Day one: Phil Hellmuth is the chip leader, Mike Matusow is close second

Caesar's Palace has accommodated many epic events over the years. From Evel Knievel's daredevil motorcycle jump over the imperial fountains back in 1968 to numerous heavyweight championship prizefights spanning four decades, Caesars Palace has long been associated with gargantuan sporting spectacles. Now, add poker to Caesars' carte du jour.

For the first time since 1990, Caesars is hosting a live poker tournament. Fifteen years after the last 'Super Bowl of Poker' concluded (historical footnote: T.J. Cloutier was the winner), tournament poker returned to Las Vegas' most urbane palatial paradise. The 2005 Tournament of Champions (TOC) commenced at Caesars on Sunday, November 6.

This year's TOC foreshadows Caesars' grand design to soar back into the poker business. On December 20, Caesars will open Las Vegas' largest poker room. Caesars new poker room will spread 63 tables - 33 specifically designated for tournaments and 30 for live action.

"For many years, Caesars was one of the biggest names in poker," said Michael Matts, Caesars Palace poker room manager. "Starting on December 20, a new poker era will begin when we bring poker back to one of Las Vegas' most legendary and luxurious casinos. Whether it's recreational games, mid-limit poker, big-bet poker, or our ongoing tournaments, Caesars plans to set a new standard in excellence."

This is the second year of the TOC. The annual no-limit hold'em qualifying tournament is a special $2 million free-roll. Invited players include all of the top finishers at World Series of Poker (WSOP) Circuit Events held during the previous year. From January-July 2005, six WSOP events were held in Atlantic City, San Diego, Lake Tahoe, New Orleans, and two in Las Vegas. The top 20 players from each event qualified to play in this invitational tournament, competing for $2 million in prize money. First place will pay $1 million.

With so much prize money and bragging rights for one of poker's most prestigious titles at stake, many of poker's biggest names converged inside the Caesars Augustus Ballroom. The starting field of 114 players included six current and former world poker champions - Joe Hachem (2005), Chris Ferguson (2000), Russ Hamilton (1994), Phil Hellmuth (1989), Johnny Chan (1987, 1988), and Doyle Brunson (1976, 1977). Several former WSOP gold bracelet winners entered, as well, including Joe Awada, T.J. Cloutier, Allen Cunningham, Antonio 'The Magician' Esfandiari, Scott Fischman, Jennifer Harmon, Phil Ivey, Howard 'The Professor' Lederer, Tony Ma, Mike 'The Mouth' Matusow, and Robert Williamson III.

Few of these big names made it past the first day. One of the first players to exit was defending WSOP champ, Joe Hachem, from Melbourne, Australia. Hachem flopped a set of threes, but lost to a flush. Many others would follow with similar bad beat stories. During the initial 13 hours, the TOC played down to 30 survivors. At the end of Day One, the chip leaders are familiar names to those who follow tournament poker and watch the WSOP on ESPN. Phil Hellmuth, the 1989 world champion, enjoys a slight chip lead over Mike Matusow and the rest of the field.

Hellmuth stunned the poker world 16 years ago when he won his title. He has since won a total of nine WSOP gold bracelets. Remarkably, all nine victories have been in hold'em events. In the last few years, Hellmuth has become a virtual corporation. He has written three poker books, endorsed popular video games, and commands speaking fees, which rival former presidents and heads of state. But the TOC remains an elusive poker prize for Hellmuth. He finished a disappointing second-place at last year's TOC, prompting a well-documented outburst on ESPN (Annie Duke was the winner).

Mike 'The Mouth' Matusow, who is unquestionably playing the best poker of his life at the moment, is second in chips - with $107,600. Former champions Doyle Brunson (with $25,000) and Johnny Chan (with $46,500) also remain in contention.

The past year has been a wild rollercoaster ride for Matusow, one of poker's most combustible characters. Matusow is known just as much for his verbal tirades as his poker accomplishments. Whatever one thinks personally about Matusow and his behavior, there is no questioning his poker talent. Matusow has made it to two WSOP (main event) final tables over the past four years. Only one other player, Dan Harrington, has accomplished that. The next two days will determine if Mike Matusow will achieve what would be a breakthrough victory and personal triumph. Although he won $1 million four months ago at the WSOP (finishing ninth), winning this tournament would solidify a special place in history for a player who was at rock bottom at the start of 2005.

With poker bad boys Hellmuth and Matusow setting the pace, this promises to be one of the most dramatic poker events of the year. Day Two (Monday) will eliminate another 21 aspiring millionaires. Then, the nine finalists will return on Day Three (Tuesday). Prize money will be divided, as follows:

1st Place - $1,000,000
2nd Place - $325,000
3rd Place - $250,000
4th Place - $150,000
5th Place - $100,000
6th Place - $75,000
7th Place - $50,000
8th Place - $25,000
9th Place - $25,000

On Day Two -- play resumes at 12 noon PST.