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Poker royalty to join unknowns at Maryland's first World Series of Poker circuit event

LPoker players take part in the World Series of Poker Tournament held at the Binion's Horseshoe Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
LPoker players take part in the World Series of Poker Tournament held at the Binion's Horseshoe Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Frazer Harrison / Baltimore Sun)

When his wife had twins in October, it was the second life-changing event of the last 10 years for Severn accountant Steve Dannenmann, who famously scraped together enough money to enter the 2005 World Series of Poker — and won $4.25 million.

His identical twin daughters have arguably changed his life more than the money, which he split with a buddy who provided half of the $10,000 entry fee. But Dannenmann's second-place finish at the main event in Las Vegas catapulted him into poker lore — the equivalent of an amateur getting a hit off an Orioles pitcher.

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"The World Series is the only event where you can go from a nobody to a rock star in matter of 10 days," said Dannenmann, 48, who plans to compete in a World Series of Poker circuit event beginning Thursday at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore.

It marks the first time Maryland has been included on the circuit of poker's most prestigious tournament brand, and the casino is expecting thousands of players from the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond.

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"This is a signature moment for them," Visit Baltimore president and CEO Tom Noonan said of Horseshoe, which opened in August. "I'm very excited about that and very pleased. They are bringing in top players."

A tournament lasting nearly two weeks means extended hotel stays, meals out and other tourism dollars.

"Some guys lose their money and leave, and others are here for days and days," Noonan said.

Organizers expect to give away more than $1 million in prize pool money during the 12-day event at Horseshoe, one of 21 circuit stops around the country. The top two Baltimore performers will get their $10,000 entry fee paid to the final circuit stop — a national championship event at a still-to-be-determined location this summer.

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The World Series of Poker main event — the one in which Dannenmann made his name — is in Las Vegas beginning July 5 and is televised by ESPN. Dannenmann plans to enter again and has rented a house there for his family — including the twins.

With 45 tables, the Baltimore event will be too big for Horseshoe's 25-table poker room — where the walls are lined with black-and-white photographs of such famous main-event winners as Chris Moneymaker, who won $2.5 million in 2003, and North Laurel native Greg Merson, who captured $8.5 million in 2012 — so players will convene primarily in large meeting rooms reserved for special events.

"We're giving them a snippet of what to expect in Vegas," said Horseshoe poker manager Anthony Chester.

Horseshoe has partnered with Hyatt Regency Baltimore, Sheraton Inner Harbor, Days Inn Inner Harbor and other hotels to offer discounts for participants.

"The reach of the [World Series] name really brings in those regional players," said Noah Hirsch, the casino's vice president of marketing.

Maryland's largest casino, Maryland Live, also has a poker room and regularly hosts tournaments of its own. Its largest event, dubbed $1 Million Live Poker Classic, starts the day the World Series event ends at Horseshoe. It features 15 events over two weeks with buy-ins ranging from $225 to $2,200.

But Horseshoe is able to use the World Series of Poker brand because it is owned by a division of Caesars, which acquired the series in 2004.

Dannenmann's big prize came during a period when poker quickly gained mainstream popularity.

"I don't think we're going to see that big boom like we did back in 2003 into 2004 when the main event went from 600 players to 2,600 players," Chester said. But he said poker is an important draw for Horseshoe, and the World Series "is the premier tournament out there."

Horseshoe is increasingly focusing on table games such as poker and blackjack. Horseshoe, which has 2,500 slots and 147 table games, received state permission last month to add 30 table games and remove 300 slot machines.

While the gamblers bet against the casino in most table games, they play against one another in poker and the house collects an administrative fee.

Starting Thursday, the Baltimore event offers 14 tournaments through March 9 and is expected to attract thousands of participants — from established players like Dannenmann to amateurs like local bartender Danny Williams, who said he has had some success playing in the Horseshoe and Maryland Live poker rooms.

Williams, 44, considers bartending useful training for the tournament. That's because poker is about much more than luck. It's also about assessing people.

Savvy players can temper the damage of lousy hands through bluffing, judicious folding and good instincts. They can win — or at least not lose badly — even when the fates seem aligned against them. The best wait out the unlucky periods the way a batter wears down a weary pitcher.

Williams, who studied math at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said his poker skills have been enhanced by "being in a bar and constantly talking to people and reading people."

Williams plans to play in some of the less expensive Baltimore events — the buy-ins range from $250 to $1,675.

"Hopefully I'll do well and use the money to play in the no limit, hold 'em main event," he said. "It's exciting — and I'm nervous, too."

Dannenmann can relate. A decade ago, his friend, Jerry Ditzel, provided half of Dannenmann's $10,000 entry fee to the Las Vegas main event.

Dannenmann joked at the time that he wasn't even the best player at his suburban Baltimore home game.

After he won, he started being stopped by strangers who wanted to have their pictures taken with him. He was recognized by celebrities — some of them aspiring poker players — who wanted to chat.

He played in celebrity tournaments and met actors such as Don Cheadle, Jason Alexander and Norm Macdonald. But he kept his day job as a financial planner in Glen Burnie.

"I love what I do," he said.

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