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Grand Forks native's quest for poker's top prize begins today

Jason Senti plays a hand Saturday during the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Should he outlast just one of the final nine, Senti will be a millionaire.

As the poker player that he is, Jason Senti gambled. But, as the I-dotting, T-crossing engineer that he also was, he first hedged his bets.

That combination of nerve and caution means that the Grand Forks native soon will be cashing a check for at least $800,000 and perhaps as much as

$9 million.

The 28-year-old, honors student graduate of Grand Forks Red River High School and the University of North Dakota is one of nine players alive in the World Series of Poker's Texas Hold 'Em Main Event, the most famous of all poker tournaments.

The Las Vegas tournament began in July with 7,319 entrants that has a $10,000 entry fee.

The "November Nine" will be narrowed to two today. The two survivors will go head-to-head Monday, playing until one has every chip. The two days of competition will be aired at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.

A relative newcomer to the game, Senti has the chance to join poker legends Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston and the aptly named Chris Moneymaker as main event winners.

A six-month trial

Now a resident of St. Louis Park, a Twin Cities suburb, Senti quit his job as an electrical engineer three years ago because he was making more money playing poker online. But just as he computes his odds of winning a poker pot, his move to poker professional was calculated.

First, he paid off the family credit cards and saved enough money to pay the bills for six months. With the consent of wife Jessy, the six months was his trial period as a poker pro.

"I had a backup plan," he said. "If I went broke, I'd go back to being an engineer. I'm inherently responsible. I have the oldest child syndrome."

His wife and parents, Bruce and Jenny Senti of Grand Forks, will have prime seats, meaning they may get some TV face time.

His parents will be among about 100 supporters who will be wearing black shirts that have PBJxx patches. PBJxx is Jason's online screen name, with the first three letters standing for peanut butter and jelly.

"I'm nervous and very excited," his dad said. "It's almost like he's 10 years old and he's coming to bat in baseball. You want him to do well."

Despite the fatherly concern that has meant scarce sleep, Bruce said his son is well prepared. "Jason is comfortable in his own skin and confident in his own abilities. He has the skill set to do well."

Short stacked

Jason Senti arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday. The past two days have been spent handling media interviews and strategy sessions with poker pals.

His options are limited because he has the fewest amount of chips. His

7.62 million chips are dwarfed by chip leader Jonathan Duhamel's

65.97 million.

"As the short stack, I'm pretty much either all-in or I'm not playing the hand," he said. "But if I double-up (in chips), then more skill comes into the game."

He can't patiently wait for a big hand forever because antes and forced bets will erode his chip stack. One orbit around the table will drain 1 million of his chips, he said.

He's guaranteed an $811,823 payout even if he's the first of the nine eliminated. If one player goes out ahead of him, he's an instant millionaire. The winner lands $8.94 million.

The benefits of reaching the final table go beyond the cash winnings. He has landed a sponsorship with the website, is an instructor at the poker training site BlueFire Poker and is in line for more endorsements with a high finish.

It's a long way from the business-like attitude he took when he arrived in Las Vegas in July.

"The $10,000 buy-in is an investment, but a very high-risk one," he said. "I go out there expecting to lose money. But, in the long term, I expect to win money because I know I'm a good player and I can do well with some luck.

"Now, with at least $800,000 in winnings, I can play in the World Series for a long time and still be a winner."