The sun set, the sun rose and still they played, caution trumping bravery, adrenaline fighting off fatigue, rare moments of drama breaking through the tedium, the chip lead shifting for nearly 14 hours at the 36th World Series of Poker - the longest final table in tournament history for the richest prize.
Nine players had started July 15, the survivors among the 5,619 who entered the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Texas Hold 'em tournament last week, and only two remained Saturday morning - Australian chiropractor-turned-pro Joseph Hachem and American amateur Steven Dannenmann in the first World Series for both of them.
The big shots of the poker world were long gone, though some sat enviously in the black-draped room at Benny's Bullpen in Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel, watching along with hundreds of frenzied fans as Hachem and Dannenmann faced off one last time.
The $7.5 million first prize lay piled high in everyone's view, thick $50,000 bundles of $100 bills guarded by security men wielding shotguns.
At 6:44 a.m., on their sixth head-to-head duel and the 232nd hand of the night, Hachem claimed the fortune and the priceless championship bracelet when his seven-high straight beat Dannenmann's pair of aces with all $56 million in chips pushed into the pot.
It was a theatrical finish to a plodding night that had been filled with smart moves and goofy ones by pros and amateurs exhausted by some 90 hours of poker each over six brutal sessions.
Dannenmann raised before the flop and Hachem called. A six-five-four came out and Hachem checked. Dannenmann bet another $700,000, Hachem raised to $1.7 million.
The turn card was an ace and Hachem tossed $2 million more into the pot. Dannenmann hesitated, studied the table and Hachem, then raised to $5 million. Hachem went all-in with more than $30 million and the small crowd still packed in the Bullpen roared as Dannenmann instantly called.
Hachem flipped over his cards - a seven and three for a straight - against Dannenmann's ace-three. Dannenmann needed a seven on the river to chop the pot with an equal straight. A four came out instead and Hachem was the champion.
The first Australian to win the poker World Series, Hachem hugged Dannenmann, then wrapped himself in an Australian flag while his many compatriots and fellow poker players in the room chanted ``Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!'' as they had through the night.
``Thank you, America,'' Hachem shouted in delight.
Little known before now, the 39-year-old Hachem realized immediately that his life would never be the same.
``A million dollars changes my life, let alone $7.5 million. It changes everything,'' said Hachem, a native of Lebanon who moved to Australia with his family in 1972. He gave up a 13-year chiropractic career three years ago to play poker for a living and vowed now to succeed last year's champion, Greg Raymer, as a worthy ambassador for the game.
He pulled out his cell phone to call his wife in Melbourne and spoke to her briefly, he said, ``just before she fainted.''
All the money he won, Hachem said, was secondary to capturing the title of World Series champion and the diamond-studded, white gold bracelet that he can take into every tournament in the future.
``The money's great,'' he said. ``I'd be lying if I said it's not. But the bracelet is the thing. It's an honor and a privilege to wear it.''
While several other players had held the lead in the chip count at different times through the night, Hachem had trailed for 11-1/2 hours until 4:20 a.m. but never lost sight of his goal or his strategy to concentrate on winning small pots. Nor did he let himself get distracted by the grand prize.
``I never stopped thinking about being the winner, but I never once thought about the money,'' he said.
Hachem led the chip count with $39,995,000 to Dannenmann's $16,350,000 when they started playing one-on-one after third-place finisher Tex Barch was eliminated.
Barch, who won $2.5 million, went out when he lost a three-way hand that Hachem took with pocket jacks for $16 million in chips.
Dannenmann, a 38-year-old accountant and mortgage banker from Severn, Md., won the $4.5 million second prize and took the defeat cheerfully. He said he couldn't wait to go fishing with his friends.
``I got tired,'' he said. ``I was bored of it. I was trying to make moves.''
Claiming he was only the fourth-best player in the game he hosts at his house each week, he had entered the tournament on a lark after a few beers with golf and poker buddy Jerry Ditzel, who put up half the $10,000 entry fee and will get more than $1 million in return.
``We kick his butt in the game back home sometimes,'' Ditzel said.
All the players at the final table won at least $1 million.
Mike ``The Mouth'' Matusow, a pro who came in sixth in 2001, was the first out but had no regrets.
``I played the six best days of poker in my life,'' Matusow said. ``I'm going to bed happy.''
Brad Kondracki, a 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania law student from Kingston, Pa., finished eighth to take home $1.15 million.
``I'll probably drink way too much and wake up and buy something really expensive that I don't need,'' he said, getting a laugh from his parents and brothers by his side.
Daniel Bergsdorf, a 27-year-old Swedish truck driver, was seventh. Scott Lazar, a 42-year-old production assistant for independent films who was playing in his fourth World Series, finished sixth. Irishman Andrew Black took fifth, Aaron Kanter, a 27-year-old pro from Elk Grove, Calif., was fourth.