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Sartell man rides poker success to Vegas event

ST. CLOUD — When television expanded coverage of the World Series of Poker, it sparked a surge in the popularity of games such as Texas Hold 'em.

Then the Internet swept up millions with the ability to play from home for free. A Sartell man whose curiosity was piqued by TV and who was hooked by the Internet is hoping this weekend to take another step toward his goal of going from free online player to pro.

Nels Peterson's run of recent success includes winning championships in three of the six state Texas Hold 'em tournaments he's entered. The most recent of those victories has landed him in Las Vegas, where he will play this weekend in a tournament that includes a top prize of a $10,000 entry fee and seat in the WSOP Main Event, the popular contest that this year paid $8.9 million to the winner.

The "pipe dream" of playing in the Main Event is one that Peterson has chased without spending a cent. He plays for free online and in a league at the Ultimate Sports Bar & Grill in Waite Park.

The father of three, whose wife also is an accomplished poker player, finished second in the same tournament last year, one place from a shot at immortality and the financial security that comes with a successful run in the Main Event.


"Hopefully I'll come back with $5,000 and a national championship trophy," Peterson said of the tournament that begins Saturday at the Golden Nugget. "And I've got to be honest, after taking second last summer, anything less than first place is going to be a disappointment."

Peterson, 36, first heard about Hold 'em when he saw it on television about nine years ago. The ads hyping Internet sites were enough to draw him in, and he soon set up an online account.

He played online, but news reports about the potential illegality of local Texas Hold 'em tournaments kept him from attending games like the ones that Dave Bischoff was hosting at Granite Bowl. After that controversy passed, Peterson decided to try a live game and went to Granite Bowl.

"I had no clue what I was doing. It was like a blind man in a fencing match," he said of his skill level at the time.

The first night at the Granite Bowl, he told his wife that he wouldn't be gone long. He didn't even take his jacket off once he got there, he said.

"I was intending to go in and be a loose cannon. I was going to play loose," he said. "I didn't even know that meant at the time. I just knew I was going to be a little crazy and go for it."

Chalk up win number one.

That success in hand, the Apollo graduate continued to play free league events and enter state tournaments, sometimes getting automatic bids by virtue of strong showings in the free leagues. And he continued to win.


Peterson is the first person to win championships in three of the first six state tournaments he's entered. This year's trip to Las Vegas will be the second he's won from playing in free tournaments.

His successes are more impressive because of the large number of Minnesotans who play in state tournaments compared to other states, said Robb Butcher, regional manager for the Free Poker Network in Minnesota.

The network has 225 locations in 15 states, he said, and Minnesota has 88 of the 225 locations. And while some states get just enough players to hold a state tournament, Minnesota has so many entrants in its tournaments that it has to hold regionals to play down to a manageable number for the finals, Butcher said.

"He's clearly dominating the recent events," Butcher said of Peterson.

Peterson credits the quality players he's met in St. Cloud for his success.

Jerry Anderson, Ryan Pruse, Steve Kennedy, Ann Roesler, Ron Curtis, John Herring and Austin Monson are among them.

Peterson remains competitive while balancing a job at Dubow Textile and being an involved father to two sons and a daughter. His job running an embroidery machine at Dubow sees him working upward of 50-hour weeks during the holiday season. He includes his family in his trips, taking his wife, Tannia, and their children along for a family vacation when he played his last tournament in Vegas.

And while he still plays online some and at least one night a week in the Free Poker Network league at the Ultimate, he doesn't forget the kids, Tannia said.


"When he recognizes that the kids kind of need something extra, he stays home," she said. "He's very conscious of what's going on here."

One of the best pieces of advice that Nels got about poker came from someone who doesn't play the game, he said. That would be his father.

If you can keep a balance with family, work and poker so that you are able to be present in all three when you are there, you'll be OK, his father told him.

"I'm still not going to take the time away from my family," Nels said. "Poker is something I want to do, hopefully to get some opportunities to better our lives, not take away from them."

He hopes to gain sponsors that will pay entry fees to poker tournaments and allow him to play professionally.

"It would be kind of a dream come true," he said. "But now it's close. I really feel that I'm close to getting some opportunities to do it and do it for real."

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