LAST MAY, Jerry Yang was just a 39-year-old social worker from Temecula with six kids, a hefty mortgage and a wife who worked at night to make ends meet. Poker was a recently acquired, TV-inspired hobby he indulged in at the nearby Pechanga Casino.
But as this year's 55-event, six-week World Series of Poker season kicks off Friday, Yang is a millionaire who is gunning to defend his title as 2007 winner of the $10,000 World Championship No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em, a.k.a. the Main Event.
The promise embedded in Yang's story is precisely why Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack believes more than 30,000 people will play and why more than 100,000 people will come to the Rio All-Suites Hotel-Casino just to watch for free.
"You can't buy your way onto an NBA court, but you can buy your way into the World Series of Poker and walk away as a world champion," Pollack said.
Indeed, anyone can play in the events, which have entry fees from $1,000 to $50,000. Some don't even have to; Yang won his Main Event entry in a satellite tournament. That cost $225; in two weeks in July he outlasted 6,358 players to win $8.25 million.
Likewise, thousands appear to watch their favorite poker pros. Still, poker's white-hot popularity may be leveling off. The WSOP's ratings on ESPN fell in 2007, and the number of entrants in the Main Event dropped from an all-time high of 8,773 in 2006.
That may explain a dramatic change for the 2008 Main Event: Once the final table of nine players is settled in July, the tournament will halt until November, when the finalists will duke it out on TV. In the past, the entire tournament was completed in July and aired in November, by which time the results had been widely reported.
"Whereas traditionally, the Main Event resulted in one superstar, the champion, now the Main Event is going to result in nine superstars, one of which will receive our championship bracelet," Pollack said. "We think in the four months in between when we stop play and finish playing, those nine players will become household names."
Some poker veterans, including two-time Main Event champ Doyle Brunson, have said they're uneasy with halting play, but Yang, who now runs his own small-stakes eponymous poker event at Pechanga, supported Pollack's plan as "something that will be very good for the sport."
Though Yang faces long odds in his quest for a repeat -- the last time that happened was in 1987-88, when fewer than 170 people competed -- he's excited to return.
"I'm just trying to be a good ambassador for the World Series," said Yang, who gave 10% of his prize to charity. "I'm not nervous at all. I'm ready."
Steve Friess co-hosts the Vegas-centric celebrity interview podcast "The Strip" at TheStripPodcast.com
WORLD SERIES OF POKER
WHERE: Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino, 3700 W. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas
WHEN: 55 events begin with $10,000 Pot-Limit Texas Hold 'Em at noon Friday; the Main Event is July 3-14, resuming Nov. 9 with final table
PRICE: Free for spectators
INFO: (800) 752-9746, worldseriesof