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It's time to go to camp

I'd had enough. After that last bad beat where I flopped the nut straight and still was outdone by my opponent's flush on the river, I just couldn't take it anymore.

Defeated and tired, I sat at the table, wondering where my money had gone and what I could have done to improve the situation. Bet more to force him out? Would he have folded his two pair? Should I have let go after he bet out on the river? How much do I need to make before I can start bullying my opponent? I was frustrated, broke and angry and just wanted to feel as though I'd played as well as anyone possibly could, which I hadn't.

Bottom line, my game needed some help. But where would I find it? Private lessons? Books? Online tutorials? Poker DVDs?

Well, help is on the way: poker fantasy camp. Yes, I'm serious. I'm going to two poker camps. There might not be a better place, besides Table 1 at the Bellagio, than a fantasy camp to sit at a table and learn from some of the best in the game -- without losing my entire bankroll.

But choosing which camp to attend is a complicated task.

Currently there are only a few organized poker fantasy camps, with the major three being the All-In Poker Camp, run by Howard Lederer; Camp Hellmuth, run by Phil Hellmuth; and the WPT Boot Camp, run by players and contributors to the World Poker Tour, including Mike Sexton. Each of these camps has its own special touch. The All-In Camp makes available to its participants more than a dozen pros. Camp Hellmuth offers its attendees the chance to take unique seminars from eight different pros and special guests at the event. The WPT Boot Camp opts for a more intimate approach, limiting its camp to 50 participants who get more personal attention.

The most popular poker fantasy camp is the All-In Camp, also know as "Poker Reality Camp." Staffed by many popular pros, including 2004 WSOP bracelet winner Annie Duke and ESPN Poker Club columnist Phil Gordon, the camp takes place at the MGM Grand and Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas.

There have been two prior All-In Camps, and more are in the planning stages. For four days, participants attend seminars hosted by Lederer, Duke, Gordon and Chris Ferguson. In addition to learning from these pros, participants have the chance to play against them in big tournaments and sit-and-go tournaments, a similar setup to the structure of Camp Hellmuth.

But what sets Lederer's camp apart from the others is its explicit goal of providing each participant with as much information as it can. The pros involved with the camp are selected for their ability to teach players, without holding back any poker secrets.

"In other fantasy camps, you tend not to have too much contact with the pros," Lederer said. "We're there the whole time, and the way it is put together, some of the best guys in the world are there to infect you with the enthusiasm that all great poker players share. We love the game, and it takes a long time to be really good, but even being a good player, you need that enthusiasm for playing the game."

Currently the All-In Camp has a maximum capacity of 400, but Lederer hopes to expand it with future events. Additionally, each time it is held, the camp is different. Although the seminars at the All-In Camp follow the same structure at each event, the content of each is unique, so repeat participants can have a new experience each time. The All-In Camp is pricey at $3,495, but for many poker enthusiasts, it's worth the investment.

"Each participant has the exposure to 12 or 13 pros, which is the [best] ratio of pro to participant that any camp offers," Lederer said. "With five of us doing lectures, it's more than just a fan experience [like at a baseball fantasy camp], it's the playing experience and instruction that is most valuable."

The multiple chances to play with the pros are what piqued my interest in the All-In Camp. Even if I were to bust out of a larger tournament there, I'd still have the option of joining a sit-and-go tournament with one of the players whose book I have read or strategy I have followed. That probably still won't be enough to beat them, but at least I won't be laughed from the table. As Lederer mentioned, the multitude of tournaments make the pros "a lot more approachable" to participants.

Lederer takes pride in how much participants can learn at his camp.

"Learning in context is a completely unique situation. Something you can't get in a book," he said. "My camp doesn't make 'great' poker players, but we make them better and we give them the vision that can get [them] anywhere they want to go in their poker game."

Lederer said he has played some of his previous campers in tournaments and was pleased with their results. Hopefully I can follow their lead and impress Lederer in play after attending his camp. Can "The Professor" teach me to be a great poker player? I'll let you know when class is in session.

Shortly after the World Series of Poker concludes, Hellmuth will host his inaugural Camp Hellmuth Aug. 18-21 at Caesars Palace and Binion's Horseshoe. Hellmuth is accompanied at the camp by six fellow poker pros, most notably, David Williams (second place in the 2004 WSOP Main Event) and T.J. Cloutier (winner of 55 no-limit hold'em championships and one 2005 WSOP bracelet). There is also one very special addition to Hellmuth's all-star roster: Joe Navarro, a retired FBI agent, will discuss how to apply the physical signs of lying to poker to help campers read other players. Navarro is considered one of the best in his field of counterintelligence and counterterrorism and just might be the human lie detector. Jeff Goldenberg, producer of Camp Hellmuth, was thrilled to add Navarro to his team, but my excitement is a bit tempered. As much as I'd like to learn from him about other people's tendencies, I hope he can't read my celebratory body language when I get dealt pocket aces.

"We wanted to give ordinary poker players the rare opportunity to learn from and play with the same players they see on television," Goldenberg said when asked why he started Camp Hellmuth. "To give them an intense weekend of poker where they can improve their game dramatically is what we are striving for."

At Camp Hellmuth, participants can attend each of eight seminars taught by the pros and have multiple chances to play against those pros. One of the camp's tournaments allows pros to participate but does not make them eligible to win. If a pro is bounced from the table in one of those tournaments, there are sit-and-go tournaments, similar to the All-In Camp, where a camper just might realize his dream of bluffing out a pro or two to take down a pot. The sit-and-go tournaments, however, are not included in the camp fee and can cost players anywhere from $20 to $100. Campers can choose to play in the first available sit-and-go or wait to play against the pro of their choice. At Camp Hellmuth, Goldenberg insists they do everything they can to "make the experience convenient and enjoyable for the customer."

Although it's expensive, Goldenberg argued that the camp is worth its price of $2,499 to $3,499 and that participants will not be disappointed.

"If you were to walk into the Bellagio poker room to sit down with these players, the cost of the camp would be the equivalent of playing one hand to the river," he said. "Plus, we give you food, hotel, seminars and parties with an open bar."

Looking ahead to my time at Camp Hellmuth, where I'll be learning from one of the best in the game, one thought kept crossing my mind: How can I make Phil blow up? His nine WSOP bracelets are nine more than I will ever have and I have all the respect in the world for Phil, but I couldn't help but fantasize about taking him head-on. Picture this: I'm dealt a 7-2 off-suit playing heads-up against Phil, who is holding a pair of 9s. (The camp says it will do everything it can to make my experience better, so why not deal that hand?) I go all-in preflop on a bluff, and Phil sits there laughing when the flop comes down 9-5-2. It's all but over when I spike a 2 on the turn, and for good measure, a 2 on the river.

Could you imagine what would happen? Phil's reaction?

Well, I'd settle for just plugging some holes in my game through my time at Camp Hellmuth.

Camp Hellmuth, which hosts a maximum of 500 players, is unique, but another fantasy camp is making strides to give personal attention any way it can.

The World Poker Tour Boot Camp seats only 50 players to give what Sexton calls an "intimate setting." Held at multiple casinos across the country every couple of weeks and hosted by a number of pros, such as Sexton, Scott Fischman and Alex "The Insider" Outhred, the Boot Camp provides participants with multiple group lessons to improve their game. Sexton, the announcer for the World Poker Tour and a WSOP bracelet winner, said his favorite part of the camp is "teaching players to think like a professional poker player. You need to approach poker like a business, meaning that you are running your own company and you make all the decisions."

Then Sexton gave me a free lesson, saying, "The most profitable hand in poker is a fold." Think about that the next time you lay down a good hand.

Although the Boot Camp is open to players of all ages and ability, Sexton admits the pros are looking for players who have some poker experience. Though the Boot Camp won't turn anyone away, applicants are asked about their poker history when registering.

"There will always be differences in skill level, but we'll do what we can to limit that gap," he said.

The two-day Boot Camp is the ultimate resource for players. At the camp, participants will gain an understanding of the mathematics of poker and learn unique skills, such as how to adapt to any situation and optimize opportunities during a hand -- or in my case, when and how to make a move.

One of the biggest problems in my game is I don't decide on moves until it is too late -- I'll be on the bubble and make a wrong move when I should have waited, or make the right move but at the wrong time. So you can be sure I will be listening intently during the seminar, "Motivation -- Money or 'To Win It All!'" when I attend Boot Camp in mid-August.

The hosts for each Boot Camp vary, since no pro conducts every session, and Sexton might be one of the most sought-after hosts. And Sexton believes he knows why.

"I've been a professional player for 25 years and have had more than my share of success as a player, spokesman and best-selling author," he said.

After previous Boot Camps, Sexton's favorite part is getting responses from participants.

"After reading multiple responses with feelings of gratitude and success stories, I'm just glad I can give back to the poker community," he said.

The WPT Boot Camp has a lower price than Camp Hellmuth, but lodging at the casino is not included in the $1,495 fee. However, participants have the chance to earn a seat at a World Poker Tour event through the camp.

"If you make it to the final table of any event after participating in the Boot Camp," Sexton said, "you'll be the poster child of its success."

I can see it now: While a new poker celebrity is born at the WPT Boot Camp, I'll be off sulking (having just lost to the rising star) and signing up for another Boot Camp!

Choosing the right fantasy camp is a complicated task, but a participant's game is bound to vastly improve no matter which camp he or she selects. More fantasy camps are in development, and it wouldn't be surprising if every pro has his own camp in the future. Amateurs will always want to know whether they can beat the pros, and finally, a sport is giving its fans a chance to find out.

I can't wait until August, when I'll be lucky enough to attend two of the three camps -- Boot Camp and Camp Hellmuth. I'm ready to take my game to the next level and soak up anything that might be said over those couple of days. I can almost hear Hellmuth now, telling me, "I can't believe you didn't check-raise!"

"Anyone that wants to become a winning poker player can do so," Sexton said.

I'm on my way.

Don't forget to check back in August when Andrew Feldman reports on his daily progress from fantasy camp. To contact Andrew, e-mail andrew.j.feldman@espn3.com .