Friday, June 3, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
A sign listing the World Series of Poker Main Event champions hangs inside the ballroom at the Rio, perfectly situated about 30 feet away from the table that will be used all summer for heads-up matches when the tournament’s 57 events are played down to two players.
Poker legends Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth were at the table Thursday, playing in the made-for-television World Series of Poker Grudge Match — a series of three heads-up matches revisiting past final table battles at the Main Event, epic matches that helped shape the poker landscape.
Chan couldn’t help seeing the banner during his rematch with Hellmuth, a gigantic sign that lists the 10-time bracelet winner Chan as the 1987 and ’88 Main Event champ. He could have very easily won a third straight year.
But in 1989, a 24-year-old Hellmuth won his first of a record 11 World Series bracelets by beating Chan heads up. In that match, Hellmuth’s pocket 9s held up against Chan’s suited A-7 for the title, making him the youngest Main Event champ at the time.
Chan got some small revenge Thursday, taking a chip lead early against Hellmuth in prevailing in a two-hour match — about 40 minutes longer than officials expected because Hellmuth caught cards four times on all-in bets when trailing.
On the final hand, Hellmuth went all-in with King of spades-10 of clubs and was called by Chan, who had the chip lead and pocket 8s.
The 8s held up to give Chan a small piece of redemption 22 years after the 1989 final. One supporter in Chan’s cheering section jokingly yelled, “Give him your bracelet” immediately after the match ended.
Poker has grown by leaps and bounds since the late 1980s, when Hellmuth won $755,000 for topping Chan in the Main Event. Both players are popular because of the poker boom and considered two of the sport’s best.
“I hope everyone enjoyed it. That is what it is about,” Chan said. “It doesn’t matter to me winning or losing, if everyone has a good time. We both played our hearts out at the table (for the fans).”
The mood at the table was relaxed with the players joking between and during hands. It became semi-comical as the match went back and forth, especially with Hellmuth rallying multiple times with all his chips in the pot and behind in the hand. Each player started with $890,000 in tournament chips and Chan took the lead almost immediately. He trailed briefly after Hellmuth survived his fourth all-in, but went all-in and made a straight on the river to retake the lead.
A few hands later, with the blinds up to $25,000 and $50,000, Chan finally prevailed. The event was televised live by ESPN3. Chan received a $25,000 appearance fee for winning; Hellmuth pocketed $10,000.
“It was enjoyable, but I didn’t expect it to last for more than two hours,” Chan said. “We really didn’t have much chips to play with.”
Chan was scheduled to play a single-elimination match against Erik Seidel Thursday as part of the Grudge Match event. Chan’s victory against Seidel in the 1988 Main Even final table was made popular in the poker movie “Rounders.” Additionally, Chris Moneymaker and Sammy Farha were scheduled to close the night with a best-of-three series in a rematch of their 2003 final table, when the amateur Moneymaker bested the professional Farha to help fuel the poker boom.
Carnival lasts all year at the Rio. With a float occasionally passing overhead and dropping beads while feathered dancers fire up the gamblers below, the Rio tries to keep its 120,000-square foot casino jumping with excitement. Special Brazilian mixed-drinks are also served throughout the casino. The hotel suites tend to be larger than similar priced rooms on the Strip and many offer excellent views with floor to ceiling windows.
The Rio offers some quality shows like "Penn & Teller" and "Chippendales." Many come to the Rio for the nightlife at the VooDoo Lounge, located on the 51st floor, or McFadden's Irish Pub on the casino level.
Others come for a bit relaxation at the Rio Spa or pool area and still others come to shop at the hotel's 60,000 square feet of shops. In each of these endeavors, the Rio attempts to make the experience a bit more fun and spontaneous.
The Rio also offers guests a variety of dining choices from all-American food at the All-American Bar & Grille to Gaylord India Restaurant for something a little spicier and even Carnival World Buffet for the indecisive.