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Playing his cards right

You've jumped on the Internet, won a few hands and maybe even had the nerve to visit a local poker room now that you think you have the hang of Texas Hold'em.

Noel Garcia loves to meet people like you.

He also loves to play what has become the world's most popular poker variation, but the Patterson resident has a little advantage on the weekend player — a 26-year head start.

The electrician has been playing Texas Hold'em since he was 17 — in garages, living rooms, card halls and casinos, and in recent years online. All the time, he was waiting for the magic combination of luck and skill that would be his ticket into the high-money game.

Last month, his ticket was punched.

By winning a tournament event on the Web site, Garcia, 43, won an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in a European Poker Tour event in Dortmund, Germany. The total prize package, including air fare, food, lodging and the 5,000-euro buy-in (about $6,480), is worth $8,940.

"All these years, my goal has been getting into the World Series of Poker," Garcia said. "Everybody wants to go to the Mecca. But poor me. I have to settle for a seat on the European Poker Tour."

And it all started with two $27 buy-ins.

The first was his stake in a 115-player online tournament several weeks ago. He won that tournament, adding $800 to his online account. He then entered and won another $27 buy-in event.

Garcia took $475 worth of those credits and bought into two European Tour Satellite qualifying events. He finished 50th and out of the money in an event that could have won him a seat at the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo but held on to beat 174 other players to claim the trip to Dortmund.

It's the busy season for his wife, Sonia, who conveniently is a tax preparer, so he'll be accompanied on the trip by his 23-year-old son, Joel. They'll fly to Germany on March 5, and the five-day event shuffles into action March 7.

"Playing poker is important to me, but it's also important to have the support of your family, especially your wife," Garcia said. "If she didn't want me doing this, I would quit. But doing well makes it easier for me to get the OK."

Combining his online winnings with those in local rooms, mainly the Turlock Poker Room, Garcia said he won more than $10,000 in January. He has yet to look into the payout structure of the Dortmund event, but with a seat limit of 500 players he's guessing the top 40-50 players will cash checks at the end of the event. Based on payouts of similar events on the tour, the last person standing should take home around $500,000.

With only 500 players present, Garcia knows his odds of cashing are much better than at the WSOP, which last year qualified 8,773 players for the $10,000 buy-in.

The irony of qualifying for a high-stakes table game by winning an online tournament isn't lost on Garcia. He knows and appreciates the intricacies of both games.

"I've had a lot of experience playing with people," Garcia said. "But when you play online, you're playing your own stack of chips. You're playing for position. That's why a lot of people think online poker is all about luck. It's not. You have to know where you're sitting, who is raising and when. It really is a game of skill."

And, he said, the Internet is a great place to learn how to play the game. It's free, anonymous, and at the very least can teach you the odds of the draw.

"I've played this game since I was 17 and in card rooms since I was 21, and when the game came online it made it more convenient for me to play since I could only get to the card room on the weekend," Garcia said. "But I estimate that in three years of playing online, I've seen more hands than in 21 years in the card rooms."

Garcia admits he's never felt the pressure of competing in the kind of high-stakes game he'll see in Germany. This is the first time he's been required to sign a television waiver. On the other hand, he already is playing with house money.

Or, house money minus $54.

"Granted, some of these guys have millions and can play every day, but I've been playing for all these years and have never had the financial backing. Maybe somebody will take a chance on me now," Garcia said. "If I do well, this might give me some buy-ins for some major tournaments. Other than that, I'm just a normal hard-working guy who can afford to play in $27 online tournaments."