Novice player competes in World Series of Poker

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2004

SPOKANE, Wash. Gerry Drehobl took a nice family vacation to Las Vegas recently and won $365,000 on a pair of kings at the poker table.

Not bad for a guy who only took up the game last Thanksgiving.

On Sunday, Drehobl, 49, begins play in the finals of the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in the Nevada city. The $10,000 entry fee was no problem, not after he won the huge pot at an earlier WSOP tournament at Binion's on April 28.

''I'm still a novice. I don't pretend to be anything different,'' Drehobl said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Las Vegas. ''To win a tournament like that, you've got to be sort of lucky.''

It helped that Drehobl felt he had little to lose when he faced some of the best players in the world.

''I took a lot more chances than they would,'' Drehobl said. ''Why risk all their chips on one hand when they can grind it out?''

His winning game is to be shown June 22 on ESPN, and the finals of the World Series of Poker will be televised over and over for the next year.

Televised poker has become hugely popular in this age of reality programming, offering an alternative to all those people singing for Simon Cowell, answering trivia questions for Regis Philbin or being fired by Donald Trump. In addition to ESPN, the Travel Channel offers ''World Poker Tour'' and Bravo has ''Celebrity Poker Showdown.''

When not making like Amarillo Slim, Drehobl operates a corporate aircraft maintenance service out of his home. His clients call or e-mail from anywhere in the nation when they need work on their plane, and Drehobl finds local mechanics to do the job.

Drehobl had never played cards much, but he became hooked on poker while playing with his wife's family and watching televised tournaments last year. Around Thanksgiving, he taught himself to play Texas Hold 'em, a wildly popular game in which each player is dealt two personal cards and then five community cards are turned up on the table.

Players make the best five-card combination, betting over four rounds. Players at any time can bet all their chips.

It was in that game that his pair of kings beat an opponent's ace and six, winning a final pot of more than $1 million. He got to keep 35 percent, with much of the rest distributed among the top 30 finishers.

Drehobl was paid in cash, which he deposited at the casino and then wired to his bank, not wanting to walk out the door with it.

His accountant is working to reduce the tax bite.

Drehobl said he gave 10 percent of his winnings to charity, bought a trampoline for his two children and a 50-inch home theater for himself.

The world championships of the World Series of Poker run through Friday at Binion's. Each player begins with $10,000 in chips and quits when that money's gone.

Last year, Chris Moneymaker was the winner among 839 players, getting $2.5 million.

Drehobl moved to Spokane after marrying wife Ann, a Cheney High graduate, four years ago. It was her family's love of card playing that got him hooked on poker. He started reading books about poker and played at the Northern Quest Casino in suburban Airway Heights.

But he had few hopes of a major score when he wandered down to Binion's during Las Vegas vacation last month and joined a poker game in which each player put up $200. He won, getting $2,000 in chips he used to buy himself into a WSOP event.

He finished 40th in that tournament, getting $4,400. He used that money to buy into another WSOP preliminary, and, after 26 straight hours of play, won the big pot.

Ann immediately took $10,000 and signed Drehobl up for the world championships.

''She was absolutely thrilled when I won,'' he said. ''She ran up on stage and fell into my arms.''

This year's championship could draw as many as 2,000 players, with a $3.5 million first prize. Anyone willing to put up $10,000 can enter.

''I don't want to be operating under illusions,'' Drehobl said of his poker success.

''There is some luck involved in the game. But you see the same top players make the final table over and over and over.''

Being able to read other players, to somehow know whether you have a winning hand, is huge, he said.

''I could always read people, be very aware of people and what they are feeling,'' he said.

Is he nervous on the eve of the big showdown?

''I'm having a great time,'' he said. ''There's no reason for me to be nervous anymore.''

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