In October, Perry Ernest, a Met Life financial adviser from Naperville, Illinois, bested a field of 1,184 players to win the very first WSOP Circuit event to be staged at Horseshoe Hammond. Ernest, mostly a cash-game player until then, had played only one other tournament since, but his wife Opella, who had encouraged him to try tournaments, wanted him to play more. So, for his 47th birthday (which was in December), she paid his plane and hotel expenses and treated him to a trip to Harrah's Casino Tunica, insisting he go even as her mother faced surgery.

Her generosity paid off in spades (and also in diamonds, clubs and hearts) because he ended up winning event number two of the Circuit tour here, $300 no-limit, which paid $32,448 for first place. In addition, he is now one of only 10 players to own two of the striking gold-and-diamond trophy rings. One of his two favorite players is Chris Ferguson, who owns the record with three rings, and tying him is Ernest's next goal. Before Hammond, he had a couple of wins in local weekly tournaments.

In capturing this event, Ernest made a remarkable comeback, because with 10 players left he had only 120,000 of the 4.46 million chips in play. He then went on a rush and arrived at the final table with an above-average count of 538,000. The key hand for him came when he made a runner-runner straight to knock Charlie Dawson out in third place and get heads-up with a big chip lead. Ernest, who's been playing poker for less than four years, says he still has no particular style of tournament play and is still refining his game. He described his style as erratic and hard to read, very similar to Dawson's, whom he was glad to have on his immediate right. He felt that Yevgeniy Kluyenko, a 29-year-old from Ukraine, Russia, might have been the best player at the table.   

This event drew 446 players and had a prize pool of $129,786. The 11 finalists left on day one returned the next day to play down to nine. The final table got underway at level 19 with blinds of 15,000-30,000, 3000 antes and 24 minutes left. In front with 847,000 chips was Dawson.

Here were the starting chip counts:

Seat 1. Charlie Dawson          847,000
Seat 2. Perry Ernest                528,000
Seat 3. Perry Webb                 136,000
Seat 4. Yevgeniy Kluyenko    737,000
Seat 5. Glenn Hyde                475,000
Seat 6. James Berry                 601,000          
Seat 7. Vincent Meeks            527,000          
Seat 8. Brenda Bittle              349,000
Seat 9 . Daniel Vo                   206,000

Two players swiftly departed. First, Daniel "Big Dog" Vo moved in holding K-Q. He was indeed a big dog -- about a 3-1 -- when Ernest called with A-Q. The board came A-J-7-8-2, and Vo was first out. V0, 33, is a banker from Atlanta who's been playing four years.

Soon after, Perry Webb was in much worse shape than Vo, about an 11-1 underdog, when he was all in with K-Q against Dawson's pocket kings. A board of 4-9-10-8-5 didn't change anything, and Webb exited eighth. Webb, 67, is a retired contractor/farmer from Griffithville, Arkansas who's been playing nine years. He has numerous small cashes and a win at the Hustler Casino's Grand Slam of Poker.

Just as the level ended, a player got crippled. James "Deloflats Jim" Berry was left with 45,000 when he called with pocket queens after Vincent Meeks pushed in for 503,000 with pocket aces and flopped a set.

There was a break, play resumed with blinds of 20,000-40,000 and 5,000 antes, and on the first hand Berry lost his last chips. It was Berry versus Perry (Perry Ernest). Berry had just 5-4 and hit a 5 on the river, but it was too late because Ernest had already caught a 9 to his A-9. Berry is 65 and from Braxton, Mississippi.

Brenda Bittle was the first woman making a final table thus far. She seemed doubly dangerous because she is a police officer and her nickname is "Rattlesnake." But the lady rattler slithered off quietly midway through the round. Low-chipped, she moved in from the big blind with As-3s. Meeks, in the small blind with K-J, hit a straight, and now five were left. Bittle, 42, is from Batesville, Arkansas and has been playing three years.

Next out was Kluyenko. With blinds now at 30,000-60,000, he was all in for his last 300,000 wth A-K, against Ernest's pocket 10s. It was a toss-up match until a flop of J-10-3 gave Ernest a set and left Kluyenko dead to catching a queen for a straight. It never came, and he finished fifth. 

Glenn Hyde, a 56-year-old business analyst from Atlanta, went out next in fourth place when his K-Q couldn't catch Ernest's A-K after the board came 2-J-8-5-8. Hyde's poker resume includes two final tables in New Orleans and two more in Southern Inciana.

Blinds now went to 40,000-80,000 with 1,000 antes, and this level produced the most dramatic and critical hand at the final table. Pre-flop, Dawson moved in from the cut-off seat for 1.6 million. Ernest called with pocket 5s and groaned when Dawson turned up pocket jacks. A flop of A-10-2 didn't change much, and Dawson was now an 11-1 favorite. But then a 4 turned and a trey hit the river to give Ernest a miracle straight

Dawson, finishing third, is a 39-year-old real estate investor from Owensboro, Kentucky who's been playing six years competitively. His prior cashes include seconds in a Circuit and a WPO event in Tunica along with several other final tables. He's also awaiting the birth of his second son.

Heads-up, Ernest had about 3.6 million chips to 900,000 for Meeks, but victory did not come easy for him. The match lasted 17 hands. On the second deal, Meeks doubled through with A-Q against Ernest's A-J. On the third hand, the board showed 3s-4s-5s. Meeks bet 200,000 and Ernest called. Then an As turned. Meeks bet 400,000 and again Ernest called. The river brought a fifth spade, a 10, and Meeks moved in for 1,17 million. After long thought, Ernest finally folded when Meeks agreed to show his cards. It was a good laydown: Ernest had the jack of spades, but Meeks held the queen of spades.

Meeks now took the chip lead. Later, with the two about even, they were about to make an even chop and play for the ring until they learned that the winner would have to sign for the full amount and be responsible for taxes. Unable to work something out, they played on.  Ernest then took a big lead again when Meeks, holding 7-3, bet into a board of A-7-6-Q-Q. He called when Ernest raised all in, losing to his A-10  Down to 775,000, and with blinds now at 60,000-120,000, Meeks moved in with Qd-7d. Ernest called with Ah-9h. Meeks took the lead on a flop of Q-9-5, but then a river 9 gave Ernest trips and victory,

Meeks, who settled for $16,742 for a no-deal second place, is 31, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and works as an operator at a refining company. He's been playing five years and this is his poker highlight.