MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - By the time this story is read, one lucky and skillful poker player will have walked away with around $1 million at the World Poker Tour Foxwoods Poker Classic.
The popular annual event ran from March 24 to April 9. On the last day of play, the World Poker Tour taped the final table of the tournament, with the winning hand televised later to a growing number of poker aficionados.
Last year;s prize pool was more than $7.9 million, and the winner took home $1.3 million.
Foxwoods was a charter member of the World Poker Tour in 2002 and has hosted some of the largest events in the tour's history. Two years ago, Foxwoods and the World Poker Tour inaugurated the Foxwoods Poker Classic, formerly called the New England Classic, and created a new space that was officially branded as a World Poker Tour room.
The smokefree room includes 114 tables with state-of-the-art technology aimed at enhancing the player's experience, including LED table components, automatic card shufflers and an advanced seating system.
The tournament spilled over into a second room with another 38 tables, said Michael Ward, who has been the poker tournament director at Foxwoods since 1996.
This year's tournament included 13 series of events, leading up to the $10,000 championship event with the million-dollar-plus win.
The tournament attracts huge participation. Players come from all over the country and the world to play. Many of the patrons are Foxwoods regulars; others - the professionals who play poker for a living - follow the tournament to each casino, hoping to play the ultimate World Poker Tour World Championship.
''We'll probably end up having around 6,000 entries all together,'' Ward said.
The first event - a $300 No-limit Hold 'Em Shootout tournament - attracted 1,390 entrants to generate a prize pool of $350,558. The winner reaped $75,000.
The second event was a $600 Seven-Card Stud event that attracted 192 players. The winner walked off with $22,152 of the $98,707 prize pool.
The third tournament - a $600 No-Limit Hold 'Em event - attracted 938 entrants, who generated a prize pool of $492,226. The winner took $115,797.
The day Ward spoke to Indian Country Today - April 4 - was the first day of the final championship event, and the excitement was running high.
''The whole event is very exciting. Most of the employees just enjoy this time of the year when we have this really big influx of people. The rooms are extra busy and people are winning big money. We get a lot of the big name players, especially for the $10,000 game, so it's exciting.''
Among the familiar faces this year were John Juanda, Will ''The Thrill'' Failla, Paul Spitzberg, Kathy Liebert, Young Phan, Vincent Procopio, Erick Lindgren, Nam Le, Alan Goehring, Barry Greenstein and Paul Matteo.
The $10,000 championship began with 367 poker players. The game continued through April 9, with the championship prize of around $1 million plus a $25,000 seat at the World Poker Tournament.
Players can win their way into the $10,000 championship for as little as $65 through satellite events called Act 1, 2 and 3.
''It's a progressive-type tournament where you keep winning more and more and eventually you're in the $10,000 event. We have lots of people who do that - 100-plus will qualify throughout the Act system, winning a $10,000 seat for $65, $250 or $1,100,'' Ward said, adding that it's extremely gratifying to see those winners.
''Most of the wins have been in the life-changing realm. If a working-class guy making $35,000 - $40,000 a year all of sudden wins a $140,000 - $150,000 windfall, it's a pretty exciting thing for him - and for us.''
Those kinds of wins happen frequently during the World Poker Tour Foxwoods Classic because the prize bowls are big.
''The great thing about poker is that any skill level of player can actually end up winning. I don't have to be the most skilful guy playing even with our big $10,000 event. Just because the big pros are coming doesn't mean at all that they're going to be the people who end up taking down the big prize. It could be anybody.''
Luck is definitely a factor in the game, he said.
''It's all about the cards you get dealt. If you don't get some good cards, it's a little hard to win. A good player can win pots with just about any two cards depending on who he's playing against. That's where the pros have the edge - they know how to bet and raise and get people off of their hands and make you think they have a good card when really they don't. The amateur player isn't quite that good so he needs the luck of a good hand in order to play well.''
And, being around poker games on the job, does Ward play poker?
''Yes, I do. I enjoy playing the game. And, yes, I consider myself to be a winning player,'' he said.
But not winning enough to quit his day job?
''Exactly!'' he said, laughing. ''I have four children, responsibilities - that takes precedent.''