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By Chris Marchand
It began with a $27 buy-in to an online poker tournament, it ended across the Atlantic ocean, sandwiched between some of the world’s best poker players.
Norm Balla turned his love of online poker into the experience of a lifetime, travelling to Berlin, Germany to compete in a European Poker Tour event, all expenses paid.
Balla earned his stripes on PokerStars.net, placing second in a $27 buy-in tournament and rolling his winnings into a subsequent $530 buy-in tournament. The latter effort saw a top-14 finish among 212 competitors. His prize package included a flight, luxury accommodations, spending cash and a 5,300 Euro ($6,887 CAN) buy-in to a European Poker Tour (EPT) event in Berlin, April 16-21.
Balla was knocked out on Day Two of the tournament, finishing 166th out of 745 entrants — 54 spots shy of a payout.
“It was a paid vacation,” said Balla. “The city was beautiful.”
Balla says he hopes to find himself back at the table with ‘the big boys’ again soon and says this high-level playing experience taught him a lot about the mental side of the game.
“In my first time playing in a big event my goal was: number one, not to get knocked out. Then, to get past Day One and get deep into Day 2 and make it into the money. Now, I know I should have went in there with the goal to win it — I think I would have done better. Initially, was I intimidated? Yes. But after a few hours I settled in and started playing my game.”
At one point on Day Two, Balla found himself seated between pros Barry Greenstein, known as ‘The Robin Hood of Poker’ for his charitable efforts, and Danish pro Theo Jorgenson.
“He (Greenstein) was to my right which was advantageous to me, but I didn’t realize I was sitting with five other poker pros,” said Balla. “I was like a little kid not knowing what he was up against. I was pretty impressed with myself, a rookie, for getting out of there alive.”
Balla says he beat Greenstein in both hands he played heads up with him.
Fellow Canadian, Andrew Chen would place second in the tournament, collecting a 613,000 Euro ($796,654 CAN) purse. Belgian David Kitai would win the event and a 712,000 Euro purse.
Operating a somewhat seasonal business, Balla says he hopes to qualify for upcoming poker events.
“I have an advantage with my business that I can play a little more in the winter months,” he said. “I’m going to try to get into the Poker Tour for next year. I’m going to try to get over there and win one of these things.”