Poker Faces

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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?

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Joe Watson