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Poker News: November 3, 2006

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Copyright © 2006 Daily Press

HEADLINE: Virginia man is finalist in Poker Dome Challenge

The Poker Dome is no place for the faint or the flinching. It's a soundproof pressure chamber where players are strapped with anxiety-tracking heart monitors and have 15 seconds to make all-in or fold-'em decisions that determine who plays on and who heads home.

Jerry Schrader, a locksmith from Woodbridge, trains for the dome every day, in every spare moment, punching his keyboard, moving his mouse, letting all the kings and queens and spades and diamonds form patterns in his mind and triggers in his reflexes. He wants to win a million dollars. He plays a thousand hands a day.

Part game show, part gladiator arena, the Poker Dome Challenge is one of the newest gimmicks in televised gambling. Every week, players enter the dome's aquarium-like inner sanctum to compete for cash prizes and the right to move on to the next round. Having won $25,000 in the first round and $50,000 in the second, Schrader is the third of six finalists from around the world who will play in March for the $1million pot. He is also the most successful of a trio of dome contestants from Woodbridge.

After winning the qualifying competition this month in Las Vegas, the 36-year-old Schrader has earned a seat in the final round of the 43-week Mansion Poker Poker Dome Challenge on Fox Sports Net.

"I want a shot at going pro," said Schrader, sitting behind the counter of Baldino's Lock and Key, a small storefront wedged between a Pizza Hut and an ethnic-foods market on Duke Street in Alexandria. His new burgundy Dodge Durango sat in the parking lot, a gleaming trophy from his recent hot streak.

Schrader's path to the Poker Dome began with a victory in a local tournament organized by the National Pub Poker League, which runs Texas Hold 'em competitions in bars across the country. Regional pub champs are sent to Las Vegas to enter the 216-player Poker Dome series, joining online tournament winners from the Gibraltar-based

The Poker Dome format is "like Internet Poker adapted to live play," said David Scott, the regional manager for the Washington area pub leagues. Players get 15 seconds to act on their hands and sit behind the glass of the dome's fishbowl design, surrounded by TV cameras and unable to hear the audience's reactions to their decisions.

"The big selling point is the technology," Scott said.

In addition to the heart monitors, computer sensors inside players' cards and chips track their hands and cash totals for the TV audience. Mood lighting and dramatic music pump up the suspense.

An estimated 23 million Americans wagered roughly $6 billion online last year, drawing the attention of U.S. lawmakers. This month, President Bush signed a law that forbids placing or settling bets made over the Internet using checks, credit cards or electronic fund transfers.

Schrader's rise from key-cutting to card-sharking has occurred almost entirely online. He was a precocious poker talent in family card games as a kid, but Schrader hadn't played for more than 10 years when he entered a free tournament one night in 2003 at a Woodbridge sports bar--and won.

"I instantly got hooked again," he said. "And soon after that, I discovered the online sites."

Since then, Schrader has lost some and won more, leaving him up $5,000 overall with his online habit, after pocketing $320 in two Internet tournaments Thursday. Minimizing losses is a question of knowing when to walk away from bad luck, he said. "If I drop $100, I quit for the day. There's a certain point where you've got to say 'forget it."'

Woodbridge is something of a speed-poker incubator, having sent two other players to the Poker Dome this year. The first, 25-year-old Dan Weatherly, lost in the opening round, but a second, Stan Poczatek, won $25,000 in the first round before he was eliminated in the second.

"My kids were excited to see me on TV," said Poczatek, 35, a father of seven who used his winnings mostly to pay bills. Poczatek and Schrader have played together at pub tournaments throughout the region. "For me, it was like another chapter in my life, something I'll be able to tell my grandkids about," he said. "But for Jerry, it will change his life if he wins the million. I think he's got a good shot at it."

As with most card games, succeeding at speed poker is both a question of luck and one's ability to maintain a steely countenance when that luck arrives. "Tells" are subtle indicators in body language that can betray a player's hand. For example, Schrader said he'll check to see where players glance once they get their cards from the dealer. "If they look right at their chip stack, you've know they've got a monster," he said.

During his 14 years as a locksmith, Schrader has developed a knack for opening safes, and he said that winning at speed poker is a lot like cracking one.

"You have to have patience," he said. "When you sit in front of a safe and try to manipulate it, you're going to be there for one to four hours, so you have to follow a pattern, follow the guidelines, and if you stray from it, it'll take you three times longer. It takes discipline."

And experience. Schrader said he's played 250,000 hands of poker online. "It's like anything," he said. "You've got to do it over and over and over until you don't have to think about it."

When Schrader won the $50,000 on Oct. 14, he advanced to the final round by beating out a prosthetic-limb inspector from New York named Marlon Delinois, who taunted him with insults during the commercial breaks. Delinois had a 3 to 1 chip advantage at one point, but Schrader risked everything to go all-in with just an 8 and a 4, then slowly fought his way back into the game. When he finally won the final round, Schrader's heart rate--normally in the mid-70s--hit 156 beats per minute, as if he were running a marathon. The game took 3{ hours.

"That was the most insane ride I've ever been on," Schrader said.

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