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Ante up: High-stakes poker tournament brings thousands to Cherokee

A look at the massive crowd at the beginning of play for Flight A in the Monster Stack event. Kyle Perrotti photo A look at the massive crowd at the beginning of play for Flight A in the Monster Stack event. Kyle Perrotti photo

Gone are the days of backroom poker tournaments where players peer through a haze of smoke just to see their cards. 

Or at least that’s the case now for those who get their high-stakes thrills competing in sanctioned events like the one held Aug. 3-14 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, an event that paid out millions of dollars across 19 separate tournaments. Hosted by the World Series of Poker, the circuit event offered players in those individual tournaments the chance to win some money, and each victor also earns a WSOP ring and with it an automatic bid for the WSOP Tournament of Champions next year in Las Vegas.  

Participation in such tournaments has picked up in recent decades as events have been televised, but the real boom came in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker won a World Series of Poker Championship bracelet after qualifying for the event through an online poker site. His win was proof that anyone can come in and upset the field. It’s competition in its purest form.   

No one makes it to the final table by fortune or favor — you have to earn it.


For the 12 days of competition at Cherokee, individual tournaments were held in the event center, normally reserved for world-renowned musical acts. Tables were set up wall-to-wall, and at the beginning of the more popular events, it was hard to find an open seat at most tables.

While people at some of the tables talked and joked, once play began, conversation was drowned out by the ubiquitous sound of chips shifting and shuffling.  

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Most players were white males between about 25 and 50 years old, and while there was some racial diversity, female players were few and far between. Some people wore colorful clothes designed to grab attention, and many wore shorts, flip flops and hoodies, looking as though they may have just wandered out of a frat house and into the casino. Somewhere around 10% wore sunglasses and kept their hoods up to obscure their face as though they were trying to fit the infamous Unabomber police sketch.

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Preston McEwan, who ultimately finished third, wasn’t shy about striking up conversation at his tables.Preston McEwan, who ultimately finished third, wasn’t shy about striking up conversation at his tables.Kyle Perrotti photo

The biggest and most prestigious tournaments lasted four days and started with over a hundred tables. The stakes felt high from the outset — the stacks of chips may not be high, but it’s still about survival. At most events, people can buy back in if they bust, but only up to a certain point. Some players bought in several times after going all-in early in play. The risk, to those who can afford multiple buy-ins — or “bullets” as they’re referred to by players — is worth the potential reward of building a big stack early.

While most players lost gracefully, there were some — a man   who threw a water bottle down, one who yelled a curse word, one walking away as he talked to someone on his phone about how fate had screwed him over — who showed their frustration. 

The WSOP ring sits in the foreground as the final two players dueled.The WSOP ring sits in the foreground as the final two players dueled.Kyle Perrotti photo

Rare temper tantrums aside, stoicism is evidently a virtue in tournament poker, both at table and once play is done. Down to the final table where hundreds of thousands of dollars could be at stake, people were congenial in victory and defeat. 

Throughout the day and into the night, waiters and waitresses roved the area, weaving between tables calling out “coffee, cocktails, water!” While most players drank water, some had coffee and a few opted for alcohol, even at the onset of play at 10 a.m. During the 15-minute breaks every two hours or so, dozens of players would rush outside for a smoke break. While most came back smelling of cigarettes, a few reeked of marijuana.

At the tables, players focused when cards were in front of them, but otherwise, many had their phones out, scrolling through social media or texting. The savviest players used their phones as tools, looking at tables with odds between hands and even sometimes doing quick calculations.


The biggest night of the 12-day run was Monday, Aug. 14, the end of the Main Event. The day started around noon with 19 players on three tables. Within minutes, several were out, brave or foolish souls who made a big grab for chips early on knowing they’d need a healthy stack heading into the final table.

While the casino guaranteed at least a $1.5 million prize pool for the Main Event, with 1,623 entrants, the pool ultimately dwarfed that number at almost $2.5 million.  

The three tables were up on the event center stage with the final table looming on a platform behind them. Another tournament was going on below, and often when someone down there would bust out, they’d come up and check out the action. While there were some friends and family of players on hand, most who stuck it out and watched into the night were other players — students of the game.

Within an hour, the field was down to 15, and even though some players were bleeding chips, the mood shifted, and people played a more conservative brand of poker.

With 14 players left, Preston McEwen, the Tennessee man who would eventually win about $175,000, was short on chips and went all-in on an ace-king suited, a great draw. It was looking dire when the flop and turn came, but he caught the king he needed on the river, jumped up from the table and did a brisk lap around the other remaining table letting people know what he’d just accomplished.

Had he lost that hand, his payout would have been only about $25,000, $150,000 less than what he ended up with. It’s those small moments that make tournament poker what it is.

Eventually, 10 players emerged and made their way up to the final table. One player, Billy Kott had about a quarter of the chips. While people could gather beneath the platform where sat the final table, about 20 feet stage right was a giant TV that offered an overhead view of the action and a clear view of the cards. 

Players were knocked out one-by-one, and it was usually easy to see it coming. First someone would win a big hand, then the chips dwindle as they wait for their next opportunity. Eventually, they go all-in. Sometimes it’s the right call and someone busts out on a hand they probably should have won, and sometimes they reach.

For a while, McEwen was low on chips, although he had enough to form them into a smiley face, much to the amusement of his friends watching on the TV.

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The WSOP ring sits in the foreground as the final two players dueled.The WSOP ring sits in the foreground as the final two players dueled.Kyle Perrotti photo

“I knew you’d win once you got the nose on there,” someone shouted after McEwen won a big hand.

Despite having close calls earlier, McEwen survived and made it to the final three against Kopp and Brian Jones. For a brief moment, he was nearing their chip count; however, he ultimately busted out. Either way, the weekend was an overall success for the eccentric and somewhat fratty McEwen, who at one point received a massage for about an hour right there at the final Main Event table. A five-time WSOP ring winner himself, McEwen didn’t win any of the tournaments, but he made the final table three times during the 12 days at Cherokee and walked away a good deal wealthier than he came in.

On that final night, McEwen’s raucous cohort gave him a round of applause, and as he left, he invited members of the media who travel with the circuit to get some drinks.

“We’ll probably go bowling,” he said.

With McEwen gone, the chip count was about even — Jones had a slight lead with 34 million to Kopp’s 31 million. The two duked it out for over an hour prior to the dinner break, playing fast hands with small pots as Kopp gained the advantage and continued to build on his lead. Not long after the dinner break, Jones got the cards he wanted and went all in ahead of the flop. While the flop offered a chance at a flush, that never materialized, and Kopp, an Ohio native, emerged champion and won just over $375,000. He’s now won three rings, a bracelet and a whopping $1.7 million.


People came from all over to play at Cherokee, including Timothy Carolla, who visited from south of Pittsburgh, about 8 hours away. He made a sort of vacation of the thing and was at the casino for all 12 days of play and won about $5,500 after finishing eighth in one event and another $688 after finishing 218th in the Monster Stack.

Carolla spoke with SMN during a break after the start of the Monster Stack. He said that while he’d played in Las Vegas and Atlantic City before, he was excited to get the chance to come to the event in the Smokies. He noted how good the competition was.

“My buddy came down last night and asked how the play was, and I said I think it was actually stronger than average, a higher percentage of good players than when I played in Vegas,” he said.

Carolla also said he enjoyed the area, especially the pleasant company of his fellow players, many of whom were regional or even from surrounding counties.

ae winner photo

Billy Kopp took home the top prize of $376,154 at the Main Event. Donated photo

“Yesterday, I was at four tables over 16 hours, and I met the one guy who I think I spent eight hours with, and our game was so much fun. People were really friendly,” he said.

Ebony Bost didn’t start with a great run of luck and finished out of the money in the Ladies Event. However, the next day, she finished third in a nightly tournament and won enough money to buy into the Main Event. She was already there, so why not?

Bost ended up placing 22nd and winning about $15,000; no other woman made it as far in the Main Event. She said she was happy to show people that a Black woman can excel at a game where they’re underrepresented. Bost, an Army veteran who served 23 years, started playing poker during a deployment in Iraq. While she’d played home games and cash games consistently since getting out, she just started playing tournaments in March.

She said she’d initially had no intention to play the Main Event.

“I didn’t think I was ready for that at all,” she said with an ironic laugh.

Bost said she plans on coming back for the next WSOP Circuit event at Cherokee at the end of November. A regional manager for a furniture company, said she loves the mental challenge of playing poker.

“I like tournament play because it’s way more strategic,” she said. “I think that’s why I did well, because I was taking it more seriously.”

Todd Mercer’s popularity among his fellow players is obvious. At the beginning of the Monster Stack event when more players are up and about, several folks gave him high fives or even hugs as they walked by. That admiration is indeed earned — not only is he a nice guy; he’d previously won a Main Event at Cherokee. This go-round, he won a ring in one tournament and finished second in the Monster Stack.

Mercer, 50, only began playing poker about a decade ago. Like most other players, he has a day job, working in sales for a company that builds manufactured homes. While many poker players are numbers wizards who understand odds, Mercer’s greatest strength may derive from the very thing that makes him good at his job — his ability to read people.

Mercer said anyone who is considering getting into high-level poker at any stage in life should simply practice and get in on a tournament to see where they’re at.

“I had a buddy that was kind of at my level where I’m at now when I first started,” Mercer said. “And I was like, ‘man, he’s got rings and he has already made like $500,000, and he’s only like, 25 years old or something.’ But over a few years I just kept playing.” 

Like Carolla, Mercer said he loves coming to the area.

“Maybe one day I’ll buy a little place out there on the lake, Junaluska I think it’s called,” he said.


The four WSOP circuit tournaments at Cherokee benefit the casino and the greater local economy.

Players stay at the casino or surrounding accommodations, and those who spend the full two weeks in the area may even patronize other businesses around the region. They are also a boon for the casino as they often get in on cash poker games and other table games like blackjack when they’re not in a tournament. Some even hit up the sports book. 

The first WSOP event at Cherokee was a decade ago, and since then, they’ve become a staple. Harrah’s Cherokee Regional Vice President of Marketing Brian Saunooke said the casino welcomes the tournament, and the more they host the events, the easier the logistics become.

“It’s about as efficient as it can be, but we have to start planning these things months in advance,” Saunooke said. “There were our poker dealers that come in specifically for WSOP, so there’s a whole hiring and badging process that goes along with that, as well as just the logistics of getting the rooms set up for it.” 

But no matter how well-planned the event is, it can still tax the staff, especially during otherwise busy times like weekends when there’s a show.

“Having this many team members dedicated to a specific event is a challenge in itself, because we have to keep the entire operation running,” he said. We’ve gotten it as streamlined as we can, and planning takes place early. But there’s still work, so it gets to be a lot on our on our team members. When players have breaks in between, everybody that’s playing wants to eat at that time. I just have these big influxes of guests into the restaurants and things like that. And we’ve added food trucks over the years to help make sure people can get a good quick meal and get back to the games, but there’s always a challenge.” 


Many players travel year-round to compete circuit events far and wide. So too do numerous dealers, as well as writers who post live updates on social media and recap tournaments on sites like .

Dennis Jones is the tournament director for the WSOP Circuit and manages events just like the one at Cherokee. Jones grew up in Texas and technically lives in Louisiana, but he said he spends about 300 days a year on the road. He’s been in the industry for 35 years and has worked with WSOP since 2006. 

Like so many others who find their way to some facet of the poker industry, the game is in Jones’ blood — his father was an avid player.

“Not a very good one, but he liked to play,” Jones said.

Jones said poker has come a long way since he first started playing 40 years ago and noted that once it became mainstream, events began attracting a greater level of talent. 

“You have guys out here who graduated from Ivy League schools and MIT, and these are poker guys,” he said.

Jones has a particular love for the circuit events he manages, specifically mentioning how much fun it is to see players of all levels turn out. With the broad fields seen at these events, sometimes a person who’s on no one’s radar, a local even, can come and capture a ring.  

“You see a guy who says, ‘this is my first tournament and suddenly I’m at the final table,’” Jones said. “It makes for a good atmosphere.”

Jones enjoys his busy life, which includes managing 15 circuit events every year, plus two months in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker Championship. Jones doesn’t mind the traveling too much in general, but sometimes it’s a pleasure.

“We’re gonna be doing our first time for WSOP in the Bahamas, and we do some events in Aruba,” he said.

While running such a massive 12-day event can seem daunting, like Saunooke, Jones said it’s not too bad once casinos get the hang of it.

“When you’re starting a brand-new event and they don’t have anything and you start from scratch, it’s a process and a lot of work,” he said. “But like here, it’s kind of like you have a checklist and you know what you’re doing and what the schedule looks like. You work with the in-house people Jason Jones and Anthony Johnson here. Jason Jones is the poker room manager, and Anthony’s the assistant. We’ve worked for these guys for 10 years, and they’re like family.” 

Some players talked about how much they loved being in the Smoky Mountains, but Jones has the receipts to prove it.

“I bought 7 acres of land up here on the Little Tennessee River that I’m eventually going to retire and build a house on,” he said. “I love the area. It’s beautiful, and the people up here are so great. You know you don’t have all the sarcasm and the negativity that you get at some tournaments. They’re just here to play poker have a good time and enjoy the atmosphere.”

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