LAS VEGAS -- James Alexander was having a blast.
The San Antonio bar owner, who garnered extensive TV time on his journey to 13th place in the 2013 World Series of Poker Main Event, kicked off his 2014 tournament Monday on Day 1C.
But Alexander wasn't seated in the Amazon Room at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Nor was he in the Brasilia Room or the massive Pavilion. Alexander found himself at one of the 14 nine-handed tables just outside Buzio's, a seafood restaurant located next to the Rio's main casino floor.
"We're gonna play craps, (and) a little blackjack in between hands," Alexander said with a chuckle as he smoked a cigarette just outside the rail next to his table. He was clearly enjoying the Buzio’s experience.
Irish poker pro Rory Brennan liked the tables outside of Buzio’s for a different reason.
"It feels like it's a totally separate tournament, which is kind of good because it doesn't feel daunting -- like you have to get through 7,000 players," said Brennan, who is playing in his third Main Event. "You kind of feel like you're playing in a private casino here."
Days 1A and 1B of the 2014 Main Event saw a total of 2,915 players pony up $10,000 for a chance at a $10 million guaranteed first prize. But Day 1C more than doubled the field on its own, as 3,768 new players entered poker's signature annual tournament.
And despite the Rio's massive convention space, there was simply not enough room to accommodate every single entrant. So the tournament spilled over to the casino.
The atmosphere outside Buzio's is a stark contrast from where the majority of the Main Event is played. Players don't have access to Wi-Fi Internet like they do in convention rooms. Cigarette smoking is barred from the designated World Series of Poker area of the Rio, which begins just North of Buzio's. But because the restaurant is located on the casino floor, smoking is allowed just outside the roped area, and second-hand smoke and its smell and are clearly present at the tables.
Check out our photo gallery on Facebook for pictures from Day 1C.
The lighting on the casino floor is also not ideal for poker. While some of the 14 tables received adequate light, others had entire sections clouded by darkness.
"The lighting is bad," said two-time bracelet winner Jennifer Harman, who spent the beginning of Day 1C outside Buzio's. "It's not that great in [the other rooms] either, but out here, it's hard to see the suits of your cards, so I give away tells trying to figure out what I have."
And perhaps more noticeable than the logistical differences is the difference in the complete experience, especially for a World Series newcomer.
"It kinda sucks," said Chris Price, playing in his first Main Event. "When we saw our room draw, I was like, really? I have to play out here? Come on. It's noisy, there are people who smoke in the hallway; you've got tons of distractions."
Harman, a World Series veteran, wasn't going to let a change of scenery faze her. But she did sympathize with the idea of a first-time player losing out on the full Main Event experience.
"It's also the atmosphere and the energy," Harman said. "When you walk into the Pavilion you get that; everybody playing poker and hundreds of tables and things like that ... that's what this tournament is about. It's about the energy, and people are so excited. And watching all these people walk into the room playing cards is a pretty cool experience."
Still, some players view the lack of space in the convention rooms -- or rather, the excess of players -- as a boon for the overall poker landscape. Vanessa Rousso, who appreciated that her Buzio's table also placed her right by Starbucks, noted that the $10 million guaranteed first-place prize likely caused more players to enter this year.
"For me, that's the whole benefit," said Rousso, a top pro playing her ninth Main Event. "You don't get that without large fields, and with large fields come space issues. The fact that we're stretching [the Rio's] ability to accommodate us is actually a great thing for the poker world, in my opinion."
And while some viewed the Buzio's seating as a distraction, other players didn't seem to mind. Aditya Sushant, playing his first Main Event, said he wasn't too happy when he first found out his table placement. But when he realized he was close to the restrooms and was able to smoke cigarettes 10 feet from his table, his mood changed.
"This is my first time playing the Main, so I guess this is what it feels like to play the Main," Sushant said. "But I'm hoping I get to play in the Amazon next -- that's my favorite room of them all."
Shortly after the fifth level began at 10:45 p.m., the tables on the casino floor broke and the remaining players were scattered among the three main rooms. Those who had survived Buzio's were now among the herds.
And though only 10 percent of players will cash in this year's Main Event, only a small, select portion will be able to say that they played the most prominent poker tournament in the world across from a tank of fresh lobsters.
"It still feels like the Main, because you look forward to the Main all year," Alexander said, smoking another cigarette. "It's just funny as hell."
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.