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Bill Rudy takes a slurp of the melted ice and Coke at the bottom of his cup. He cradles his last 1,400 in chips, takes another peek at the pair of cards he's been dealt, mumbles to himself, and then makes the call.
"What the hell," he announces, pushing all his chips into the pot like a man defeated before he's actually lost.
It's a Monday night in early September, and the Horse & Hound Sports Grill in Tempe is hosting its thrice-weekly Texas Hold'em poker tournament. Close to 40 card players are huddled together at five makeshift poker tables, complete with green felt, chip racks and cup holders.
The big-screen TVs are tuned to Monday Night Football; Atlanta is holding on for a narrow victory over Philadelphia. In an adjoining room, bets are being placed on the dogs racing at Phoenix Greyhound Park, simulcast on a dozen smaller televisions throughout the bar. Cocktail waitresses clad in tight football jerseys and jeans deliver draft beers and quesadillas.
In most respects, the Horse & Hound -- on a poker night, anyway -- is like a Las Vegas sportsbook and casino, without the dizzying array of blinking lights and the maddening orchestra of slot-machine melodies.
There's a more important detail, though, that separates the Horse & Hound from the Horseshoe. The only real money on the line is at the dog-track window. The poker chips splashed around on the felt tables aren't worth anything more than the plastic-clay composite from which they're made.
This is free, no-limit Texas Hold'em, an oxymoron no more, in which the common man, or woman, takes a shot at poker greatness by playing in amateur leagues in bars and taverns from east Mesa to Peoria. Dozens of bars around the Valley run free poker tournaments every night of the week, when players come in for cheap beer specials and play Hold'em like high rollers.
They play loose and talk smack. They wear sunglasses at night like their heroes on ESPN's World Series of Poker. They wear poker tee shirts, poker hats and, most important, poker faces. And they go "all-in" on a pair of aces.
Or, in Bill Rudy's case, an 8-5 offsuit (two cards of mismatched suits, like a heart and a diamond).
In this make-believe world, Rudy is now one card from reality.
One card from heading home to an empty one-bedroom apartment in northwest Mesa.
One card from a dead-end job as a telemarketer -- sorry, "a reservations specialist for hotels and resorts" -- barely making $1,200 a month.
One card from being ignored by the opposite sex.
So he's got nothing to lose. And Bill Rudy -- a 46-year-old Ohio transplant whom fellow players call "Chase" for his sometimes foolish pursuit of cards he has virtually no shot at getting -- is playing the hand he's been dealt as such.
Once Dave Zarka, a 27-year-old Arizona State media research student widely considered the best player in the room, says, "Chase, I don't know what you have, but I'm puttin' you all-in," Rudy obliges, splashing down those final 1,400 chips and hoping -- for once -- that the chase pays off.
Zarka has a pair of queens -- one in the hole (the first two face-down cards that each player is dealt) to go along with the Queen of Diamonds, 10 of Hearts, and Jack of Clubs that came out on the "flop" (the first three community cards that are dealt face-up).
A 3 of Spades comes up on the "turn," the fourth of five community cards, and Rudy's down to one final flip.
"Well," Rudy says, standing above the table with his hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans, "I had to do it." Of course, he didn't actually have to. He could've -- and should've -- folded when Zarka raised the bet. But that just wouldn't be "Chase," whose only hope is that a 9, of any suit, comes out on the "river" -- the final card -- which would make his 8 in the hole the low card of a queen-high straight.
Of course, that's the best-case scenario.
Truth is, Rudy is pretty much screwed.
"Chase, when are you gonna learn, man?" a bystander who's already lost all his chips says, hovering over the table like a man who's, well, lost all his chips. The irony isn't lost on Rudy.
"Yeah, well, what the fuck are you doin'?" Rudy barks. "Looks like you're already out."
The dealer burns a card, meaning he throws one away, face-down. Then he flips over the river.
It's a 6. The suit is irrelevant. Zarka's pair of queens takes down Rudy's, well, nothing.
"Y'all have a good night," Rudy says, heading outside for a loser's smoke.
Bill Rudy, like hundreds of "free" (or bar, or amateur -- pick your modifier) poker players around the Valley, and thousands across the country, is trying to make it to the main event of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the annual summer mecca for poker players from around the world. Rudy, though, unlike the vast majority of those who trek to Vegas every summer on their own dimes, is looking for a free ride to the WSOP, hoping he'll win enough bar tournaments around town that he'll actually luck out on a paid trip to the World Series, the ultimate prize in bar poker.