Poker Faces

Misery loves company -- and free Texas Hold'em

Because of her multiple conditions, Vaughan takes it easy, mostly, making "mini-sculptures of teddy bears and incense holders" and selling them on the Internet through a Yahoo! group she's called "Vikki Lady's Fan Club." Otherwise, she's playing poker.

"I'm trying to get to play on TV!" she says. "That's the ultimate goal!"

Bill Rudy -- or "Chase" -- doesn't want the fame. He just wants the fortune.

Pro poker player and New York Times best-selling author Phil Hellmuth recently hosted "Camp Hellmuth" in Vegas, a fantasy weekend of sorts for Hold'em novices.
courtesy of Much and House P.R
Pro poker player and New York Times best-selling author Phil Hellmuth recently hosted "Camp Hellmuth" in Vegas, a fantasy weekend of sorts for Hold'em novices.

"Hey, it comes down to luck, really. It's more luck than anything," he says. "I think I'd have just as good of luck as the next person, even a pro, there at the World Series."

He recently met 2003 WSOP champion Chris Moneymaker at an Albertson's grocery store in north Scottsdale, he says, where Moneymaker was promoting a book.

As a gimmick, the promoters set up a table for Moneymaker fans to play a few hands against the Tennessee accountant-turned-poker professional. And Chase "wasn't chasin'," he says. "I even made [Moneymaker] fold a hand," he says.

But life's little victories are few and far between for Rudy, who would resign himself to being a born loser if it weren't for the prospect of winning big at Texas Hold'em.

After getting pushed out of the night's earlier tournament by Zarka, Rudy explains why's he's got so many chipped and missing teeth, which outnumber the good ones he has left two to one. It's a simple explanation, really.

"I was careless," he says. "I just didn't take care of them. And then I was into drugs -- pretty much anything I could get my hands on."

A few years back, he had to have a dentist pull seven teeth in one appointment. Once he returned to get fitted for dentures, he says, the dentist told him his gag reflex would prevent him from being able to wear them.

"So, I don't smile very often," he says. "It's miserable, man. I'm very self-conscious about it. I don't really approach women anymore, either."

Bill Rudy's heart breaks most, though, when he speaks about the daughter he hasn't seen in 15 years. "I've tried finding her, but her mother changed phone numbers a long time ago," he says. "I'm pretty sure she's probably back in Ohio.

"Hell," he scoffs. "I probably have a better chance of getting into the World Series than I do of ever finding my daughter."

Since launching the Nationwide Poker Tour last August, Brian Schreiner has moved to Phoenix to oversee the Valley operation of the business, where he says Nationwide currently has 6,000 registered players, with another 500 to 600 new players every month.

Across the country, according to Schreiner, Nationwide's membership is more than 50,000 strong.

"Poker is the next pool tournament, the next dart game," Schreiner says, while checking on the action at the Horse & Hound. "We saw the potential of free poker about two years ago, how the curve was rising with the World Series on TV."

The launch of Nationwide was pretty simple:

The owners bought a few dozen collapsible poker tables (less than $50 apiece wholesale), decks of cards in the hundreds, 11.5-gram plastic-clay composite chips in the thousands, and had a Web site designed. Add some multimedia components, and get a few sponsors on board, and you've got yourself a bar poker business you can sell to the local taverns.

Of course, Schreiner and his cohorts back in Missouri aren't the only ones winning big with free bar poker. The biggest leagues in the country include the National Pub Poker League, Amateur Poker League, and The Poker Pub, and now two Valley-based companies, All-In Entertainment and the American Poker League, have joined the fray.

"It has been quite a craze in the last year and a half," says Wes Kuhl, a special investigator and spokesman for the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, which is the closest thing to a bar poker regulatory agency in the state. "Free poker does seem to be a phenomenon."

Arizona's laws on gambling in bars are pretty simple, Kuhl says. "Under no circumstances are bar owners allowed to conduct gambling in their establishment," he says. And while you might be scratching your head, thinking bar poker is a gamble, it's not, simply because the players are not required to pay any amount of money to play. You can't even force a player to buy a Coke in order to play bar poker.

The state doesn't require any additional license for a bar to run free poker games, either.

In short, Kuhl says, the Valley has had very few problems, legally, with bar poker. "Fewer than 10 complaints since this thing started up," he says. "And no one's been shut down."

Well, not by the state, anyway. Some bars, like Sixshooters and The Sets in Tempe, are beginning to scale back their weekly games, if not eliminate them entirely. Turns out, according to some bar owners, that these faux gamblers are taking their free ride to extremes.

On most poker nights at the Horse & Hound, for instance, a beer drinker is outnumbered by those sipping iced tea, Coke, or even totally free water by about three to one. But there's really nothing the bar can do about freeloaders. The law says you can't force anyone to pay for anything in order to play poker in your establishment. And if push comes to shove, all a player has to do to avoid being thrown out for loitering is spend a lousy $2 on a soda.

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