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Poker News: June 3, 2007

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Copyright © 2007 The Albuquerque Tribune

HEADLINE: Duke City online poker player graduates to the big time

Rolling her eyes, Catherine Hart looked with scorn at her opponent across the green poker table.

"This person is going all in," she said, eyeing her computer screen knowingly.

People always do that when they shouldn't in AOL's online No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em tournaments, which is where Hart said she's learned all about the game.

Hart is a master of the computer game version of poker, but her online play has netted her a chance to represent the Duke City and play at a new level - face-to-face against live competitors at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nev.

Hart, 48, is one of 12 AOL online tournament winners selected to play in the poker series, which is shown on ESPN every year.

Keep an eye out for her, she said. She already has a strategy for locals who'd like to root for the hometown favorite.

"I'm going to get a shirt that says `505' on it," Hart said. "People from New Mexico will know what it means, but nobody else will."

Hart will be one of about 9,000 competitors in the first round of the championships the week of July 6.

If she makes it to the top, she could end up playing for $15 million.

And that has everybody who knows the boisterous, blond poker whiz eagerly waiting for the tournament to start, said Shane Solvie, 27, who works with Hart at Blayne's Auto Superstore, 4700 San Mateo Blvd. N.E.

"She's pumping up everyone at our business," Solvie said. "We'll be watching her for sure - online and on TV. She's got to be representing. She's not just going there for herself."

If Hart wins, there will be a huge party at the store. And Hart claims, even with the $15 million prize, she would still return to work as office manager for the car dealership.

"I couldn't do that to them," she said.

Along with her online poker practice, Hart's main trainer has been her son, 23-year-old Alex Hart, who's coming with her to Las Vegas, she said.

"We talk about it every day," she said. "He stops by work, tells me I should be practicing at work. Every night he comes home and tells me I should be practicing."

Alex Hart taught his mom to play Texas Hold 'Em about two years ago. The two watch a lot of poker tournaments on TV and are huge fans of the World Series of Poker, she said.

"I'd love to play against Phil Hellmuth," she said of the poker star who, in 1989, at age 24 was the youngest person ever to win the series.

"He's got a mouth on him," Hart said of Hellmuth. "He always thinks he's the best. Wouldn't it be great if a woman took him down?"

Hart and her son plan to scout out poker games at Albuquerque-area casinos to practice her live play before the competition, she said.

Poker is very different live than online, she said. Around a table, players have to hide their facial expressions so others don't guess their hands, Hart said.

"My son says I have to wear glasses, a hat," Hart said. "He says it would be better to put a Halloween mask on, but that won't be happening. I'll be smiling the whole time - even if I have a bad hand, I'll be smiling."

People also tend to be more reckless with their chips online than in real life, Hart said.

"I think people are more conservative playing live than on the Internet," Hart said. "On the Internet, people don't care as much. If they lose, they lose."

So far, Hart is the only New Mexican to win a seat from AOL for the World Series tournament, said Nicole Opas, programming director for AOL Games.

There's still time for her to have some New Mexico company, though.

AOL will pick three more champions by Father's Day, Opas said.

"The World Series is all about the average man - or woman - becoming a champion," Opas said.

To be picked by AOL, players compete online in daily tournaments against 5,000 others. The top 100 players in those tournaments make it into the championships, which are played online that Sunday, Opas said.

The winner of each Sunday championship gets a seed in the World Series of Poker.

AOL pays the $10,000 entry fee for the event and pays for a hotel room and airfare, Opas said.

"Poker's a little bit of luck and a lot of skill," Opas said. "The people who win are smart and keen. That's what our winners have."

Being smart and keen is one thing. What Hart needs most is to develop her poker face, she said.

"I haven't gotten that down, yet," she said with a wink, but added, "I'm working on it."

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