Greg Raymer sets his sights on another monster finish

From the king of Dungeons and Dragons at Parkway South High to the world of corporate law to winner of the most coveted (and lucrative) title in the hottest game in the land, Texas Hold ‚Em poker, Greg Raymer has come a long way.

And he’ll be back at the big-time poker tables again, as play begins today in this year’s main event of the World Series of Poker, the USD 10,000 buy-in, no-limit Hold ‚Em tourney that will run 12 days at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Raymer won the title in 2004, beating out a field of 2,576 to win USD 5 million. Last year, with the field growing to nearly 5,600, he came in 25th – good for USD 304,680, as he was the only player to finish in the top 45 the past two years.

Now, with more than 8,000 expected for this year’s event, which has been fueled by an explosion in the popularity of the game on television, Raymer is one of the favorites to win the title that could be worth $ 10 million.

But as he readily admits, the odds of cashing the biggest check in the tournament are extremely long, no matter what the skill level of the player, simply because of the size of the field. For instance, as recently as 2000, there were 512 competitors.

„Statistically, there is almost no chance,“ Raymer said on a recent promotional visit to St. Louis tied to the opening of the new poker room at Harrah’s in Maryland Heights. „No one in the field is going to have one chance in 1,000.“

Raymer said he likes the huge field because the prize pool is big. Last year, all 10 players at the final table won at least $ 1 million.

„I’m in favor of having more players,“ Raymer, 42, said. „If you have more players, you have more bad players. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you are compared to who you’re playing.“

The tournament, which began in 1970, has outgrown its longtime home at the Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas, and for the first time will be held exclusively at the Rio, an expansive all-suites hotel and casino just off the Strip. Harrah’s, which owns the Rio, bought the tourney two years ago from the Horseshoe, which was in financial distress. It moved the bulk of the competition to the Rio last year, although the final table was contested at its old downtown home.

„It was strange last year,“ Raymer said. „It was a very different feel. (The downtown setting) has more of a seedy sawdust-joint feel, but it was like everybody knew everybody there. Now, it’s unlikely I’ll know anybody at my table.“

His dad sold mainframe computers, and the family moved several times while Raymer was growing up, settling in Manchester for his high school years. He played soccer and racquetball while at Parkway South, graduating in 1982. And he organized the Dungeons and Dragons club, an activity involving acting and role-playing led by a Dungeon Master.

„If anyone thinks I’m cool, that will change their mind,“ he said, chuckling. „But I enjoyed myself in high school. I was always competing.“

He went to the University of Missouri at Rolla where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, then it was on to graduate school at the University of Minnesota for degrees in biochemistry and law. While attending school there, his aunt gave him a book about blackjack, and he learned the basics of card counting, which he put to practical use at nearby Indian casinos.

„I wasn’t getting rich at it,“ Raymer said about what he estimates was about a USD 7-an-hour return.

He got a job as an attorney in Chicago and eventually found his way from the blackjack pit to the poker room and quickly shifted interests. After all, poker has the big advantage in that it is the only game in the casino where the players are gambling against each other, not the house.

His game grew as he honed it in a variety of casinos as he moved several times for his law career.

By 2004, he had settled in Connecticut and was working as a patent attorney. He went to Vegas for the World Series, where his run to the title fooled even himself. He had a flight booked home before the tourney ended.

„So, I called my boss and said, ‚I’m still in this thing, and I’ve got a chance to finish in the money,‘ “ Raymer said. „Then I called him the next day and said the same thing.“

Although he returned to work after winning the title, he didn’t stay for long. He gave up his career to concentrate on poker. But he’s not holed up in a casino every day. He does a lot of personal appearances, flying to company events and speaking to and playing against people attending those events.

But now he has geared up for the big tourney and probably will be wearing his trademark lizard-eye novelty glasses and have fossils in front of him, relics from a period in which he collected the articles thus earning him the nickname „Fossilman.“

Those make him a darling of the TV cameras, and ESPN is taping the tourney and will show it Tuesday nights beginning Aug. 22 and culminating with the final hands Sept. 26.

Raymer now is a long way from the corporate attorney world.

„This is a lot more fun,“ he said.

And probably a lot more lucrative.