With an ace-high straight, George Austin was sitting pretty, a poker rookie with the best hand at a table full of veterans in a $1.3 million tournament.
One hour into a four-day event, a made-for-TV story line was developing: Retired electrician stuns the pros and winds up playing for big money.
But instead of betting aggressively with an unbeatable hand, the 61-year-old Massachusetts man pretended to be weak in hopes of tricking his opponent into placing a fatally big bet.
It was an amateur move. It gave his opponent a free card, a card that immediately sent Austin home.
Moments later, Austin was in an empty hallway, rubbing his forehead and staring at his polished black shoes as the Foxwoods Poker Classic continued without him.
“I wasn’t even thinking about a flush,” Austin said again and again.
Austin is one of thousands of hopefuls each year who learn that the transition from home games, weekend events and Internet sites to high-stakes tournament poker is harder than it looks.
Buoyed by stories of amateurs who win millions, tournament registration has soared in recent years. The World Series of Poker, which attracted fewer than 200 players with a $755,000 top prize a decade ago, drew 5,600 entries last year and the payday was $7.5 million.
But while tournaments across the country get richer and more crowded, the final tables where fortunes are won aren’t getting any bigger. That means more people than ever are entering with high hopes – and leaving with nothing.
Perhaps the most famous newbie-turned-millionaire story is Chris Moneymaker, a 27-year-old accountant who learned to play online, bought into the 2003 World Series for $40 and walked away as its $2.5 million champion.
“This means anyone in their home can become a poker player,” tournament spokesman Nolan Dalla declared.
Not so fast, experts say. True, poker is a game of chance, but it also requires an ability to read people and calculate odds. Those skills are easy to fake in home games, but the gap between good players and great players widens over a lengthy tournament.