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Anyone can snatch victory at poker tourney's Iowa stop

There's a reason no photographs of Donald Jones accompany this article.

It's because, if you're playing at the World Series of Poker circuit event at the Horseshoe Council Bluffs casino, Jones doesn't want you to see him coming.

Jones was an "anonymous speck on the wall" when he won a $110 satellite tournament in December to earn a free seat in Council Bluffs' "Main Event," the final tournament that caps off a week and a half of high-stakes poker tournaments in Council Bluffs beginning today.

Jones wants to be just as anonymous when he sits down at the poker table with hundreds of fellow dreamers gunning to win the Main Event, a three-day grand finale with an entry fee of $5,000.

He thinks anonymity will help his chance of winning. If he wins, he'll not only take home a few hundred thousand dollars, he'll also get an automatic seat at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker finals in Las Vegas. And if Jones, who has played the game for three decades, makes Vegas, who knows? Maybe he'll catch some lucky cards and come home a millionaire.

"This would be like sending a kid to Disneyland," said Jones, a 49-year-old Des Moines man who plays two Texas Hold 'Em tournaments a week at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona and is helping finance his daughter's University of Iowa education with his winnings. "It would be a chance to be the best in the world. How often does that chance come around in your lifetime?"

It's a chance that thousands of regional poker players will take during the next week and a half, as the World Series of Poker brand that eats up airtime on ESPN and captures the imagination of poker players nationwide visits this region for the first time.

Lots of money, lots of exposure at stake

The raw numbers are tough to ignore:

- An anticipated 5,000 poker players will travel from as far as 500 miles away, fill area hotel rooms and bring money to local businesses.

- Forty out-of-town dealers will help man 48 poker tables at the seven daily tournaments during the first week of play.

- Only eight cities across the United States will host the 11 circuit events leading up to this summer's Las Vegas event - and Council Bluffs is one of those eight. The Las Vegas tournament stretches for over a month and doles out prizes totaling about $200 million.

"This is an important slice of Las Vegas coming to Council Bluffs," said Jeffrey Pollack, World Series of Poker commissioner. "It's a way for folks in the community to experience the thrills and excitement of the world's richest poker tournament. ... We're hoping this becomes a fixture on the Council Bluffs scene."

But, if you can, ignore those numbers, ignore the famous poker names coming to Iowa, ignore the prestige of this tournament and the fact that it's in your backyard.

Instead, concentrate on the dreams of the countless Donald Joneses out there.

The dream is this: The winner of the Main Event in the Council Bluffs circuit brings home a load of cash plus a free seat in the Main Event in Las Vegas, a seat that would otherwise demand a $10,000 buy-in fee.

This year's Las Vegas version of the World Series of Poker begins June 1. Last year, the tournament had 46 events with $171 million in prize money. Players came from 56 countries - places as far away as Tibet and Russia - and 600 journalists covered the event. Nearly 9,000 players competed in the Main Event, with the top 873 coming out ahead. The top 13 finishers were instant millionaires.

And the poker aficionados coming to Council Bluffs are quick to point out the past four winners of the World Series of Poker haven't been professional poker players.

They've been average, anonymous Joes just like Donald Jones, people who started with little more than a dream and ended up with fame and fortune.

Iowans are confident they can succeed

Gary Thompson has had a front-row seat to the meteoric rise of the poker business during the past several decades.

He arrived in Sin City in 1978 as a journalist for the Las Vegas Sun. He was one of the first people in the news business to cover the World Series of Poker as a news event. He watched as the top prize for the winner of the main event rose from a couple hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars.

But the explosion of poker the past four years - since no-name rookie player Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million in his first live poker tournament - has astounded even Thompson, who now works as director of corporate communications for the World Series of Poker.

"No one could have ever predicted what has happened to poker," he said.


- Televised poker is the third most popular event on ESPN, ranking behind only NASCAR racing and NFL football.

- In 2003, 839 people entered the Main Event in Las Vegas. Last year, there were 8,773 entrants.

- Well-known poker pros - such as Chris Ferguson or Phil Gordon, both of whom will be in Council Bluffs for the World Series of Poker events - are now celebrities, signing autographs, posing for pictures and garnering hefty endorsement contracts.

The World Series of Poker has the traveling circuit tournaments so it can reach out to poker players who can't make the trip to Las Vegas. This will be the third year for the circuit events.

Early estimates are that 4,000 to 5,000 people will play during the 11-day Council Bluffs event.

"It's definitely something that will put us on the map," said Gary Margetson, the poker room manager at Horseshoe Council Bluffs.

Thompson, the communications director, attributes poker's popularity to several things. Televised poker is the ultimate reality show, he said, where you can see whether someone is bluffing and who has the best hand. It's an intimate arena, where you see faces of the players and hear them talking across the tables. And then there's the get-rich-quick aspect, the fact that average people can play against poker superstars.

There are people like Mike Fick, a regular at Prairie Meadows who last year earned $26,000 playing poker, a nice addition to his day-job salary working with mentally disabled adults.

He played in last year's World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, nearly finishing in the money. He said the regulars at Prairie Meadows are all talking about the Council Bluffs event; most of them are heading there for a couple of the tournaments with smaller buy-ins.

"If I do well in the small tournaments, I'll do the big ones too," Fick said.

He'll have to beat people like Derek Scallon, a 24-year-old University of Iowa graduate from Waverly who plays online poker 20 hours a week. He said he made six figures in 2006 playing online.

Scallon played in the Main Event in Las Vegas last summer, finishing 120th and winning $51,000.

"Doing that well in Vegas sort of solidified my confidence," he said.

The big question: What's the chance of an average Joe beating renowned players, winning the Main Event in Council Bluffs, advancing to Las Vegas, and - who knows? - winning the most famous poker tournament in the world?

"Maybe, if you catch lightning in a bottle," Thompson said. "Chris Moneymaker won a $39 satellite and got a seat in the World Series and won $2.5 million in 2003."




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