LAS VEGAS -- One of the great things that distinguishes poker tournaments from other sports is a recreational player can pony up the entry fee and sit down right next to a professional.
Thousands of amateurs flock to the World Series of Poker Main Event every year viewing this element of the game as a perk. Sure, they're playing for the multi-million-dollar prizes. But they're also in it for the experience, and part of that is the opportunity to say they played with (and hopefully beat) the best in the game.
But when these home game heroes actually sit down with the pros, reality sets in fast. They've risked $10,000 of their cold, hard cash, and they're getting bullied by guys with gold bracelets on their wrists.
David Dixon, an amateur playing his second Main Event, showed up for Day 2A on Tuesday only to find reigning champion Ryan Riess at his table.
"I thought, 'Oh, crap,'" said Dixon, a Las Vegas transplant by way of West Virginia. "It wasn't a fun thought, seeing how he plays, knowing he's a very aggressive and intelligent player. He's a talented poker player who never gives you easy decisions, and that's not fun."
Dixon said his strategy against Riess was to keep the pot small until he was sure he was ahead, playing only premium starting hands. At one point, the amateur and the world champ were all-in preflop -- and they both turned over pocket Kings.
"That was nerve-wracking, because I had no idea what he would have," Dixon said.
Twenty yards away from Riess's table in the Amazon Room at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, 2013 Main Event runner-up Jay Farber was holding court as one of the chip leaders at his table. And caught right in the middle of it was Brian Elzer, a Cincinnati native who, like many amateurs at the WSOP, earned his trip to Las Vegas by winning his local poker league.
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011. Follow him on Twitter @danpodheiser.