Do they have a chance?

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – 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 Falmouth, Mass., 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 on television.

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.

“It’s like a lottery, and we get more tickets,” said Erik Seidel, a tournament pro and World Series of Poker champion who has been playing high-stakes games for two decades.

Bill Thompson, a professor with the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, compares it to college basketball. If the NCAA expanded its tournament from 64 teams to 128, he asked, would it really give dozens of new teams a chance to win?

Internet qualifying tournaments and inexpensive satellite events make the path affordable for those, such as Austin, who beat a crowded field for a seat at the main event.

While the rare amateur who wins big gets star treatment, cameras rarely capture the ambitious novice who finds himself overwhelmed and outmatched.

Duane Woodard, an aspiring writer from New Haven, never recovered psychologically when, after six hours at the recent Foxwoods tournament, he got overconfident with a pair of aces.

“I’m thinking, ‘I get rid of this guy and pick these chips up, no telling where this is going to go,”‘ Woodard said. “I did an amateur move. I didn’t even think.”

His opponent, a more experienced player, also had a pair of aces but had a higher tiebreaker card, known in poker as a “kicker.”

In hindsight, Woodard said he should have realized his kicker, an eight, wasn’t going to hold up.

Woodard, who practices online and watches tournaments on television, said he wasn’t prepared for the hours of nonstop betting that come with real-life tournaments.

The patience it takes to fold hand after hand for hours is hard to duplicate online. So while tournament pros such as Daniel Negreanu, who has his own online gambling site, say the Internet is helping rookies improve faster than ever before, the transition is easier for some than others.

After dropping out of the University of Massachusetts to pursue a career in poker, Jean-Claude Moussa became a regular on Internet gaming sites, often playing six games at once. He made more than $160,000 last year, he said, but doesn’t play many live tournaments because they’re much slower and he loses focus.

Of the more than 400 people who registered for the Foxwoods tournament, Moussa said many didn’t stand a chance. Tournament poker is a bad idea for amateurs, he said, because the professionals usually win.

Moussa, who paid $10,000 to enter the Foxwoods tournament, was gone by the end of the first day.

Heading into the fourth day, the field was whittled to one table and a handful of players, including some part-timers. In the end, the tournament’s $1.3 million top prize went to Annand Ramdi, a professional and a regular on the tournament circuit.

AP-ES-04-22-06 1543EDT

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