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Brent Bailo, raising the hand of Jermell Perry, in the final match at the State Finals, at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
 
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Poker players put on game faces for wrestlers




Tournament to raise funds for the state wrestling meet

August 6, 2006

BY SUSAN SMILEY
FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER


Players in Friends of Wrestling's Texas Hold 'Em tournament contemplate their hands. The tournament will help fund the high school state wrestling meet that is held at the Palace of Auburn Hills in March as well as amateur wrestling at other levels. (ROY FELDMAN/Special to the Free Press)

The wrap-around sunglasses are on, the baseball hats pulled down tight to mask eye movement, and the poker faces are set. This is the inaugural Texas Hold 'Em tournament to benefit Friends of Wrestling -- a booster club of sorts that is the brainchild of Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) referee Mark Cavender of Davisburg.

"We wanted to do something to help fill in the blanks financially for the state meet," said Cavender, who was the main organizer of the July 28 tournament at Total Sports in Harrison Township. "It takes so many people to run the state meet and there are things that we like to do to make the tournament nicer for the kids that can't be covered by the MHSAA budget. We get shirts for all of the workers and volunteers; we get a small gift for all of the wrestlers and just things like being able to pay for hotel rooms so that we can bring in all of the officials the night before the state meet."

Friends of Wrestling also helps foster amateur wrestling at other levels. The group will distribute headgear for 900 wrestlers to youth wrestling groups around the state this month.

More than 20 poker players, mostly referees and former wrestlers, came out for the event. The level of competition was somewhat less intense than what you might see on the World Series of Poker.

"Poker on television?" said Billy Passalacqua of Warren when asked which professional player his own style mirrors. "I don't even know any of those guys' names. But if there is a real loud guy, that would be me."

Just call Passalacqua the poor man's Phil Hellmuth.

The emotional Passalacqua didn't need sunglasses or a hat to play his game, and a couple of times he was not sure whether he or one of his opponents had the winning hand after all of the cards were on the table. For him and the rest of his cronies, the competition is a fun way to make money for something that helps the kids.

Les Freitag of Plymouth admitted he had not cultivated a good poker face and really had no game. He is not a seasoned rounder and plays, at the most, three poker games a year.

He didn't attempt to emulate any of the popular professional poker players, not only because he does not know who they are, but because he figured nothing would help his game.

"I'm not a particularly great player," Freitag said. "But I thought this would be fun. It's a different kind of fund-raiser and it is something to do on a Friday night."

As the players prepared for the start of the tournament, Scott Strickler of Lapeer experimented with wearing his sunglasses upside down -- a tribute to professional player Marcel Luske, who is known as the Flying Dutchman.

"I'm going to get the German accent going in a minute," quipped Strickler. "I watch the poker on ESPN but I am not really one to play a lot myself. But this is a good cause so I don't mind spending $75 to play in the tournament because it all goes to help wrestling. Plus I'm feeling lucky tonight."

Ed Abdella of Rochester Hills admitted he watches a fair amount of competitive poker on television and said his own style was inspired by Chris Moneymaker. Abdella experimented with Moneymaker-type signature mirrored shades, but for most of the evening opted to play without them.

He noted that the wrestling state meet requires more workers than most other state meets because of the amount of participants involved the two-day tournament. More than 1,300 wrestlers compete at the individual state tournament at the Palace of Auburn Hills each March. There have to be officials, people to work the scoring tables, people to work in the areas where wrestlers are warming up and people to work security.

"Wrestling is not like basketball or football," said Abdella. "Everyone at a school and in a community comes out to see a Friday night football game, but at a wrestling meet most of the time you have your family and maybe a friend or girlfriend. But the people who are involved with the sport are very dedicated and that is why we are here tonight. It is not about winning the competition; it is just about helping the kids and helping to promote wrestling."

Former South Lyon wrestler Steve Barnhart of Farmington Hills knows that state qualifiers appreciate the effort.

Barnhart was sans sunglasses, but he was wearing a baseball hat and a bright, kelly green shirt with the words "This is my lucky shirt" splashed across the chest. Barnhart won a hand after going all-in and raked a pile of chips toward his already substantial stacks.

"I really didn't wear this on purpose tonight. I just happened to wear it to work and I came here straight from there," Barnhart said. "The last time I wore this shirt I actually had a blowout on the Lodge going 70 m.p.h., so I was a little worried at first. But things seem to be going well."

Unlike the professionals playing on television, players at the Friends of Wrestling tournament got to break for pizza and spent more time telling wrestling stories than boasting about their poker prowess -- which, in most cases, was minimal.

Related wrestling links!
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