Poker Faces

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"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.

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Joe Watson