Joel Shulruf, who is 24 and from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, began playing poker five years ago and until last April was strictly a cash game player. Then he made friends with two experienced players, "The Maven," who trains players, and "Bodog Arie," who together converted him to tournament play, coached him and staked him in this $500 no-limit event. Their investment paid off as he made a remarkable comeback to win the second event in the WSOP Circuit event at Horseshoe Southern Indiana. With five players left, he had only a fifth of the average chip count. But he rallied and went on to a victory worth $52,280, along with a $5,150 buy-in to the main event and a striking gold trophy ring.

The key things his mentors taught him, he noted, were good positional play and fearlessness. "If you want to live you must be willing die" is a good motto, he said.

Shulruf played a lot of poker in college, where he earned a degree in applied math engineering two years ago, but turned to poker because he was "too lazy to work." He sometimes plays pot-limit Omaha in cash games, but only no-limit in tournaments. He made five final tables this summer, with his biggest cash being $6,295 for fifth at the Orleans Open. His other interests are golf and "drinking."

Event number two attracted 360 players who created a prize pool of $181,000. This report, however, only covers six players instead of the usual nine. What happened to the missing three? Well, it wasn't exactly a 9/11 situation, but it was close. Players here have the option of calling it a night at 2 a.m. and returning the next day, or playing through, which makes coverage rather dicey and unpredictable. In this event there were still 12 players left well past 1 a.m., and the consensus was seemingly no chance of an all-nighter, especially when the vote to play on has to be unanimous. Then, with 10 players left after 2 a.m., a bang-bang massacre occurred, and suddenly four players were gone in six or seven hands. Just before 3 a.m., this writer received an emergency call. Hastily dressing, he raced down the half-mile corridor linking the hotel with the riverboat, stumbled down the four decks of the vessel, and arrived to find that the bio sheets he had prudently left behind filled out by just the six remaining players. Okay, so by necessity let's simply take it from there.

At this point a new level was about to begin with blinds of 10,000-20,000 and 3,000 antes, and 40 minutes left. In front with 669,000 was Aaron Corson.  

Here were the starting chip counts for the surviving six:

Seat 1. Jerry Cagle - 154,000
Seat 2. Joel Shulruf - 550,000
Seat 3. Vince Ballinger - 513,000
Seat 4. Michael Zeljak - 312,000
Seat 5. Justin Kindred - 305,000
Seat 6. Aaron Corson - 669,000 

First out was lowest-chipped Jerry Wayne Cagle. He went all in with pocket queens after Corson raised with A-J. A flop of A-J-3 gave Corson top two, which held up when an 8 and a trey followed. Cagle, 65, married with two children, is from Nashville and employed in the retail business. He learned poker from playing and reading, and has been playing no-limit for four years. This is his sixth Circuit and sixth place paid him $8,521

As play continued, Shulruf took a big hit when he moved in with A-Q, losing to Michael "Maz" Zeljak's flopped set of 10s. He now had only 107,000 of the 2.5 million chips in play, but began his comeback on the next hand, doubling through against Corson with Ac-10c, which prevailed against K-Q.

Play now tightened up, until Justin Kindred busted out as the level was nearing an end. Zeliak raised with pocket kings and Kindred moved in with A-9. The board came 10-10-2-8-7, and Kindred was out in fifth place.

Kindred, 21, is a student turned poker player from Bowling Green, Kentucky. He's been playing only a year, and his poker highlight is "not having to ever get a job." His other hobbies are golf, reading, being a gangster and disco. "I'm single, ladies," he adds. Fifth paid $10,226.

A new level now kicked in with blinds of 15,000-30,000 and 4,000 antes. Shulruf, with a batch of uncalled all-in raises, continued to build his stacks. Finally, Zeljak had had enough. When Shulruf moved in yet again with pocket 5s, he took a stand, calling with Ac-10c. Shulruf blew him away by flopping a set, and suddenly was chip leader. But 20 minutes into the new level, Vince Ballinger moved in front when he raised to 100,000 with Kd-9d, and Zeljak moved in for about 800,000 with A-Q.  Zeljak lost and was knocked out when the board came 6-3-2-4-K.

Zeljak, 45, is from Dayton, Ohio and in the construction business. He's married with four children, has been playing poker four years, and this is his first Circuit and poker highlight. Fourth place paid $11,929.

Three players were still left when blinds went to 20,000-40,000 with 5,000 antes. As play went on, the chip stacks began to even out. Shulruf's big play during this time was picking off Ballinger's bluff with just king-high when Ballinger bet into a board of 9-7-2-A-A. Then, holding K-2, Shulruf made trips when the flop came 4-2-2. He checked from the small blind and Ballinger, who had made top pair with J-4 from the big blind, moved in. An ace and 7 changed nothing, and Ballinger went out third.

Ballinger is a retiree from Indianapolis who learned poker 30 years ago from his father. He's married with one child, and his poker highlight is "not having to borrow money." For his third-place finish, he was paid $13,364.

The two finalists, Shulruf and Corson, went off to talk deal, returning to play out the requisite show hands. On the first deal heads-up, Corson moved in all his chips except for a few thousand, then folded when Shulruf bet into the A-8-7 flop. The next and final hand was more kosher. Corson was all in with 10-8 against Shulruf's 9s-6s. A flop of 10-8-5 gave Corson top two and Shulruf a gut-shot straight draw. A queen turned, then a 7 hit the river to end the theatrics, and  just as happened in the first event, this tournament concluded with a winning straight.

Corson, 31, is from St. Louis, is married with one child, and works in printing sales. He learned poker five years ago in home games and this is his third Circuit. His poker highlight was winning his way one year into the WSOP main event.