Poker Faces

Misery loves company -- and free Texas Hold'em

Then there's Amanda Walden and her boyfriend, Sam Martin. Martin's 35, a Kirby vacuum salesman. He's also Walden's boss and 11 years her senior. This is Walden's first time -- sort of -- playing Hold'em.

"Yeah, I just taught her how to play at home," Martin says. "Naked."

He might be serious, but Martin's poker face doesn't reveal the truth. And neither does Walden's blushing.

Mary Smyth digs bar Hold'em, samurai fighting fish, and Kid Rock.
Ian Wingfield
Mary Smyth digs bar Hold'em, samurai fighting fish, and Kid Rock.
Steve Zarnay's wish list: Custody of his son, and a seat at the 2006 World Series of Poker.
Ian Wingfield
Steve Zarnay's wish list: Custody of his son, and a seat at the 2006 World Series of Poker.

Mary Smyth is the obligatory poker babe of the Horse & Hound, a 24-year-old who drives to Tempe from Mesa, often six nights a week, to play. Her pasty white skin, jet-black hair, and the barbell through the bridge of her nose often have fellow Hold'em players mistaking her for a goth chick. But goth chicks don't typically listen to country music and Elvis, wear tee shirts cut off at the belly button, or have the hots for Kid Rock.

She's one of the more consistent -- if not better -- poker players at a Nationwide tournament. Smyth is currently ranked 119th in Nationwide's online standings for local players, out of more than 5,000 registered Nationwide players around the Valley. She's hard to read, meaning you never know if she's bluffing or if she's got a monster hand.

Smyth got into Hold'em just six months ago when her then-boyfriend, who still plays in the Nationwide league, introduced her to it.

Currently out of work and living with her parents after getting divorced three years ago (she married when she was 18), Smyth breeds samurai fighting fish in her bedroom, where she's had as many as 50 bowls scattered about, housing a pair in each bowl at a time.

Getting out to a Nationwide tournament can often be painful for Smyth, who says she not only copes with agoraphobia (a fear of leaving the house) but also has kidney problems. She's had kidney stones since she was 18.

"Yeah, with my kidney pain, nobody's getting into my pants," she says. "Not even Kid Rock."

She has no health insurance. And so a couple of months ago, the pain was "so excruciating" that she abandoned a plan to try to get to the hospital when she found the last two painkillers in the house that had been prescribed by a vet for her mother's dog.

"It was hydrocodone," she says, defensively, "exactly the same stuff that I'd been prescribed for my kidney stones. Just less milligrams."

Smyth isn't the only player at the Horse & Hound with an affliction. There are so many diseases, conditions and sob stories around that, if you stay long enough and listen close, it can be miserable and depressing.

Among the working-class heroes and zeroes you'll find at the H&H -- from construction workers to salesmen, convenience store clerks to the occasional computer analyst, b-boy, wanna-be gangsta or college student -- is Steve Zarnay, a former Chicagoan who works for a local air conditioning company and plays with Nationwide a rather modest three times a week.

And though he's got a never-ending smile, like so many at the H&H, he's got a rough past.

"When I was 6 years old, I got cracked by a belt by my stepfather, and the belt actually hit me in the eye," Zarnay, 31, says, explaining why he had surgery on his right eye last month, and why he's "legally" blind. "The surgery was just to straighten it out, but it helped a lot."

Zarnay calls himself a single father, although he says his 4-year-old son, Steve Jr., is living with his ex-girlfriend and his sister in Michigan.

Zarnay, like Rudy, hopes Nationwide can get him to the World Series of Poker, or even a smaller tournament in Vegas or on the East Coast, with a big enough prize that he can use the money as a retainer on an attorney to help get custody of his son. Once he's got the money, he doesn't expect it to be easy to get his son back.

"To put it bluntly," Zarnay says, "I've got something in my pants that my son's mom doesn't. And that's a bad beat that every father has.

"I mean, that's not the only reason I'm playing, just trying to get my son," says Zarnay, who lives in Gilbert with his grandparents, and says he wants to start his own irrigation business in the Valley. "I'm not here looking for revenge . . . I'm just looking for a chance."

Victoria Vaughan, meanwhile, is looking for a napkin.

Having won the 7 p.m. tournament earlier at the Horse & Hound, she and her gray-bearded, ponytailed boyfriend in the Hawaiian shirt are eating cheeseburgers and basking in Vaughan's first-ever tournament win after her two pair -- aces and eights -- beat Cody Lazenby's aces and sixes.

Lazenby, who works for a "mister company," is the talker at the table. And he'd been talking shit all night, until Vaughan busted him up on the final hand.

"He shouldn't have been throwing a little baby fit," Vaughan says about her testy competitor, over her cheeseburger. "And maybe he'd have won."

Vaughan, in her mid- to late 40s (she won't reveal her exact age), wears a black cowboy hat and a low-cut spandex top. She says she's living off disability checks. "I've got lung damage from working at a Micron plant," she says, along with osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes fatigue and pain in the muscles and tendons.

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