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Poker champs get chance at big time

Dale Hjelmgren (left) and Justin Lamb are headed to a Free Poker Network tournament in Las Vegas June 28.

Two local Texas Hold 'Em poker players are Las Vegas bound.

Dale Hjelmgren and Justin Lamb qualified for the "Party at the Palms" National Championship by placing first and second, respectively, in the Wisconsin championships May 9.

Hjelmgren, 28, and Lamb, 25, are both members of a poker playing league that meets every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Outer Limits bar in rural New Richmond.

It's apparently highly unusual that two poker players from the same bar have advanced to nationals.

"We've got a lot of good poker players there," Lamb said. "The Outer Limits is by far the hardest place to play."

In fact, four players from the bar were among the seven finalists in the recent state competition. But only the two top finishers could advance beyond the Madison contest.

"Now we're Vegas bound," Hjelmgren said. "We're excited."

With his first-place finish, Hjelmgren won $500 to help offset travel and hotel costs for the June 28 Free Poker Network contest.

The FPN tournament is being held at the $15,000-per-night Kingpin suite at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

The two local players will be among 50 competitors who will vie for the top spot in the championship. The top 21 finishers in the Free Poker Network event will advance to a three-day World Series of Poker event from June 29-July 1, also in Las Vegas.

If either Hjelmgren or Lamb qualify for that event, they could find themselves on national television. The World Series of Poker is a popular show across the nation.

The goal for the pair would then be to finish among the top 10 percent of several thousand players at the major tournament. If they accomplish that, they could receive a healthy pay-out. The first place finisher in the WSOP event could win $700,000 to $1 million.

"This is something you dream about," Hjelmgren said.

A 1998 graduate of Hudson High School, Hjelmgren has developed into one of the better poker players in the region. He's competed in state championships four times. This is his first trip to nationals.

"To be a good player, you have to have a lot of patience," he said. "And you have to pay attention to everything."

Lamb agreed, noting also that a good player can't "beat himself up" every time he loses a hand.

"You're going to lose at poker," he said. "What separates the men from the boys is the ones who get right back in the game again."

Lamb, a 2003 New Richmond High School graduate, has been playing poker since he was a teenager and would love to play the game professionally some day. "That's something I aspire to," he said.

Hjelmgren also would like to make some money at his favorite hobby, but he's not focusing on the big bucks as he prepares to travel to Vegas. He admitted that he'll be nervous playing in the biggest Texas Hold 'Em tournament he's ever been involved in, but he's happy to have been given the chance to advance.

Hjelmgren helped to start the poker league at the Outer Limits about two years ago. About 60 people are involved in the league, with an average of some 35 players showing up each week.

"We have a pretty good crowd for the size of our bar," he said.

Competitions begin as players receive the same amount of poker chips as everyone else. The winner is the one with the most chip value at the conclusion of the competition.

Texas Hold 'Em is different from traditional poker, in that players all share some cards that are placed faced up on the table. They use cards in their hand to combine with the shared cards to determine their best hand.

Tournaments, like the state championships, can last for eight hours straight.

"You're pretty drained after that," Lamb said. "It's a long day."

Playing in a three-day national event will be even more taxing, Hjelmgren added.

"It will take a lot of mental focus," Lamb said. "And you have to get a little lucky, too, to win."