Celebs, Card Sharks and Rank Amateurs Ante Up for World Series of Poker

Do the names Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey make you go weak in the knees? Do you think "chips" not "Venetian" when someone mentions blinds? Is the thought of going "all in" more enticing than "going all the way?" If yes, you can bet on a lot of excitement in the next two weeks.

A $10,000 buy-in, no limit Texas Hold 'em tournament kicks off today at the World Series of Poker at the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in Nevada. And over the next two weeks, 8,000 players -- the biggest names in poker, dozens of unknowns, a handful of celebrities, and even a monkey -- will vie for the top honors, which Harrah's Entertainment estimates at $12 million in cash and prizes.

"The World Series of Poker is like the Olympics for an athlete. … It's like the Oscars for an actor," said actress Jennifer Tilly, who won the women's championship last year and will be competing again.

"American Pie" beauty Shannon Elizabeth will also ante up.

"The atmosphere is crazy and exhilarating," she said.

Amateurs Look to Catch Lightning in a Bottle

When the contest started in 1970, players simply walked away with the money they won at the table. Then the contest started giving out winner bracelets, and poker masters today look to become World Series of Poker bracelet winners.

"Every player goes to bed every night, I believe, dreaming about winning the World Series," said last year's champ, Joe Hechem, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who walked off with $7,670,339 in winnings.

With ESPN taping the event for broadcast next month -- and attention from news media all over the world in recent years -- a star player like Phil Ivey has come to be known as the Tiger Woods of Poker. He has won five World Series of Poker bracelets,

Still, the competition remains open to amateurs who are willing to risk the $10,000 a player must bring to the table.

"That's one of the great allures of the World Series. You don't have to be a professional," said Gary Thompson, Harrah's director of sports and entertainment marketing.

"You have to be a professional to play golf against Tiger Woods. But here, you can be anybody -- young, old, rich, poor, male, female. You're all competing on the same level playing field. And if you get lucky, and you play well, you can catch lightning in a bottle.

Barrymore Keeps Stakes Low

And while Drew Barrymore isn't competing, she's also at the competition to cash in on some publicity for her upcoming film, "Lucky You," a movie set at the 2003 World Series of Poker.

Brunson Doyle, one of the poker pros consulting on "Lucky You," has tutored actors Eric Bana, Robert Duvall and some of the film's other stars on their gaming skills. The film is scheduled to hit theaters in September.

Barrymore, who plays a lounge singer, missed out on the lessons, but she told The Associated Press that she hosts regular $20 or $100 buy-in home games with friends and members of her boyfriend Fabrizio Moretti's band, the Strokes. But she said she's not quite ready for World Series of Poker-type stakes.

"I really couldn't do that," she said. "I made a $200 bet the other night (on blackjack), and I was like thinking it was the craziest thing on the planet."

ABCNEWS.com's Buck Wolf contributed to this report.

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