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Playing the hand you're dealt . . . for big bucks

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Local couple takes on competitive play in the World Series of Poker


CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: JANICE PIERCE PHOTOGRAPHY - Ruth and Peter Primiano parlayed their $7,500 in poker winnings to enter the World Series of Poker Tournament recently, at the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. The couple is among a growing number of players who have picked up competitive play after retiring.

Desert winds drift up to 45 mph, as Portland pair Ruth and Peter Primiano breeze into the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. At the cashier’s cage on the casino floor, they count out cash — Ruth hands over $2,500; Peter ponies up $5,000.

Each is betting on making it big in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) — the most prestigious poker tournament in the world.

Instead of retiring to play golf or bridge, this American couple has chosen a pastime among a new age of competitor: poker.

“It’s a sport we both enjoy. It’s something we can do together in our retirement years,” Ruth explained, adding that poker is a growing alternative activity for players over age 65.

High school sweethearts who grew up in Portland, Ruth and Peter started playing card games with their families as teenagers. Ruth was a junior at Madison High School when she met Peter, a senior at Franklin High School.

Peter learned poker from his older brother.

“I cried when he beat me,” Peter recalled, laughing.

“Penny ante” games cemented a social network between the two families and started a life-long passion for poker.

After they married, Peter forded the Columbia River, to Vancouver, Wash., where he frequented a card room called “The Bank.” When Vancouver outlawed card rooms in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the card rooms moved north along Interstate-5 to La Center.

It was then that Peter lured his wife into the action.

“‘Honey, why don’t you come up and play 25 cent poker?’” Ruth remembered Peter saying.

They graduated to the $50 “free roll” tournaments in the morning to encourage poker play, and started serious tournament play in the early 1980’s.

Peter enjoyed the action at the La Center tournaments. For Ruth, it was a social activity, getting to know people and having weekend events.

In 2009, the couple retired. Ruth, 67, is a former customer service airline representative and Peter, a former health administrator for Kaiser Permanente. Shortly afterward, they moved to the Las Vegas desert “for the weather,” leaving their grown son, Peter, and daughter, Tamara, in Portland.

Once settled in Las Vegas, Ruth and Peter started playing in a “H.O.R.S.E.” league.

H.O.R.S.E. is a form of poker commonly played at the high-stakes tables in casinos. It consists of rounds of play in Texas Hold ‘Em, Omaha hi-low split-eight or better, Razz, Seven Card Stud and Seven Card Stud hi-low split-eight or better.

The Primiano’s H.O.R.S.E league consisted of 32 players, each paying $120 a month to compete. After nine months of competition, the player who racks up the most points — accumulated by winning poker hands and outlasting the other nine people at the table — is in the money.

This year, Peter placed first in his poker league winning $5,000. Ruth placed third overall, earning a payday of $2,500.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: JANICE PIERCE PHOTOGRAPHY - The Primianos took up poker tournament play after  both retired in 2009. Peter learned the game as a child from his brother. Free to choose any event in which to invest their league winnings, Peter used his $5,000 to enter four tournaments. Ruth’s $2,500 was enough to enter two WSOP events.

All WSOP tournament winnings are split: players keep 70 percent of their earnings, while the league divides the remaining 30 percent. With pots of in the millions of dollars, this can be quite a windfall.

“If we win, they win.” Peter said.

Nolan Dalla, WSOP media director said senior players are setting records for winnings every year. And age is hardly a factor in entering tournament play.

“The oldest player this year is 95,” Dalla said.

Ruth and Peter decided to try their luck in the second annual WSOP Super Senior No Limit Hold ‘Em $1,000 buy-in tournament.

A budding event, the Super Senior tournament attracted1,426 entrants ages 65 and over, all competing for prize money totaling $1,328,400.

During competition, Peter and Ruth prefer not to sit across from each other at the poker table. But if it is inevitable, they stick to a game plan.

“I have a whole set of rules, and protocols, that I have in my mind that guide my play,” Peter said. “I try to play one step ahead of what’s happening. There are people from all over the world competing here.“

No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em has been described by poker professional Doyle Brunson as “a game that takes a minute to learn, and a lifetime to master.” Ruth and Peter have been lucky to be mentored by poker professionals, such as Tex Morgan who schooled them in Texas Hold ‘Em; friend Kenny Bunger, Oregon’s Poker champion; and Las Vegas poker professionals Jan Fisher and Linda Johnson.

“Poker is a game on incomplete information,” Peter said. “They taught me that betting in poker is a conversation.”

Peter outlasted 762 players at the Super Senior tournament. With 700 people left, he lost a hand and about 30 percent of his chips. From then on, he didn’t have enough chips to fight off the “big stacks.”

“I tried to make a move one time and didn’t get the cards I needed to hit,” he said. “I was just never able to make any big moves. I never accumulated any chips. They just trickled away.”

It’s always a let-down when a player takes that long walk away from the poker table, joining the other walking wounded. The mathematical odds, intuitive plays, what-ifs and replays of the hands swirl around in one form or another.

Ruth played for seven hours in the WSOP Super Senior tournament before joining those who busted out.

“I played the best I could.” she said. “I busted before dinner. I lasted two breaks. I think I got a pair of sevens —that was the best hand I saw.”

Her final hand was a calculated risk. With few chips left, she had even fewer choices.

“I had to go all-in (risk all her chips) on Ace-10 suited,” Ruth recalled.

Her opponent had a lot of chips and called with a small pair. Ruth’s hand didn’t improve and soon, she was up and out along with hundreds of other competitors.

In the third of his four tournaments, among a field of 2,076 entrants, Peter cashed out, roughly doubling his money to $2,100. He placed 133rd in the WSOP No Limit Hold ‘Em tournament with a $1,000 buy in.

But in his fourth and final try for a WSOP win, on Tuesday, July 5, Peter’s competition days came to an end. He finished without making any money, joining others who say patience is the real name of the game. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: JANICE PIERCE PHOTOGRAPHY - Portland residents Ruth and Peter Primiano recently used their winnings from Texas Hold 'Em competitive poker play to enter the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

“Try not to get too excited at the beginning,” he said. “You can lose it really early, but you can’t win it really early.”

On the sidelines for the end of tournament, Ruth was happy to keep an eye on Peter’s progress, but said it’s always important to keep perspective in poker.

“I’ve always enjoyed competition,” she said. “I was never good at golf. Poker is the competitive sport for me. The good news is that I get to say I won a seat in the World Series of Poker!”

How do you hold ‘em?

Texas Hold 'Em is a variation of seven card stud poker. Two cards are dealt face down to each player. These are the called the “hole” or “hold” cards. Players then check, bet, or fold. Three community cards are then dealt face up in the middle of the table. This is called “the flop.” Players, again, check, bet or fold their hands.

Next, a single card called "the turn" or "fourth street” is dealt face up in the middle of the table. Remaining players have another chance to check, bet or fold their hands. The final card, called "the river" or "fifth street,” is the last chance for players to check, bet or fold.

Each player is looking for the best five card poker hand from the combination of the community cards and their own hole cards.

No-Limit Hold 'Em is the game most commonly found in televised poker tournaments and is the game played in the main event of the World Series of Poker.

Jon Andlovec, 70, of Boise, Idaho, won the Super Senior No Limit Hold ‘Em tournament after three days of play. He took home $230,626 in poker winnings on a $1,000 investment.

Looking to try your hand at competitive poker play? Along with card rooms at places like Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde and Portland Meadows race track, check your favorite local watering hole to see if they host league play for Texas Hold ‘Em games.