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."