WSOP event, a $1,000 buy-in No Limit competition, and won $25,859. Officials said that total prize pools in all prior years combined totaled $350 million and that this year's total was $103 million. WSOP programming begins airing on ESPN later this month, but the Main Event final table action will not air until the fall. 
The field for the Main Event was so large that Round One had to be split into three day-long sessions. From there, survivors played daily, sometimes for 15 hours at a time, from last Sunday until Saturday. Looking down at the $10,000 bricks of $100 bills piled up on the green felt poker table, Hachem joked, "Is all that mine?" 
Of course it was, and he said he planned to "take care of my family. The only thing better than this is seeing my grandchildren - if and when I have them." He said that while he will probably play more international tournaments, he's not about to start traveling the world playing poker full-time. "Family's a big thing to me," he said. "I'm not going to be away from my family for too long."


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