Sun, Sep 09, 2007 - Page 19 News List

You gotta know when to hold 'em

Two- and three-day poker camps across the US offer a chance for up to 200 amateur players to improve their games with advice from the pros

By MATT VILLANO  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LAS VEGAS

Mark Seif, a prize-winning poker player, right, runs a "learning lab" at a World Poker Tour Boot Camp that was held in Los Angeles.

After a whole afternoon playing No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em poker, this was the moment that Donny Campbell had been waiting for.

Hunched over a poker table in a back room here at Caesars Palace, Campbell, 29, looked down at his cards to see a pair of queens. One of his two opponents had bet US$300 in chips, and the other US$600, and now the bet had come around to him.

Campbell stared into the distance, as if to bore a hole through the wall with his eyes. He paused. Then he looked at his cards again.

"I re-raise," he said, pushing US$1,200 in chips to the center of the table.

This rattled the others. The first opponent folded his cards quietly. The second, sighing, did the same.

But before Campbell could celebrate his victory, Mark Seif, a prize-winning poker player who was dealing the hand, interjected a stern dose of advice.

"That just worked out, but that re-raise might have been risky considering which cards could have beaten you," Seif said. "Position is important, but just because you're last to act doesn't always mean you need to be the aggressor."

Campbell, of Tampa, Florida, smiled with gratitude. Under normal circumstances, he might have been embarrassed after making such a strategic gaffe in the presence of greatness. On this day, however, Seif's evaluation was exactly what Campbell had paid for as a student at the World Series of Poker Academy.

The academy, run by the World Series of Poker and held in different cities throughout the year, is essentially a two- or three-day poker sleepaway camp - a chance for up to 200 amateur players to improve their games with advice from the pros. The World Poker Tour Boot Camp, affiliated with the World Poker Tour, is organized much the same way, and offers similar opportunities for smaller groups - up to 60 players at a time.

As more people take up poker as a hobby, the two camps are hot commodities. Combined, the schools have offered nearly 40 camps since January, and nearly every one of them has been sold out.

Tuition for these experiences isn't cheap, generally ranging from US$1,695 to US$4,300. But Jeffrey Pollack, commissioner of the World Series of Poker, says that for people who are serious enough about poker to take a class, the money is a stake in the future.

For those players thinking about playing in events where the buy-in, or cost of entry, is US$5,000 or US$10,000, Pollack said that "a couple thousand [US] dollars for valuable instruction is almost like an insurance policy," noting that both schools offer classes in a variety of poker games.

"The truth is that we can't set these things up fast enough," he said.

For some poker fanatics, returns on their investments are subtle: a new strategy for hiding the starting hand of ace-king, or a new approach to semi-bluffing, which is a bet or raise on a straight or flush draw.

But for other amateurs, the experience has been soon followed by major winnings.

Consider Bill Spadea of Easton, Massachusetts, who paid US$3,000 for a seat at a World Poker Tour camp. Days later, he won US$429,114 for finishing 13th at the World Series of Poker Main Event, which cost US$10,000 to enter.

Then there was Lee Childs, who said he paid US$1,500 for a different World Poker Tour camp and bagged US$705,229 at the Main Event for finishing seventh. Childs, who lives in Reston, Virginia, said that he bought a seat at the boot camp only to "brush up" on some fundamentals.

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