Better luck next time. Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Better luck next time. Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

(Corrects seating position of Sam Trickett in sixth paragraph and implied odds in ninth paragraph.)

Forty-two players wound up paying $1 million apiece to play in the second biennial Big One for One Drop, a three-day poker tournament at the Rio in Las Vegas. Already, the hugely remunerative contest -- widely considered the heavyweight championship of No-Limit Hold 'em -- has had some major surprises.

A few pros who were expected to play -- including online prodigy Tom Dwan and a pair of Chinese businessmen he plays with in Macau -- didn't show. Erick Lindgren, another pro who has experienced some deep financial setbacks in the past three years, surprised many reporters when he was introduced. It turned out he'd won a seat in a $25,000 satellite game just a few hours before.

One former participant, Los Angeles sports gambler Bobby Voulgaris, chose not to enter this year. "I don't really like Vegas," he told me, "and most of the players are better than me because they're playing No-Limit Hold 'em almost every day." He decided a better way to invest $1 million was to back other players in eight deals ranging from 10 percent to 15 percent. He mentioned several of the usual suspects, but he asked me not to reveal the details. "Just better to keep that stuff private."

One person he did not mention was Jean-Robert "Broke Living" Bellande, considered by many to be the least likely person to enter a $1 million event thanks to his profligate habits. Yet Bellande still managed to round up $750,000 worth of support and found a seat at the table.

It was to no one's surprise that David Einhorn, the poker-playing president of Greenlight Capital Inc., showed up right on time, wearing a baseball cap and fleece featuring the logo of the Robin Hood Foundation, the charity he's playing for. The random draw placed him at a table with four extremely tough pros (Max Altergott, Paul Newey, Sam Trickett and Vanessa Selbst) and one other businessman, John Morgan. The jovial Winmark Corp. executive had also pledged to donate his winnings to a charity, but he declined to name which one, lest they be disappointed if he loses. "Whether it's three-hundred or a million-dollar tournament, I always play bad," he joked, maybe hoping to lull his opponents to sleep.

One of the most dramatic hands of Day One came 45 minutes into the tournament. With the blinds at 3,000 and 6,000 tournament chips, Trickett -- an Englishman and a former professional soccer player forced into early retirement by a knee injury -- raised from the button to 18,000 chips. Einhorn, sitting in the small blind with pocket jacks, raised to 51,000. Trickett called, and both men looked on impassively as the three-card flop came 2-jack-6. When Einhorn bet 75,000, Trickett paused just long enough, riffling two stacks of orange chips, to look as though he might raise. He called.

The next card, known as the turn, was a 3. This time, Einhorn bet 175,000, and he seemed startled when Trickett raised him to 475,000. When he looked again at the 2-jack-6-3 board, Einhorn decided he must be facing an underset -- one of poker's dream scenarios, in which your opponent holds a three-of-a-kind of a smaller value than the one you hold -- so he raised to 775,000 to make sure Trickett would call. And he did.

The next card, called the river, was a queen. Einhorn bet around 1,000,000, Trickett raised all in and Einhorn called. He flipped up his jacks, not loving the queen but still expecting to win the huge pot. Then Trickett rolled over the decidedly bearish news: the 4 and 5 of clubs, for a well-disguised straight.

He had called Einhorn's 75,000 bet on the flop with only four outs, an almost ridiculously high-risk move, for a correspondingly lavish return. It looked like a classic donkey call with an inside straight draw, until one considered the implied odds their respective stacks were offering. Trickett had correctly assumed he could take the hedge-fund wizard's entire 3 million if he had indeed flopped the top set, so the 12-to-1 odds against hitting a 3 on the turn were justified by the approximately 40-to-1 implied odds should he hit one of the four treys. Because Trickett had raised before the flop, he knew it would be virtually impossible for his victim to put him on (or deduce he was holding) the 4-5.

When beginners call big bets with inside straight draws, we rightly slap our foreheads. But deep-stack tournament poker, in which only the last few survivors make any money, is a game of elaborate ambush as well as long odds. Even so, let's not avoid the obvious: Trickett also got very, very lucky, and Einhorn got, well, bubkes. A half hour later, he wrote on Twitter: "Ok. That didn't go well. First one out. Couldn't make it an hour. Tough hand. . . . Try again at the main event. :( "

Another surprise entrant was the comedian and frequent high-stakes winner Gabe Kaplan, who showed up four hours late. The night before, he reached the final table of a smaller ($100,000) event at the Bellagio. He'd been the chip leader with nine players left, even though not one of the others was half his age, and he made a few mistakes that he attributed to having played high-intensity poker for 16 straight hours at age 69. If he was going to be anywhere close to his best in the Big One, he desperately needed some more sleep.

As Day One was drawing to a close, Kaplan was holding his own, but the leaderboard was thoroughly dominated by young pros -- with Trickett out in front by roughly the size of the pot he had trapped Einhorn for.

To contact the writer of this article: James McManus at arramc@msn.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.