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The luck of the draw

art frAll bets are on in Cherokee.

The first major poker tournament held at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort has lured crowds of card sharks from the southeast and beyond, surpassing attendance expectations, and even breaking records.

The 12-day event, organized by the World Series of Poker, drew hundreds of participants from big poker names to hometown mavericks. The series is a professional poker circuit that hosts tournaments around the country in top gambling spots like Atlantic City, Chicago and Las Vegas. Now, you can add Cherokee to that list.


“The response was overwhelming,” said Nolan Dalla, media director for the series. “These are like Las Vegas kinds of numbers. We don’t even get these numbers in Atlantic City.”

The main event last Friday, with a $1,675 buy-in, saw more than 850 participants, betting, holding and folding in the packed casino events center. Another event during the week, with a $365 buy-in saw more than 1,300 poker players. One round of play, only opened to players 50 years or older, even broke the record for the largest senior poker event held outside of Las Vegas. And with nearly 650 players, you can be sure the bingo halls were quiet that night in Cherokee.

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Before the Cherokee poker series had ended on April 14, the casino had already announced that it would be hosting another one next year. Dalla said the fit is a natural one, with the next closest world series tournaments being hosted in New Orleans and West Palm Beach. There was a void in the heart of the South for organized tournament poker.

When the N.C. General Assembly last year finally allowed Harrah’s to host live table gambling it paved the way for an open tournament.

“It’s was natural to have it here in North Carolina,” Dalla said. “There was a lot of poker being played behind the scenes.” 

But the participation wasn’t just limited to North Carolina. Dalla estimated that about half of the field came from within a 100-mile radius of the casino, hailing from Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. But others made the trek from places as far away as Massachusetts and California to land on the casino’s doorstep and take a seat at the green, velvet tables.

Some turned out to be winner’s, other losers. A researcher from South Carolina, Christie Hightower beat out 500 or so competitors to win $33,000 in one of the first events. Others stood up and shuffled out of the room $1,675 poorer, eliminated on a gutsy call only minutes after the cards were dealt.

Meanwhile, Ken Aldridge, a 61-year-old retired school teacher from Eastern North Carolina, chatted casually with the other players at his table last Friday. He was playing in the main event, which started out with some 60 tables on Friday and slowly pared down to just one winner by Monday.

That winner got a pot of over $200,000 and a chance to win a seat at the national World Series of Poker tournament in New Orleans next month, as well as entrance into the world championship poker tournament in Las Vegas this summer, where the winner takes home about $8 million.

But Aldridge didn’t seem the least bit affected by whether he had a bad hand or a good one. He said he was just happy to finally have the chance to play tournament poker in his home state. His jovial demeanor might also have been due to the fact that Aldridge had passed the $1 million mark in poker winnings in January, vindicating four years or competitive play.

Aldridge, who is called “Teach” by the other poker players, showed off the gold World Series of Poker bracelet he won, along with $400,000, after taking a big tournament in 2009.

“They all think I only wear this to the poker tournaments,” Aldridge said, showing off the bracelet. “But I never take it off.”

But the man sitting next to Aldridge, and competing for the same chips, didn’t seem so happy about Aldridge’s gold bracelet.

“I don’t know how we got so lucky to get the best player in the room at our table,” he grumbled.

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