06/08/2005 12:00AM

Author tracks down saga of 'Big Game'

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The World Series of Poker is bigger than ever.

Transplanted from its longtime home at Binion's Horseshoe, the World Series, acquired by Harrah's Entertainment Inc., has been breaking records every day the past week at the Rio convention center. The festivities began last Friday with the $1,500 no-limit hold'em event. Last year, the first World Series tourney drew 834 entrants but this year 2,305 anted up before additional hopefuls were turned away. It was supposed to be a two-day event, but a third day had to be added.

The explosion has continued unabated in subsequent events and Harrah's, with the pressures of supply-and-demand, will be hard-pressed to cap next month's $10,000 no-limit Texas hold'em world championship event, known as the Main Event, at 6,600.

But even if the World Series exceeds all expectations, it will still have a ways to go to surpass the legend of the biggest poker game of all time. That occurred between 2001 and 2004 when Texas billionaire banker Andy Beal came to Las Vegas and challenged the best poker players in the world. He didn't want to play at a full table (especially of pros) and insisted they play him one on one. He put up his $1 million and the players, ranging from eight to as many as 17 at the peak, pooled their money and took turns against the rich amateur on seven occasions over the three years. The pros included many who would be immediately recognizable to even marginal fans of poker, including Doyle Brunson, his son Todd, Howard Lederer, Chip Reese, Jennifer Harmon, and Phil Ivey. The stakes grew from a start of $10,000-$20,000 (the limits in the early and late rounds of betting in Texas hold'em) to the biggest game of $100,000-$200,000, with millions of dollars of chips often on the table. And these chips represented real cash as opposed to tournament play where chips are more or less a way of keeping score.

Rumors of the games have been widespread, but author Michael Craig has pieced together all of the details in his new book, "The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King" (Warner Books, $24.95).

Craig was in town last week to view the start of the World Series and play in some satellites, as well as conduct hours of interviews with the release of the book. Seated in the Rio race and sports book, he told how he got started on the project. He had written two finance books - "The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time" and "The 5 Minute Investor" and was looking for a subject with more mainstream appeal. He had just about given up hope and returned to a hobby of his, playing poker.

"I heard the rumors when I was playing poker at the Mirage in October 2003," Craig said. Specifically, it was Oct. 4, since Craig relates it was the day after Roy Horn was mauled by one of his white tigers at the Mirage.

"The story was that Todd Brunson, the son of the legendary Doyle Brunson, was playing a banker from Texas with $15 million on the table. I first checked it out out of curiosity. As I asked around to learn what was going on, I knew I had to write a book about it.

"The hardest part was reconstructing history. Some people were reluctant to talk - either because it's a touchy subject to talk about people's gambling habits, or for fear the tax man is listening. But the more I and other writers covering the games interviewed people, the more they opened up. I interviewed most of the participants, but even then I would get conflicting stories and dollar amounts. It's not like you can look up the score of a baseball game, so I had to reconcile and double- and triple- check facts. Also, out here, there's an Old West mentality where they like to let the legend grow. The big facts and the major games I feel confident that it's very close to the truth."

But what's with the title?

"The original title was 'The Big Game,' but the publisher wanted something more literary," Craig said. "I submitted about 30 titles, and one of them was a long list of nicknames of the players. Think of 'American Pie.' Just like the song, I wanted people to figure out who the names referred to. The publisher edited it down, which was probably a wise choice.

"The Professor is a well-known nickname of Howard Lederer, but I found later that a lot of poker players have gone by 'The Professor,' so it leaves it open to interpretation. The Banker is obviously Andy Beal. A lot of players that I interviewed have told me they think they are the Suicide King, though some people think that refers to me. People can decide whatever they want, it's meant to be vague."

Cameras rolling at the Palms

The seventh annual CineVegas Film Festival begins Friday and runs through June 18. The festival has been moving toward more artsy fare, but with this city's centennial celebration, there will be a Las Vegas flavor this year.

Among the actors receiving lifetime achievement awards are Ann-Margret (who co-starred with Elvis in "Viva Las Vegas") and Nicolas Cage ("Leaving Las Vegas"). Also honored will be Christopher Walken and director George A. Romero, who will debut his "Land of the Dead" movie on closing night.

The complete schedule can be found at cinevegas.com. Dennis Hopper, who is a member of the CineVegas board, will be at most of the events and will surely bring along some of his Hollywood friends to make the event not only about movie-watching but also celebrity-watching.

* Adding to the pop culture quotient, a new show on E! will debut next Wednesday called "Party at the Palms," hosted by Jenny McCarthy. Segments have been taped at the Rain and Ghostbar nightclubs and throughout the hotel, with segments on the casino's celebrity clientele as well as guests and hotel employees.

Tyson overwhelming favorite

Mike Tyson returns to the ring Saturday night in Washington, D.C., as he faces Kevin McBride in a non-title fight. Tyson is a -800 favorite (risk $8 for every $1 you want to profit) with McBride at +550. The fight is scheduled for 12 rounds, but oddsmakers expect Tyson to make short work of McBride, as the over/under is just three rounds, with the "will not go" at -160 and the "will go" at +130.

* Station Casinos has Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman as the 7-1 co-favorites in the Pocono 500 Nextel Cup race Sunday at Pocono Raceway. Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne are 8-1, with Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, and Mark Martin at 10-1.

* The Arena Bowl weekend activities kick off at 7 p.m. Friday at the Orleans Arena with ArenaBattle Celebrity Skills Challenge. AFL players will compete in skills competitions and there will be a celebrity flag football game, including former NFLers Randall Cunningham, Sterling Sharpe, Neil Smith, and Carl Banks.

Tickets are $25 and $45 at the Orleans Arena box office.