The WSOP Circuit tour arrived at Horseshoe Casino Hammond for the first time ever, and it was a memorable debut as 1.187 entrants -- one of the largest turnouts in Circuit history -- filled the 78 tables in the Venue showroom and spilled over into the downstairs poker room. The opening event, $300 no-limit hold'em, generated a prize pool of $345,417, with $70,597of it (along with an eye-catching gold and diamond trophy ring and a buy-in to the $5,150 main event), going to the winner, financial adviser Perry Ernest from Naperville, Illinois.

The numbers are not that surprising, since Horseshoe Casino Hammond is only 20 minutes from downtown Chicago. But opening day also drew entrants from as far away as the Dominican Republic, British Columbia, and California. Players arriving at this enormous, dry-docked riverboat casino were treated to an impressive sight. Horseshoe Casino Hammond is a brand-new facility that recently re-opened after a $500 million renovation and expansion. (The opening date was an auspicious one, 08/08/08, since the Chinese consider 8 a lucky number.) As one company executive expressed it, not only is Horseshoe Casino Hammond the number one casino in the region, it can also compete with anything on the Las Vegas strip. And the poker room, which only saw brief action when this facility first opened as the Empress Casino 12 years ago, is back in full swing with 34 tables, offering all games, all limits, and a private high-limit room, "Benny's Back Room," named in honor of Benny Binion.

Ernest, 46, has only been playing poker three years and until recently was mostly a cash-game player, favoring $10-$20 and $2-$5 no-limit hold'em. He heaped praise on his wife, Opella, not only for making sacrifices and taking care of the kids so he could play, but also encouraging him and urging him to try tournaments. In the last few months he also had a couple of $4,400 wins in weekly tournaments at Hollywood Casino.

The key hand for him tonight came with four players left when he was all in with pocket 8s against pocket queens, He got away when a board of J-7-J-10-9 gave him a miracle straight, and not long after he took the chip lead which he held until the end. He says he has no particular style of play except to be controlled and pay respect to his opponents. He found the skill level at the final table excellent, and felt that Matthew Dunn, who finished third, was the best

Ernest has been a financial adviser with Met Life for 10 years. So, what would his financial advice be in these difficult times? "If you're young, hang in. If you're older, be conservative."

With such a huge turnout for this event, there were still 62 players left when day one ended at 2 a.m., and play then resumed at 2 p.m. the next day. At that point, David "Biggie" Kim held a biggie lead with 337,500 chips. We got down to the final nine five hours later after Matt Dunn flopped a set of treys to knock out James Dark, a solid player, who surprisingly re-raised all in for 387,000 with A-8. This put Dunn into the lead with 1,450,000. The players, seated on the entertainment center's stage, took an hour's dinner break, and action resumed with blinds of 20,000-40,000, 5,000 antes and 26:53 left on the clock. 

Here were the final table chip counts:

1.         Todd Huynh - 261,000          
2.         Perry Ernest - 600,000
3.         Matt Dunn - 1,450,000
4.         Jesse Nunez - 1,040,000
5.         Randy White - 458,000
6.         Florencio Acevedo Jr. - 580,000                      
7.         Antonio Scott - 660,000
8.         David Lindquist - 1,058,000
9.         David Kim - 1,231,000

First out was Randy" Crasher" White who called all in with A-K after David Lindquist raised 140,000 with pocket 5s. The pair prevailed when the board came Q-7-3-10-4, and White walked away with $6,295 for ninth. White, 24 is a warehouse worker turned poker player from Chicago who started playing six years ago in home games. This is his poker highlight. He also enjoys betting sports and softball.

Blinds moved up to 30,000-60,000 with the same antes. Halfway through the round, Lindquist bet 300,000 on a flop of Q-4-3, and Jesse Nunez raised all in for another 385,000. Fearing a set of queens, Lindquist called anyway and turned up pocket 10s to Nunez' pocket nines. When a 6 and 5 couldn't help him, Nunez cashed out eighth for $8,847 as Lindquist took the lead. Nunez, 35, is a business owner from Griffith, Indiana who's been playing three years in home games. Basketball and coaching youth sports are his other hobbies.

Kim had been the most active player at the table but wasn't doing well until he got involved in a 1.7 million pot with Lindquist, winning  when Lindquist missed his straight draw. With that, Kim pulled nearly even to Lindquist in chips, 1.7 million to 1.9 million. .

Soon after, we lost another player when Florencio Acevedo pushed in for 165,000 with Q-8 and Dunn decided to call from the big blind with 5-4. The flop was 10-10-4, and the paired 4 was enough to knock Acevedo out. Seventh place was worth $11,399. Acevedo 22, is a local boy from Hammond and in the labor business. He's been playing three years and this is his poker highlight, "my coming-out party." His main achievement is his daughter, family and friends.

The biggest pot so far then came down when the board showed 10-7-6-2-Q. Dunn bet 225,000 and Kim moved in for 740,000 holding 10-4, then moved out when Dunn called holding Q-J for a higher pair. Dunn now took a massive lead with 3.2 million of the 7.3 million in play while Kim, ending sixth, collected $14,802. Kim, 29, from Glenview, Illinois, was a research scientist before turning pro. He's been playing seven years, starting with home games and then casinos, His prior highlight was winning a Trump $100 rebuy event that paid $12,000. He spends his free time doing volunteer work for a group helping at-risk youths in urban settings.

After blinds went to 30,000-60,000 with 10,000 antes, a short-chipped Todd "Sharky" Huynh pushed in his last chips from the button with Q-2. Perry Ernest called from the small blind with A-4, winning when the board came J-9-7-9-3. Fifth paid $18,885. Huynh, originally from Vietnam, is 36 and lives in Chicago. Formerly a restaurant owner, he is now a pro player. He learned poker from friends 18 years ago and has three WSOP cashes. He also likes golf and cars

As the round neared an end, Ernest had his miracle escape by making a straight holding pocket 8s. He then took down a couple more pots and eased past Dunn into the lead.

Blinds went to 50,000-100,000 with all players surviving that level. Shortly after they jumped again to 60,000-120,000, Ernest opened for 350,000 with A-7 and Antonio "Tone" Scott moved in with Q-J. Ernest won easily when an ace flopped, and Scott, finishing fourth, was $23.138 richer. Scott is a 36-year-old truck driver from Maywood, Illinois who has been playing eight years, learning from his dad, brother and "a man named Boogie." He had a 12th place finish in the Heartland Poker Tour worth $15,000. His other interest is just hanging out with his family.,

Not long after that, Ernest opened for 350,000 and Dunn moved in for 1,230,000 more. Ernest had A-10, Dunn had Qd-Jd, and once more a flopped ace did the trick as the board came A-Q-5-7-5. Third place was worth $27,562. Dunn, 22, is a poker player who formerly was in the mortgage business. He began playing six years ago with friends and also learned from books and TV., His other cashes include a fourth in a $300 nightly tournament at the Rio.

Heads-up, Ernest had a lead of roughly 4.5 million to 2.8 million for Lindquist. A few hands later the flop came 8h-4h-6s, Holding 6-5 for middle pair, Lindquist bet 400,000, and Ernest moved him in holding As-4s for bottom pair. The turn was the 8d, and then a river 4d gave Ernest winning trips. Lindquist pocketed $45,426 for second. He is 26 and from Benton Harbor, Michigan, where he is in lumber sales. He's been playing seven years, honing his game from TV, and also likes pool/billiards.