Hold 'em Major

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

Darren McCarty has a dream. And with any luck, he'll be able to fulfil it later this year.

Almost as much as he wants to hoist his fourth Stanley Cup, he wants to play in the World Series of Poker.

"I want to be sitting at the final table on TV," said the Flames forward with a grin. "Poker is a game that helps you get tougher mentally and I enjoy the competition of it. I'm a student of the game and I'm interested in becoming the best I can be."

As ringleader of the team's regular poker games on the road or in the air, McCarty will find out tonight just how far he has progressed when he sits down at the Stampede Casino for the team's first annual charity Texas Hold'Em tourney. Staring down a field of more than 250 entrants who paid $500 to play among Flames players and coaches, McCarty will vie for first place, which is a seat at the World Series of Poker's main event in Vegas.

"I'm going to win (tonight) -- if I get good cards, that's the way I feel," said McCarty, who got swept up in the poker craze almost three years ago while injured.

Starting with games against avid poker players in Detroit such as Brendan Shanahan and Curtis Joseph, McCarty got hooked into off-season games with the likes of Rob Blake and Paul Kariya before entering tourneys.

"I played in the Los Angeles Poker Classic and finished halfway," said McCarty, no stranger to daily tourneys at the Cash or Elbow Casinos in town.

"The first event I played in, there were 180 people and I got to 25 and was sitting with T.J. Cloutier, Erik Seidel, Scotty Nguyen, David Pham and all the guys you see on TV. I enjoy live games, no-limit, limit, Omaha ... all of 'em. Getting experience and talking to players -- it's a great social game."

Replacing the computer game Age of Empires as the competition of choice on Flames charters, backup goalie Phil Sauve reveals calls for poker games draw healthy responses before takeoff.

"Once somebody throws it out there, the chips are already stacking up," said Sauve, pointing out poker chips are kept on the plane at all times.

"Sometimes in between games in a hotel room, we'll get a little tourney going but mostly it's on the plane. Now we link up nine guys and play with the PSP (PlayStation Portable) so we don't have to deal with all the chips. We have a lot of fun."

Suggesting the typical winnings (of between $10 and $20 a head, they insist) get spread around, Sauve says everybody has a chance tonight.

"If you play smart and wait for your opportunities, you never know," he said.

Chuck Kobasew said he knows.

"I'm not experienced like McCarty or the other guys are -- we're all amateurs and he can pick us apart," said Kobasew, dubbed 'most improved' by McCarty.

"I'm just trying to stick around as long as I can."

Same goes for Andrew Ference, whose strategy is simple: "I'm 'all-in' first hand -- I'll either double it or have nothing."

And what about Miikka Kiprusoff, owner of the perfect poker face?

Replied Shean Donovan: "Maybe he's a sleeper -- I've never seen him play. If I get the cards, things could go well but, if not, I could be in trouble. I'm too aggressive."

A problem that has always played right into McCarty's hands.


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