Why is everyone so jazzed about poker?
PUB POKER: Anthony Phillips regulates the chips at Kingston Alley.
I’M ALL IN: Home poker games become more popular among young Knoxvillians.
The Big Deal
As expected, the room is filled with men. OK, I’m not the only woman here, but the other two have obviously been dragged in by their boyfriends. It’s Monday night at Kingston Alley, for which the bar section has been transformed into a low-grade casino with makeshift green felt coverings over the dining tables. Most of the menfolk are milling around and shooting the shit. Many of them know each other, and they do that guy thing where they call each other by their last names, “Hey, Johnson, you’re goin’ down, buddy,” for example. Then a young man with a mustache and a black vest, just like the dealers on TV, yells that it’s time to start, and everyone lumbers over to his assigned tables. Cute waitresses ask the men if they want beers. Domestic bottles are two bucks tonight.
Texas Hold ‘Em is the game of choice these days. Since I grew up playing Five Card Draw, it feels very uncomfortable “holding ‘em” at first, because I have only two cards in my hand. Very disconcerting. The point system is the same here; you want a flush or a full house or two pair and so on, but you don’t know what’s lurking on the other side of those ominous cards that will determine your hand—at least not until you’ve committed yourself with anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or so worth of chips. I pretty much fold every hand for the first hour.
The guys don’t find betting at all daunting. They toss in the black $1,000 chips like it’s no biggie and don’t even flinch when they “go all in,” putting all of their chips on the line in one go. The chip piles shrink or tower around the table from hand to hand. One heavy-set young guy smokes cigarettes at 10-minute intervals and ashes on the patio, apologizing for the smoke intermittently, as if it weren’t a requisite element in my romanticized vision of a heated poker game. Perhaps cigars would be more authentic, though.
One guy at the table is “the talker.” You know him. He’s the one who calls the waitresses “sweetie” and gets away with it because he has a country-boy charm; he’s the embodiment of the guy romancing the girl with “one bottle o’ wine and two Dixie cups” in that Kenny Chesney song. He also probably spits dip into Mountain Dew bottles. He gives lots of helpful hints as he’s munching on his fried cheese sticks and even fancies himself something of a mystic. “I can call cards, they call me the Rain Man,” he crows. Later, he does call a pocket pair of queens residing in the hand of an opponent, but it’s not quite as amazing as the toothpick trick Dustin Hoffman pulled in the diner.
Since this is my first time playing hold ‘em, though, it’s very helpful to have the talker at my table. Not only does he nudge me when it’s my turn, he also explains common poker superstitions as if they are honest-to-God truths. “When you play for a while, particular hands will jinx you,” he says. “Like me, I hate ace, queen. I usually fold now when I get ace, queen because I’ve lost so many times with it.”
For those unfamiliar with Texas Hold ‘Em, an ace, queen would generally be considered a good hand, because if another ace or queen gets turned, you would have a strong pair. So his comment seems like either extreme paranoia or blown smoke. But he loses one of the next few hands with an ace and a queen. He kicks himself for having bet on it. Duped by ace, queen once again.
The games at Kingston Alley, as well as other bars around Knoxville—like Oskie’s, Murphy’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Michael’s—are organized by the National Pub Poker League. How it works is the winner of each poker night gets a chance to go to the regional competitions, which are held quarterly. Then, the winner of regionals gets an expenses-paid trip to Vegas to compete for a million-dollar prize in the nationals.
Las Vegas is a poker-player’s Holy Land. While most tourists go to play nickel slots and sip watered-down Mai Tais, poker players go to chase down the “new American Dream.” Brady Goodman, an avid Knoxville poker player and host of “Ante Up!” a radio talk show about poker, started a recent show with the statement, “No offense to my guests, but I wish I was in Vegas! I wish I was in Vegas!” Instead, he does the next best thing: clicking away on online poker sites and playing home games with friends. He says he usually logs about 25 to 30 hours a week.
Goodman’s radio show features some general poker news about what’s going on at tournaments, changes in legality, and poker strategy. He’s had some pretty famous guests, including two-time WSOP champ Jennifer Harman and poker writers Alan Schoonmaker and David Slanksy. The show is broadcast on the Horne Radio Network on Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m. (call letters are 1400 AM and 850 WKVL). Goodman also heads up a one-day “poker camp” on Sept. 17, with many guest speakers on hand to talk about everything from strategy to the best poker vacation spots.
The whole poker craze seems to be a reaction to the World Series of Poker’s appearance on the small screen a few years ago, and now “celebrity poker” has garnered even more interest. Knoxvillian Chris Moneymaker inspired some with his WSOP win, having been catapulted there after learning how to play on Internet sites. “Moneymaker and his Cinderella run to win the WSOP has gotten lots of people dreaming big,” says Goodman. “The fact that any regular cat with an Internet connection and six bucks can turn that into millions—it’s become the new American Dream.”
Americans are undeniably lazy, so it’s really no surprise that a game that’s easy to pick up and that can supposedly garner easy money would appeal to us. Still, most players insist that the skills involved have to be honed just like golf or chess. But if you just want to play for fun, says Goodman, “Poker is so easy to play that nobody’s really excluded from it.”
Since gambling is illegal in Tennessee, and public poker tournaments are sans money, one might wonder why they are so popular. The point of poker is to win money, right? It turns out there are lots of reasons people are drawn to the game of chance. “I like it because it’s something social that I can do to meet people, but it’s also that adrenaline rush of having the cards in your hand,” says Kelly Steely, a nurse at Fort Sanders Hospital who attends several Pub Poker nights a week.
Knoxville’s bar poker scene may be male dominated, but Steely and her female poker buddies are anything but intimidated. “The majority of other players are definitely guys. I’d say it’s about a 1-to-10 ratio,” she says. “Men don’t think women know how to play the game, so I definitely work that. They think they are at an advantage because they are playing with girls.” She admits to feigning naivete to throw the guys off every once in a while.
The regulations on “poker paraphernalia” like cards and chips resemble those on marijuana accoutrements. Just as pipes and bongs can be used for tobacco, cards are hardly incriminating as they can also be used to play Go Fish with grandma. “Gambling is illegal in Tennessee, but that’s tough to enforce,” says Goodman. “The laws are pretty ambiguous, and all of us are just crossing our fingers that nobody gets their panties in a wad.”
Online poker is a relatively new outlet for players, and with it comes some legal issues . Because many online companies are run outside the United States, says Goodman, the government can’t regulate or tax them. “The Department of Justice is basically saying that online poker is illegal, but they’re not prosecuting anybody,” says Goodman.
Obviously, most players would favor the legalization of gambling in Tennessee. Anthony Phillips, who runs several Pub Poker nights in Knoxville, often travels with his boss to play poker in Mississippi, North Carolina and Alabama. Does he want to see casinos in Tennessee? “Absolutely. I think it would help Tennessee because people from around here go out-of-state to play. That’s money that the state could be bringing in,” he says. “You see how well the lottery has done, and how it has helped students pay for school.”
While Goodman doesn’t praise the lotto in so many words, he does echo the irony of its legality in a state where all other forms of gambling are illegal. “The lottery is a tax on people that are bad at math,” he says. “How is it OK for the state to roll up all this money on a game of chance, and I can’t sit down and win some money at a game of skill?”
Aside from its legality woes, poker does suffer from another stigma: addiction. Like any vice, playing the odds in excess can be debilitating, and some people become true gambling addicts. Even players at the money-free Pub Poker warn, “Watch out. It’s addictive.”
Steely admits that her non-poker friends complain that she plays too much, and that it’s hard to resist the game at times. “I mean, there is a desire and a craving to play. It is hard to say no,” she says. “But I think of addiction as a bad thing, and this is not a bad thing.”
Later in the evening at Kingston Alley, players have dwindled to just four tables, and, due to my extremely conservative playing during the first hour, and a few lucky turns in the second, I am amazingly still in the game. The mood has definitely shifted. No longer do fingers around the table drum the felt in boredom. Now they tap restlessly in a mix of pleasure and panic. Chips have changed hands countless times, but a twinge of anticipation comes every time those two cards appear in all their face-down mystery. While Internet poker may be good for scoring quick cash, or losing it, bar poker is definitely all about the rush.
So far, I’ve worked up the nerve to bet on a few hands, losing and winning a couple meager pots. Then it happens. I peek under the corners of my two cards to see that they’re both aces. As a beginner, I get pretty excited to get dealt a pocket pair of aces. Going “all in” seems like a darn good idea because, what the hell? Plus, what are the chances anyone’s going to beat that? After a couple of rounds, I nonchalantly slide the rest of my 2,000 chips into the center of the fuzzy green table. It feels funny having no chips to fiddle with. The only other remaining player flips his hand. Two kings and another on the table. Duped by pocket aces.
More info on Goodman’s Ante Up! poker camp and the radio show can be found at www.anteupradio.com .