The music, familiar to every ear, rose up from unseen speakers. The driving "Eye of the Tiger" pulsed across the Rio Casino floor as the World Series of Poker's version of Bruce Buffer placed his mouth to the microphone.
"This is the weigh in," bellowed Nolan Dalla, "of the World Series of Poker Main Event!"
The Rio Hotel and Casino is an active place. There is rarely a five-minute period in which there is not a giant Carnival float sailing through the air, beads rocketing from all heights, and dancer-tainers performing on small stages. This, however, was unlike anything the casino patrons had ever seen.
"What are they doing?" asked a lady sitting at the slot machines.
"The are giving away the million dollars to the poker guy," her husband said.
No one took the time to explain, there was not one guy and that the money still at stake equals nearly $15 million. There wasn't time, because Dalla's voice was rising up above the music.
"Only one player will achieve immortality!" he said.
And then from the rafters, one at a time, walked PokerStars Million Dollar men Ivan Demidov and Peter Eastgate. At 22-years-old, Eastgate has a chance to become the youngest World Series Main Event winner ever. Demidov, the 27-year-old man from Moscow, drew his inspiration from Team PokerStars Pro Alexander Kravchenko's World Series performance last year. Five months ago, they were unknowns even in their own country. Before they return home, they will be national heroes, not to mention millions of dollars richer.
Dalla, as much a veteran of these battles as anyone in the room, put it best. "In a sense, their dreams have already come true," he said. Indeed, they have. Early this morning, the two men realized how rich they were and how much work they still had to do, as they got heads-up for the 2008 World Series bracelet.
Today, with "Eye of the Tiger" blasting behind them, the two men engaged in an afternoon virtual weigh-in. Instead of pounds, the men measured their stacks, 57.7 million for Demidov to Eastgate's 79.5 million. It wasn't Ali/Frazer, but it was as close as poker can get. Camera flashes popped, video crews rolled, and casino gamblers stopped their action to watch the spectacle on stage.
Eastgate and Demidov played their roles, mugging for the camera and grabbing for the championship bracelet stacked on a pile of cash.
"Wait until tonight," Dalla scolded with a smile.
Standing before the world media, the two remaining players took questions from Dalla and answering in their native language. The foreign-tongue responses drew chuckles from the crowd, a softball for Dalla. "This truly is the World Series of Poker," he noted.
Though both Eastgate and Demidov were happy to serve and bask in the preliminary limelight, a giant responsibility hung over them. In less than 12 hours, they would be sitting down to play for the historic title. Both men wanted to be resting. They knew the fight was not going to be easy.
Later, Demidov admitted, going into the November 9, he believed "Peter is the best player at the table."
Eastgate joked, "I thought Ivan was the easiest," but then conceded, "It's going to be tough and I'm going to try to adjust."
Demidov has been doing some preparation all his own. Even before arriving, the Russian had his eye on a heads-up fight. "I have practiced my heads-up game on the internet," he said.
The pomp and circumstance finished, the men headed off to find some quiet time before stepping into the ring tonight. They know how important it is. No Russian or Dane has ever won the World Series of Poker Main Event. Tonight, one of the two will.
Already millionaires, both men seem to have agreed, they aren't necessarily playing for the additional $4 million for first place. Eastgate, seemingly wise beyond his 22 years, summed it up in just a few words. It is a familiar refrain, but one that rings true every time.
"It's not about the money," Eastgate said. "It's about the bracelet."
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