The Sorry History of Celebrities at the World Series of Poker

Novelist Colson Whitehead thinks he can break the trend of famous faces leaving early

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The government is cracking down on online poker Web sites and the TV poker craze of the the early 2000s has long since faded, but the four-day World Series of Poker, which begins today in Las Vegas, still has the ability to attract a consistently curious mixture of celebrities. This year, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson will be in town raising money for his don't-call-it-a-stunt White House bid, while man-of-letters Colson Whitehead is actually participating in the main event, as part of a feature he's writing for Grantland. (We have to think the $10,000 buy-in proved too rich for Johnson's blood.) While we wish Whitehead well in the tournament and in his efforts to sell a very, very limited number of corporate sponsorships to readers of his blog ("In the Hoi Polloi Sponsorship Level," teased Whitehead last month, "you can purchase one of 10 Commemorative Signature Bracelets. They will be green or orange in color, I haven't decided which"), the past history of stunt entrants doesn't bode well. Some of the notable names that failed to find a lucky streak at past championships.

Bill Simmons  Whitehead's Grantland boss tried out a similar (read: identical) conceit back in 2006, just as the number of players hit an all-time high of more than 11,000. It ended with Simmons getting bounced on the first day and ESPN effectively eating the $10,000 entry fee. The column was fine, but not the kind of thing you'd like to pay for more than once every five years.

Matt Damon and Edward Norton  They played in 1998, before the Internet poker boom, to promote Rounders. Neither made it past the first day, though the circumstances of Damon's ouster were memorable enough to make the trivia section of the film's IMDB page. (Damon had pocket aces, but busted out when former world champion Doyle Brunson drew pocket aces.) Norton's elimination doesn't receive any additional explanation, which says it all.

Montel Williams  He gave stunt contenders reason for optimism in 2007, when he briefly held the overall chip lead. Then bad luck, helped along by some "spectacularly bad calls," at least according to the AP, set in.

Tobey Maguire  The one that got away, even before he emerged as a prominent figure in the still-unfolding investigation into high-stakes Hollywood poker games. He lasted until day three in 2007, a remarkable achievement that didn't match poker analyst Phil Gordon's even loftier expectations for the Spiderman star. "He's got the perfect disposition at the table, he's studied a lot, he plays in huge cash games," Gordon said. "He definitely has a game that could get deep, maybe even final table, maybe even win."

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