Poker Faces

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.

For a chance -- a shard of a chance, really -- a record-setting 5,619 players paid $10,000 apiece this summer for entry to the main event of the World Series, and a shot at its $7.5 million first-prize take. (In contrast, just seven players bellied up to the table for the inaugural WSOP in 1972, and just 52 came out 10 years after that.)

What began as a game played by 16th-century Persians, and later a game of cheats and hustlers on riverboats off the coast of 18th-century Louisiana, has become a 21st-century cultural phenomenon, thanks to ESPN, a guy named Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's his real name), and Matt Damon.

ESPN's been telecasting the final table of the World Series' main event for close to 20 years. But it wasn't until the 1998 film Rounders, starring Damon as a law student-cum-poker genius and Edward Norton as Damon's ex-con best friend, that the game of Texas Hold'em broke into the mainstream.

Then Moneymaker, an accountant from Nashville who got to the 2003 World Series by winning a free online tournament, ended up taking first place and $2.5 million back home to Tennessee. With that, Hold'em became what it is today: a worldwide industry that has advertisers paying for prime-time slots on cable television, and turns card players into global celebrities.

And now it's got tenacious entrepreneurs cashing in.

"Once Moneymaker won at free online poker, we knew this was gonna work," says Brian Schreiner, regional manager and co-owner of the Nationwide Poker Tour, which runs bar tournaments around the Valley every night of the week.

Bill Rudy won't get to the World Series of Poker with his own money, not on his monthly salary. So he's depending on Nationwide, which currently operates in seven states -- Georgia, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Arizona, and its home state of Missouri, where the company started in August 2004 -- to get him there.

Earlier this year, Nationwide held its national invitational in St. Louis, where more than 300 players from around the country showed up, having paid their own travel expenses, for a shot at the Nationwide grand prize: a $10,000 buy-in to the 2005 World Series' main event, which took place in July.

This December, Nationwide will host statewide tournaments, inviting each state's top 500 players (Rudy is currently ranked 28th in the Phoenix area), who can see their updated rankings daily at www.pokerplayersinc.com.

Arizona's fortunate 500 will meet in Phoenix, probably at one of Nationwide's larger locations, like Sixshooters on the west side near Metrocenter, or The Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe, next door to the Horse & Hound. The top 10 finishers from each state tournament will then go to Las Vegas to play against each other, and whoever wins that tournament gets a $10,000 buy-in at the main event of the WSOP in 2006, plus travel and hotel expenses.

Of course, odds are -- fittingly -- that you won't win a dime playing free poker.

But while Arizona law prohibits poker players from wagering anything of value when playing at local bars, the operators of amateur poker leagues have found that nominal and perfectly legal prizes like tee shirts and shot glasses seem to placate the masses.

If their luck stretches for a few hours, a $20 gift certificate to the participating bar -- alcohol not included -- might be on the line for the nightly tournament winners. That is, if the bar remembers to pony one up in the first place. If players are lucky enough to make it into a monthly or quarterly invitational tournament, they've got a shot at taking home their very own poker table, or maybe a useless mini-motorcycle, or even an overvalued and outdated big-screen projection television.

The only way to win any money playing free bar poker, though, is to beat out hundreds of other free poker players for a buy-in to a tournament, including the annual World Series of Poker, at a real casino, where -- once there -- you'll have to beat out thousands of other players, most of whom play high stakes poker on a regular basis, including a few of the world's top professionals, for even a slice of the millions at stake.

While some might consider these free poker players pathetic, gathering at local taverns six, sometimes seven nights a week, to play for points (and the occasional gift certificate), it certainly beats the alternative. That is, loafing on the couch, only dreaming of getting to the World Series while watching B-list celebrities play on TV for charity. Or even worse, losing hundreds, maybe thousands, playing at a local casino.

Eight players sit down at a poker table at the Horse & Hound on a Monday night.

You'll find Dave Zarka here on Wednesdays and Saturdays, too, the other nights Nationwide runs its games at the H&H. Zarka's a smart-ass, a cocky player who knows he's the best when he sits down, grabs 5,000 chips to start, and looks into the eyes of the other seven souls sitting at a table with him.

"If you can push someone to hate you, that's a good thing in this game," Zarka says. "I get off on beating people and laughing at them when they have to walk away from the table."

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 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.

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.

"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.

"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."

Even Phil Hellmuth, a nine-time WSOP winner and New York Times best-selling author of Texas Hold'em instructional books, nicknamed "The Brat," is reluctant to bash free poker players.

"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!"

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Joe Watson