Shuffle up and deal

CHRIS TESSARO -- Special to the Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:35 PM ET

NIAGARA FALLS -- Tony Servello is driving his table nuts.

As the other nine poker players sweat over whether to bet or fold, Servello is raising bets without even looking at his cards.

It's early in the North American Poker Championship and most of the participants are playing it tight, wary of matching any bets that could put them out.

Statistically, with even half-decent cards, the players know they have great odds of beating a player who doesn't even know what cards he holds.

But they are afraid to take that gamble.

And Servello knows it, and its paying off.

But statistics are funny things. Over the long term, they tend to be proven right and before long, Servello's strategy catches up with him and he is eliminated.

Servello will not be alone in folding up shop this week at the Fallsview Casino Resort.

Others like him will fall by the wayside through the weekend before the five-day tournament -- the World Poker Tour's first venture into Canada which began Wednesday -- finishes Sunday.

More than 500 players paid $10,000 US to enter the tournament, from the neophytes such as Servello to the stars, such as Toronto's own Daniel Negreanu.

Negreanu had high hopes for this event.

"I love this tournament," Negreanu said earlier this week. "I feel like I have home casino advantage."

Alas, it didn't work out that way, as Negreanu was eliminated yesterday.

The winner gets a World Poker Tour bracelet and an estimated $1.3 million cheque.

"I'm going to play in more tourneys now," Servello said after his exit. "I love it."

That the event has attracted so many is not a surprise.

Poker ranks behind only the NFL and NASCAR as the third most-watched television competition in North America.

To call it a sport is to open up a whole other debate, but regardless, its popularity is unquestioned.

A big part of the game's attraction is the opportunity for amateurs to compete against the best in the world.

For poker players, going head-to-head with Negreanu or other stars such as Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan is the equivalent of playing Tiger Woods at Augusta or Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

The only qualifications required are cash and the time to play. Someone with both is Tim Connolly of the Buffalo Sabres. He's on the injured list and not playing as he tries to shake off the lingering effects of a concussion.

"Since I can't even travel with the team, I figured I'd play in this event," Connolly said. "It has been frustrating, not being able to play hockey, or even work out. So I've been playing a little poker, and enjoying it."

Though Connolly is a pretty solid poker player, in an event on the World Poker Tour circuit he is what the pros call "dead money." He has paid his ten grand, but his odds of winning are slim.

He proves them right and exits halfway through Day 1.

Another big-name pro at this event is Barry Greenstein, who plays with a book on poker, Ace on the River, under his chair. He is the book's author and he intends to autograph it for whoever eliminates him -- should that happen.

Greenstein, who owns a software company in southern California, has pledged to donate any winnings from this tournament to charity, not the first time he has done so. He has donated more than $2 million to various charities over the years.

"I'm fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to help some people," he said.

But Greenstein will not go hungry. Where he makes most of his money is off the side games that surround these events, high-stakes cash games that run non-stop.

Pros often come to tournaments more for the side games than the main events, and the poker room at the Fallsview has apparently been breaking casino records every night since the tournament came to town.

"Poker players have a lot of gamble in 'em," said Mike Sexton, host of the WPT televised events.

"They will bet on almost anything, as long as they think they can get some kind of an edge that will let them win."

Negreanu, for instance, is a vegetarian and he has been offered $10,000 to eat a steak.

But for most of the players, the amateurs especially, the goal is a payout.

There are a few milestones in a World Poker Tour event.

The first is surviving the first day of play, though it is merely a moral victory.

BREAK THE BUBBLE

Making the bubble -- that magical cutoff point where cash prizes kick in, increasing the further one goes -- is another.

The ultimate goal is the final table on Sunday, a special set up for television.

It is then the television lights come on as cameras record your "pocket" cards and WPT announcers Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten analyze your every move.

For better or worse, it's 'all-in' time.


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