Poker Faces

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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.

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Joe Watson