Kansas may have a conservative reputation, but a few locals love to gamble.
Three men with Lawrence ties participated in this year's World Series of Poker at the Rio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. As of late Thursday, only five players remained from a field of 8,773 players in a showdown to win the $12-million purse at the Texas Hold'em tournament. But local first-timers Jim Hayes, Patrick Joyce and Mike Jensen made respectable showings while savoring the experience of the world's largest poker game.
"I really had a good time," Hayes, 63, said. "And I really outlasted 90 percent or more of the pros."
Hayes, owner of Hayes Hamburger & Chili in Lawrence, finished between 1,200 and 1,400. Only the top 873 earned cash winnings.
Both amateur and professional participants could qualify for the WSOP through a $10,000 entry fee or by winning a satellite tournament. Joyce, 22, and a graduate of Kansas University, gained admittance by winning a pokerstars.com tournament. He finished 915th - an impressive placement for someone who plays online once a week and occasionally at Kansas City-area casinos.
"It was pretty neat to go that far," Joyce said. "But at the same time, it was kind of disappointing to get that close and not get anything."
Amateurs such as Joyce competed in the WSOP against professional poker players, models, athletes and actresses. Celebrities included Lennox Lewis, Tobey Maguire, Ron Jeremy and James Woods. Jensen, a professional poker player who lives in Lawrence, sat two seats to the left of actress Jennifer Tilly on the first day.
"It was a little aggravating because the cameras were on her every single moment," Jensen, 23, said. "My elbows made it in quite a few pictures."
Jensen attended KU for two years before his frequent poker games caused his GPA to dip from a 3.4 to below a 3.0.
"Poker became a little bit of distraction for my academics," he said.
Jensen, however, has parlayed gambling into a successful career. His parents and 12 friends watched as he lasted until the fourth day, earning $30,500.
"I had a lot of my friends rooting me on," Jensen said. "I ended up being the first person from my group of friends to cash the main event, which is exciting."
While Jensen entered the WSOP through a Full Tilt Poker freeroll, Hayes, a Kansas City resident, paid the $10,000 admittance fee.
Hayes prefers to play online because casino smoke bothers him. However, he described playing in the WSOP as easier than on the Internet because he could study his opponents' facial expressions.
"You could pick up tells on people," he said. "You could tell by the way they played what they had."
As a result, he made it through a grueling 15-hour day before losing out on the second day. Hayes enjoyed another advantage when several of his opponents became inebriated.
"A lot of guys drank their dinner," Hayes said. "That made me a lot better player."
Joyce, a bartender and cook at Johnny's Tavern, also learned a valuable lesson.
"Keep your day job," he said. "It's a tough way to make money."
Joyce and Hayes may not be ready to give up on their careers, but they - along with Jensen - plan on returning to Las Vegas for the 2007 WSOP.
"I'll be there next year again," Hayes said. "It was a lot of fun."