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"Here, I think we're done with it," says Dusty Turner, the general manager at Sixshooters in Tempe, who was hosting Nationwide games twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays until earlier this month. "We've looked at the total numbers, and it's just not panning out.
"Over at our Metrocenter location, it's doing great. We're getting 80 people a night who are actually buying drinks and food -- not huge tabs, but they're making it worth it," he says. "Maybe Tempe, with all the college students, just isn't the best place for free poker."
Joe Harris, who owns the Horse & Hound, and the next-door music venue, The Clubhouse, would beg to differ.
Harris just added Mondays to go along with the Wednesday and Saturday games the H&H hosts. He pays Nationwide $250 per night to bring in the tables, cards and chips, and then he pays a "tournament director" another $50 a night. Toss in the gift certificates he offers up as prizes to tournament winners, and Harris figures he's spending more than $4,000 a month to keep poker players coming back every week.
"I think it's been fantastic!" says Harris, an ex-Bostonian with a wicked New England accent. "People have a ball with it. And every once in awhile, I try to give away some extra shit, like some tickets to a cage fight, or a pair of Texas Hold'em boxers. People eat that shit up."
Local bar poker players needn't look far for a role model.
In July, Mesa resident Terry Burt won a free bar tournament, made it to the World Series, and ended up coming back to the Valley almost $250,000 richer. (He couldn't be reached for this story.)
But the question remains: Is Burt an anomaly, or are bar poker players good enough to play with the best players in the world?
"As a card player myself, I would never have thought so," says Isaiah Tompert, who co-owns the East Valley-based American Poker League with a couple of longtime friends. "I mean, Terry Burt had never played cards before he played in our tournaments. So you figure, you can only be so lucky.
"I really wouldn't have thought Terry had any kind of chance at the World Series," he continues. "But from what we've seen, I guess anyone can get the cards."
Ask the pros themselves -- a pretty cocky bunch who would never actually be caught dead playing poker for zero stakes -- if bar players stand a chance in Vegas, and you might be surprised by the response.
"If they play free poker as if the chips really count for something, if they take it seriously, I think they have a great chance," says Scottsdale's Thomas "Thunder" Keller, 24, who won a WSOP bracelet in his first trip to the event in 2004 to go along with the $384,000 first-place money he took home (Keller entered the $5,000 buy-in, as opposed to the $10,000 main event). "I think they really need to play the game the right way."
"You have to be very careful when you disrespect another poker player, regardless of what kind of stakes they play for, or the skills they have," says Hellmuth from his home in Palo Alto, California.
"Sometimes in the roughest soil grows the most beautiful flowers. Some might be going through hard times, and some of those will really rise up," adds Hellmuth, who just hosted his first "Camp Hellmuth," a fantasy weekend of poker seminars and workshops in Las Vegas, last month. "And maybe amongst those people [who play bar Texas Hold'em], you'll have the Vincent Van Gogh of poker.
"Yeah, they have a chance."
Back at the Horse & Hound, Sam Martin's about to leave for the night with his girlfriend, Amanda Walden.
Logic would suggest that it would be Walden, not Martin, who would go out early against all these seasoned bar poker players. But Murphy's Law proves otherwise. Martin went out early in the 7 p.m. tournament, leaving him waiting for Walden to finally lose all her chips close to an hour after Martin did; at one point, Walden had close to 10,000 in chips, more than double what she started with.
"Beginner's luck, man," Martin says, acknowledging that ignorance sometimes goes a long way in poker, especially against fellow Hold'em novices.
Martin's usually the joker at every table he plays at, shrugging off big losses, never going off tilt, keeping the players pretty loose around him.
"I'm a very casual player," he says. "My thing is, I'm not here to get to the World Series. It just beats jackin' off to porn!"
Nevertheless, Martin admits he plays a little more than he'd like most to know. He plays six nights a week, but insists he's not an "addict."
But at what point does one become an addict? At seven nights a week?
"Good point," he says. "I guess I'm kind of a sporadic addict, then.
"Look, fact is, this isn't the highlight of my week. I mean, am I proud of the fact that I'm playin' poker with a fat girl whose boobs are hangin' out of her shirt, who's on 15 different meds, sittin' there with burger grease dripping down her chin, battling it out for a motor scooter?
"No, I'm not."
Martin then grabs his to-go box of chicken wings and turns for the door with Walden at his side. A poker buddy waves him out from one of the last two tables still going.
"I'll see you later, man!" Martin shouts back. "Probably tomorrow night . . . somewhere!"