LAS VEGAS - It is near noon, and hundreds of the world's best poker players are gathered upstairs in the poker room of Binion's Horseshoe Casino, only minutes away from the latest game in a three-week marathon that is the World Series of Poker. The best of the best are here, and the meek, if they are wise, should check$their wallets downstairs at the cashier's window.


Maybe over there by the giant safe near the entrance from Fremont Street, the safe once owned by Wyatt Earp, the cowboy, and Tex Rickard, the boxing and sports promoter from the early 1900s, but later owned by Benny Binion.

''Benny was a marketing genius,'' said ''Oklahoma Johnny'' Hale, one of the giants of the poker world. ''Benny had the idea to put a million dollars in a display by the door and people'd come from all over the world to get their pictures taken by those million dollars.''

Real gamblers came here to bet real money; the atmosphere on the Strip may range from kitsch to tacky to Disney, but here the atmosphere is Old West.

Benny Binion made a reputation because he'd accept any wager. ''Once a cowboy from Texas showed up with a suitcase and wanted to bet $1 million on one roll of the dice at craps,'' said Boyd, a poker player from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. ''Benny took the bet.''

The bettor won his million on that craps game, but, of course, later came back to lose it all.

And the money went into the safe.

The safe standing there just inside the entrance on Fremont Street.

The safe with the sign over it.

The sign that explains ''it is presumed'' the safe was looted by ''that person or persons responsible for the murder of Ted Binion in Sept. 1998.''

At the Clark County Courthouse, just around the corner from Benny Binion's, a topless dancer and her boyfriend stand accused of murdering Benny's son as the most notorious trial in the notorious history of Las Vegas is winding up.

On the street, the jury is poked over, Las Vegas style, with the ''over/under'' for its deliberations given at 31/2 days.

If Benny Binion were alive, he'd take a wager on that. A wager of any size. But if Benny Binion were still alive, it would have been 50-50 that the two accused of his son's murder would have lived long enough to face a jury. The .357 Magnum and the pearl-handled revolver and the rest of Benny's prized guns hanging in a display near Wyatt Earp's safe still seem capable of firing out justice.

Ah, but inside Binion's, upstairs from that safe, there is no talk about who murdered Benny Binion's son. Oh, there is talk about how the Horseshoe has slipped since Benny Binion died on Christmas Day, 1989, about the family feuds that erupted after Benny's death, about how Becky, his daughter, was a fool for selling off the million-dollar display once she gained control of the casino, a fool because tourists used to come from around the world merely for a snapshot.

No, no, no ... the business is too serious upstairs for any talk about a murder trial. There is poker to be played. For high stakes. By the best players in the world. The 31st annual World Series of Poker.

Millions and millions of dollars are to be won. Some 22 events, each a two-day game involving a different version of poker, all culminating when The Big One begins, some 450 or so players putting up $10,000 each to play four days for the ultimate bragging rights to one of the most competitive games on earth.

Such a rare blend of human talent is needed just to get here, just to push forward $400,000 in chips on the turn of a card. A near-photographic memory, the ability to instantl9 calculate the odds of a certain card turning up, the most exquisite reading of human nature - the so-called ''tells'' - that a poker player exudes by tone of voice, eyes blinking, body language, and on and on. Many of these players can ''tell'' if the man or woman pushing forward that $400,000 in chips is bluffing or has the real deal.

And, courage, most of all.

The Discovery Channel did a documentary on last year's World Series. ''Invincible Vince'' Burgio, a Hall of Fame poker player, said, ''It was the highest-rated show the Discovery Channel ever had.''

Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, will be here, whether or not his team is playing in the playoffs. So will Hollywood types such as Gabe Kaplan, because this is where all poker players must be if they fancy themselves the best.

''Amarillo Slim'' Preston, poker's greatest celebrity and still slim and still wearing his cowboy hat after 71 years, will take a break from the tables and talk about how he won the 1972 World Series of Poker or why he just played his last hand a certain way.

And over there will be Noel Furlong, the carpet millionaire from Dublin and the winner of the 1999 World Series, who uttered that memorable line when the final table was down to its final drama last year and two of the players left were Irishmen, Furlong and Dubliner Padraig Parkinson.

''It looks like the Irish against the world,'' a wag shouted from the bleachers.

''It always is,'' replied Furlong, who won $1 million and a 14-carat gold bracelet when his full house flushed out the last of his rivals. For some of these men and women, it is that gold bracelet that means the most.

Heads and tales

It may be only in poker that an unknown can go against the world's best, as long as he puts up his $10,000 buy-in. The games have been going on for weeks now, hours at a time, and tales waft through the air in that upstairs room like cigarette smoke.

Curt Gowdy, the former Red Sox announcer, used to come here, as did Telly Savalas, the movie actor, and two years ago, Matt Damon and Ed Norton, to get a feel to their poker movie, ''Rounders.''

''No royal flushes here,'' said Burgio. ''It's not like `The Cincinnati Kid.' If they ever did a true movie about what it's like, there'd be hours and hours of not much happening.''

But that's precisely it, hours and hours of tension building until that make-or-break hand, when hundreds of thousands of dollars in chips are pushed forward and breaths are held as the cards turn.

The tales are endless, and the players are so different, from billionaires to hotel owners to professional gamblers scruffing, to doctors and lawyers to cowboys and foreigners. And this year poker will have its first Ryder Cup, the best of Europe against the best of America.

And they are all here, tales and characters, each worth a telling.

Annie Duke, eight months pregnant, was in the midst of detailing her winding road from Concord, N.H., prep school at St. Paul's, undergraduate degree from Columbia University, and master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania ''in psycholinguistics'' to this huge poker room at Binion's.

Just then, John Bonetti arrived and this 71-year-old man, the stereotype of Brooklyn gruffness, put his arm around Duke, 34, and began his spellbinding tale, even if it was spoken in Brooklynese. Poker once might have been the world of Texas cowboys and New York sharpies, men all of them, but no more. Clearly.

''Fuggedabowdit,'' began Bonetti, once a maitre'd in a New York restaurant, lately of Houston and now one of the best poker players in the world.''Fuggedabowdit.I may be from the old school, but Annie's one of the best poker players in the world - man, woman, or otherwise.''

Consider the speaker. Bonetti is such a gambler that when he'd been playing two nights earlier at the final table off in the corner with bleachers full of fans for the $160,000 first prize in an Omaha Hi-Lo Split game, his eyes had been turned more to the TV off to the side than the cards in front of him. Bonetti, it turned out, had a substantial bet on the NBA playoff game being shown.

''I'm not sayin' she's jus' the best of the women, that she can beat all the women players,'' said Bonetti. ''I'm sayin' she can beat the best men here. And I'm tellin' ya, that comes from Bonetti, that comes right from the heart.''

Now Duke piped up. ''Coming from an incredible male chauvinist pig,'' said Duke, ''it's an amazing thing.''

What makes Duke such a great poker player, said Bonetti and others, is that she has a photographic memory.

''She knows the basic fundamentals of poker, she knows more about it than most poker players, and then she has that recall,'' said Bonetti. ''I sat down with her just before and she recalled every card of everybody for about 24 or 25 hands, card for card, the way the cards fell. It takes a mind to do that. What a mind.''

As if on cue, Duke then went through a game from a year ago when she won $150,000 in a World Series event, and, as Bonetti said, she went through it, hand by hand, card by card.

''Believe me,'' he said, ''she has an incredible memory.''

There was a women's championship tournament Sunday, but Duke, belly bulging and already the mother of two children, 5-year-old Maud and 2-year-old Leo, would have no part of it.

Duke lowered her voice when asked about playing against the women. ''I don't play it,'' she nearly growled. It's only competing against the best that challenges her. ''No ladies' tees for me,'' said Duke.

Duke said when she first stepped up into high-stakes games, she had to rush to the ladies' room to vomit. But now, ''Even when I'm playing $1,000-$2,000 games, and you can win $100,000, it's just competition. Obviously I like the money, but it doesn't make me nervous anymore because I don't think, `Wow, that can be life-changing.'''

As a girl in New Hampshire, she had played gin and bridge, ''and solitaire and Oh How and War'' but it was not until she was well on her way to a much different career that she began playing poker.

''I was in graduate school at Penn,'' she said, detailing how her brother, Howard Lederer, invited her to tag along to the World Series in Las Vegas where he competed. She began playing for small stakes in Las Vegas, then perfected her game in card rooms in Montana, where she lives.

Now, every other month, she comes to Las Vegas for two weeks to play poker. Once she wanted to be a professor of psycholinguistics ''but sort of at the last minute I decided it wasn't what I wanted to do,'' she said. ''So I ended up moving to Montana and, for lack of anything better to do and for money, I started playing poker.''

Bonetti heard all this and said, ''Psycholinguistics, Annie? That's a-why you can read the cards in everybody's hand?''

Her amazingly quick mind, her competitiveness, her innate sense of what cards the other players are holding, her recall, her aggressiveness, all of it, have brought Annie Duke to the very top of the poker world.

''But in the end,'' she said, ''you have to have the cards.''

Poker's greatest truth.

A haunting figure

Aghost seems to float over Binion's Horseshoe poker room, the ghost of Stu Ungar, the 1997 World Series champion. Player after player tells stories of Ungar, and many concur that he was the best no-limit Texas Hold'Em player ever.

And it is not that Ungar won $1.1 million in the 1997 World Series and two months later was broke, for those rags-to-riches-to-rags stories are common in Las Vegas.

And it is not even that Ungar was a crack cocaine addict, for that also is not uncommon.

It is just the combination of them all, just the odds of it all happening to this 5-foot-6-inch man who weighed 135 pounds in his good times and 95 pounds in his bad.

Ungar's father was a bookmaker and bar owner on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By the age of 14, Ungar had quit school and won $10,000 off some of New York City's better gin rummy players. In a matter of days, Ungar had lost the $10,000 betting on the horses at Aqueduct.

Schooling or no schooling, Ungar had the gift that all great poker players must have, either by nature or by training, the ability to compute instantly the odds of a given card up.

Ungar won the World Series of Poker in 1980, when he was 27, and again in 1981, truly the best in the world. He once tried to take up golf. A friend brought him to a course for the first time, stopping off at the putting green for some instruction. Ungar never made it to the first tee. With a putter in hand for the first time in his life, he began betting his friend $200 a putt, then it was up to $400 a putt, and soon $800. By the time he had walked off the first putting green he had ever been on, Ungar had lost $80,000.

Drugs and gambling brought him to the depths, so much so that when the 1997 World Series began, Ungar was broke and had to be staked the $10,000 buy-in. But with hundreds of opponents gone by tournament's end, the gaunt Ungar, wearing jeans, a pair of $25 shoes, and blue granny sunglasses, raised his opponent twice, $800,000 on the final raise on the final hand.

It was Ungar's style, betting aggressively to tremble the knees of opponents. His favorite saying was, ''Always remember this: Lots of guys will fire one shell, but not very many will fire two.''

Only two remaining cards in the deck could give him victory. A deuce turned up, Ungar drawing to an inside straight and winning $1,066,000. ''This was the best I ever played,'' said Ungar then.

When the 1998 tourney came around, Ungar could not defend his title. He was in an upstairs hotel room at Binion's, trembling in the dark, unable to come downstairs to the poker room when the tournament director intoned, ''Shuffle up and deal.'' The drugs had done their deed.

Six months later, Stu Ungar was found dead in his bed in a motel room on the Las Vegas Strip.

''He was the greatest,'' said Jim Boyd, another of the better poker pros. ''Maybe not the greatest all-around poker player, but absolutely the best at No-Limit Hold'Em [a game that allows any amount of money to be bet, often huge amounts]. Stu Ungar was fearless - but he had so many dark sides to him.''

Cambridge to casinos

The attorney and business manager for the Grateful Dead slips into a seat in the Binion's restaurant now taken over by poker players nourishing themselves for the rigors of the day's deals, now only minutes away.

Hal Kant, Harvard Law School '58, relates a fascinating curriculum vitae, growing up in the Bronx, graduating from City College of New York, getting a Ph.D in psychology at Penn State, ''becoming chief psychologist in the Army'' and finally getting his law degree from Harvard.

And here Kant was, sitting in Binion's Horseshoe. The odyssey from the Bronx to Binion's began early, ''when I cut 40 percent of my classes at DeWitt Clinton High School [in the Bronx] to play poker, and I'd go to a clubhouse in a cellar of a tenement house. It was penny poker, you know, playing against kids. You'd get half the pot for the highest spade and half the pot for the winning hand.''

With Harvard degree in hand, Kant headed to San Francisco, where he was a clerk for the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Once in law practice, he noticed, ''The only attorneys in the music business were the attorneys for the record companies and their job was to get as much money as they could for their company and leave as little as possible for the artists,'' he said. ''I decided, maybe the other guys should have an attorney, too.''

Kant saw the opportunity, the Grateful Dead saw the possibilities, and Kant, Jerry Garcia, and friends were united. In business as well as in friendship, Kant making millions for the Dead and the Dead ''coming to my poker tournaments and rooting me on. They were always behind me. That meant a lot to me, that they were there to see me play.''

Kant ''started playing casino poker in 1984 and I started winning small tournaments.'' He then won a bigger tournament and took the winnings to Las Vegas and the World Series in 1986. Kant did well.

''It was such a shock - it was unreal,'' said Kant. ''If I win it now, it would be more impressive than winning it then, because now I know what it means.''

He has come close in various events, winning once, finishing second twice and also third, once winning $98,000, and, as all of the poker players do, he instantly goes into replay mode, repeating exactly from years ago the play of the hands that finished him off.

''Maybe it's a function of my personality,'' said Kant of his grim ''beats,'' losing when winning seemed so sure. ''But I can't forget the beats. The winners? I can't remember them as well.''

His lifelong love of poker, though, may be waning.

''The tournament is long and I'm getting old,'' he said.

Just as Kant was saying this came the announcement that the games were to begin. Cards were about to be shuffled. Kant leaped from his restaurant seat. His eyes were sparkling.

Another two-day poker game was about to begin, this game Texas Hold'Em with the size of the bets limited to the money in the pot. More than 100 men and women paid $3,000; Kant did not make it to the final table.

Birth of a tournament

''Oklahoma Johnny'' Hale was off to the side in the big room, autographing copies of his book, ''Gentleman Gambler,'' signing each the same way: ''Stay Lucky'' and then his signature, ''Ok Johnny Hale,'' and laughing when reminded that Hale often would have a stack of books under the green felt table when he'd be playing, instantly willing to oblige any who might want to buy one.

Oklahoma Johnny Hale is from that wilder frontier age of poker, when huge sums of money would be wagered in ''private'' games, the law to be reckoned with during the game and the lawless after the game, when the fear of a big winner being hijacked at a dark crossroads was real.

Now Hale, 72, was into his tale of how he was snowed in at Stapleton International Airport in Denver 32 years ago and marooned with him was Benny Binion.

''Benny wanted to have a game at his casino but Mrs. Binion wouldn't let him have a poker game regularly,'' Hale said. ''She didn't believe in poker. Obviously she had waited up too many nights for Benny to come home, but she wouldn't allow him to have a poker room in the Horseshoe.''

But Binion had the idea of one big game, bringing together the country's best. He invited Hale to Las Vegas to play in the first World Series 31 years ago.

''Benny was such a promoter,'' said Hale, ''and he started off with the original crowd: Nick `The Greek' Dandalos, `Amarillo Slim' Preston, Johnny Moss, Puggy Pearson, Titanic Thompson, and several others. And it grew and grew from there.''

The best player he ever locked chips with, said Hale, was Doyle ''Texas Dolly'' Brunson. Why? ''Doyle has courage. He'd make two bets without looking at his hands, then he'd look at his hand and see if he'd bet you a third time or not. You see, 96 or 97 percent of the time, the bet wins the pot. Doyle had immense courage. He won the World Series once with a 10-deuce off-suit.'' In other words, a horrible hand.

But, Oklahoma Johnny went on, ''Amarillo Slim is the best psychologist. Slim's nonstop chatter all has a purpose and he could interview you and know whether you've got [expletive] on your boots or not. If you nod to him, he knows what that means, if you shake your head he knows that that means. He has an immense read on your poise and your inclinations, how you sit, the way you move. Slim is the best reader of emotions and the voice.''

And, as Hale put it, ''If Slim gets you to talk, you can't win.''

Silence is golden

Last week, nearly 200 players paid $2,500 to play in a game of Omaha with the bets set at pot limit. The total prize pool was $487,500, and Preston made it to the final table. In 30 years of playing in the World Series, no player had ever beaten him at a final table, not ''Texas Dolly'' Brunson, not Johnny Chan, not Johnny Moss, not Phil Hellmuth, not even Dave ''The Devilfish'' Ulliott, poker's bad boy.

But sitting at that final table was Phillip Ivey, a 23-year-old African-American from New York City, ''the Tiger Woods of poker,'' as Burgio described the phenom. It seemed a mismatch, the 71-year-old legend with four of Benny Binion's gold World Series bracelets against a new kid.

For six hours, Amarillo Slim chatted and chatted, but the youngster barely talked. When the final table was down to a final handful, one of the players suggested splitting the pot, but Ivey would have none of it. Eventually, the poker gods smiled and Ivey drew a flush and then drew a straight, taking top prize of $195,000, leaving Preston with $97,500.

''That's a very wise young man,'' Hale said of Ivey, ''not talking to Slim. I used to think Slim could get anybody to talkin'. I reckon I was wrong.''