- Associated Press - Friday, May 29, 2015

LAS VEGAS (AP) - From playing Tuesday night poker matches in a garage with a $20 buy-in to being one among thousands hunched over green-felt tables shuffling stacks of poker chips everyone wishes will grow, 54-year-old Nick Luis Damico was one of likely many World Series of Poker first-timers navigating the annual championship Friday in Las Vegas.

The draw for casual players and poker pros alike has been a single new event: the Colossus, and its relatively inexpensive $565 buy-in to get a small chance for at least $5 million in prizes and a coveted bracelet, the tournament’s version of a Super Bowl ring.

That’s what got “Antiques Roadshow” host Mark L. Walberg to give the championship tournament a try for the first time.

The poker fan who co-founded a poker tournament among the PBS show’s appraisers took it as an omen that he would be in Vegas anyway (it’s where his airborne game show “The Game Plane” takes off and lands) during the tournament and might as well give it a whirl.

Walberg will have a recently acquired talisman, too, that literally spells “lucky”: an antique Las Vegas poker chip that a fan gave him after one of the recent cash tournaments he played in. “I’m obligated to bring something antique to the table or I might let people down,” he said.

Organizers have been bracing for thousands of players for Colossus, likely well more than 10,000. But they won’t know attendance for sure until Sunday, when the numbers are tallied. Poker tables were added to a cafeteria area and in otherwise open corridors in the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino to accommodate all the players.

It’s one of 68 events happening throughout the 51-day World Series of Poker that started Wednesday and culminates with the closely watched Main Event that offers players the chance at a top-prize worth several million dollars.

Walberg has spent the past year-and-a-half playing cash poker tournaments at casinos and won $300 at one the night before he planned to join the masses in Colossus. He’s betting people not used to tournaments play conservatively, protecting their short stacks of chips but leaking the blind bets required for each round.

That’s where he said he plans to step in. “If there’s such a thing as aggressive-tight play, that’s how I’m going to play,” Walberg said.

If worse comes to worse, “I’ll see if I can appraise some jewelry while I’m at the tables,” he said.

The other first-timer, Damico, said he’s realistic. He knows he’s going up against thousands of people, and after watching the World Series of Poker at home, he was a few hours from being in the thick of it on Friday.

But the man from Highland, California, who lives minutes from a tribal casino’s cash poker events said he has something that comes in handy: instincts.

“I’m more of a people-studier than anything,” he said of his strategy, adding that he wouldn’t turn down any luck either.

It certainly helped him win a poker tournament several years ago on a Mexican Riviera cruise. After that, he was hooked.

“I’m just going to enjoy it,” he said of the Colossus event.

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