SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - As nine of the world's best poker players sit down Saturday to battle for a nearly $9 million top prize at the World Series of Poker's Main Event final table in Las Vegas, local players are gearing up for the brand's annual local event.
The 2010/2011 World Series of Poker Circuit Event at Harveys Resort and Casino begins Thursday and runs through Nov. 22.
The event includes 33 poker tournaments and is the sixth of 14 circuit events around the U.S. leading up to next year's World Series of Poker in May.
The Lake Tahoe event attracts mostly regional poker players, but also includes national competition.
Winning one of the circuit event tournaments takes a combination mathematical knowledge, a critical eye for opponents' behavior and the ability to remain focused during often tedious play spanning several days, said past participants.
And a little bit of luck doesn't hurt.
"Any player will tell you that luck is a factor," said Richard Wolf, a 62-year-old olive farmer who splits time between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe.
Wolf took 18th place out of 192 entrants in a $340 buy-in No Limit Hold'em tournament at last year's circuit event. He said he's played poker for 30 years.
The circuit event tournaments typically attract stiffer competition than the regular games that can be found at South Shore casinos, but that isn't a bad thing, Wolf said.
The mathematical probabilities more experienced players use are often easier to predict than the sometimes off-the-wall bets made by inexperienced players, Wolf said.
"Good players can be bluffed," Wolf said. "Bad players have no idea they're being bluffed."
Getting inside a competitor's head to figure out whether you have them beat is all part of the game, Wolf said.
"The fun is the psychological aspect of being able read a player," Wolf said. "When you intuition is consistently right, the experience can border on the mystical. When everything is working really well, there is a higher level of consciousness. There's a moment that you're just more aware."
But being in that zone is often tempered by hours of monotony that doesn't make it to the popular national television broadcasts of the World Series of Poker's Vegas Main Event.
"The one thing I'd say to any newcomer is you'd better be prepared for a long grind," Wolf said. "It can be a boring, tedious game."
Among the dozens of hands a poker player will see during an eight- to 10-hour stretch of tournament play are nuggets of wisdom, said Zephyr Cove resident John Myers. Myers, 71, took 13th place out of 250 players during a $340 buy-in No-Limit Hold'em tournament at last year's circuit event.
Despite 60 years of poker experience, the retired mainframe computer salesman said he learns something new every time he plays.
The variety of the game and the skills required keep him coming back, Myers said.
"The main thing is the challenge," Myers said. "We always have that challenge in life to do something better than someone else."
"You either win all the way to the end or you get knocked out," Myers said.
And that all or nothing aspect makes tournaments different from the home games to which casual players may be more accustomed, said Zephyr Cove resident Leslie Spear, 61. Spear, a real estate broker, took fourth place in the same event where Myers placed 13th.
Cash games allow players to come and go, but a tournament comes down to one thing, survival, Spear said.
"It's not a question of how many pots you win, it's surviving to the next level," Spear said, referring to tournament structures that require more and more money from players as time passes and players are knocked out.
Spear said the competitive aspect of poker makes the psychological battles, bad beats and hours of sitting at a card table worth it.
"It's a competitive kind of sport, if you want to call it a sport," Spear said. "It's a thrill to win."
Buy-ins for circuit event tournaments start at $70. The Harveys event culminates with a $1,600 buy-in No Limit Texas Hold'em starting at 12 p.m. Nov. 21.
Last year's $5,150 buy-in main event included a $299,400 prize pool, with winner and San Rafael resident Matt Keikoan taking home $106,435 after beating out 63 other players.
Coverage of the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas begins at noon Saturday.