Ron Hiltz, Gardner, carefully lifts the left corner of the two cards in front of him and stares at the
growing pile of chips in the middle of the table. He stacks and re-stacks the chips in front of him before throwing several of them into the center.
Tom Sigvaldson, Baldwin, shakes his head. He fingers his card marker – a wooden pod from a tree in Australia – that he sets on top of his two-card hand to let other players know he’s still playing this hand.
“I’m all in,” he says, pushing poker chips valued at $1,700 into the center of the table.
Hiltz shows his hand – the queen of hearts and the 10 of hearts.
Sigvaldson reveals his cards – a pair of pocket aces. The five cards the dealer flops on the river don’t bolster either of their hands.
Sigvaldson stretches his arms wide to collect his winnings from the table.
The deck of cards is passed from one player to the next, and two cards are dealt to all eight players at the poker table. The betting and fretting begins anew.
It’s a scene being repeated at four full tables at Wally’s Bar and Grill on Wednesday night as card sharks practice their skills at the weekly Texas Hold ‘Em tournament.
Amanda Rodrigues administers the gaming for Prestige Poker League. The league, which boasts more than 300 members, hosts games every night at different locations throughout the Kansas City metro. Players don’t have to belong to the league to join the games.
On Wednesdays, the league offers free poker at Wally’s. On Tuesday’s, they’re in Gardner as well – down the street at the Tumbleweed Bar and Grill. Another league offers free poker tournaments at Pizza Hut in Gardner on Monday nights.
Rodrigues said the popularity of poker tournaments has skyrocketed in the last five or six years.
“It’s free. It’s a great way to meet people,” Rodrigues said. “It’s easier to hang out with friends in a bar and play poker than to go to the casino.”
Tonight, she’s running poker chips and upping the blinds and minimum bids every few minutes for four different tables. Typically, on Wednesdays, there are only three tables.
“But it’s Spring Break, the weather is nice, and in Gardner, everybody knows everybody, so instead of someone bringing three new people, they bring eight,” she said.
The people the game has attracted on this night are mostly from Gardner, but from a variety of professions. There’s a home remodeler, a disc jockey, a software designer, a math teacher and a youth pastor.
Poker leagues, Rodrigues explained, help small businesses bring in customers.
“We’d rather help a small business than have people go to a casino, which is owned by someone you don’t know,” she said.
Darren Hicks, Gardner, folds frequently, but he stays in the game long after several players have lost all of their chips. The other players say he’s a “tight player.”
Hicks said that’s part of his strategy on this night. He doesn’t put chips on the table unless he has a good hand.
“The strategy is they think I fold a lot, so when I have cards, they think I have the cards to win,” Hicks said.
There are more aggressive players at the table. Sigvaldson, for example, makes several large raises throughout the night. He wins big, and he loses big.
Texas Hold ‘Em is a simple game, Rodrigues explained.
“It’s a simple concept of a game,” she said. “It’s a little more intense than a 5-card draw or a 7-card draw.”
Every player receives two cards from the dealer. Two players bid blind – they offer the minimum bid and half of the minimum bid before any cards are dealt. Once every player has cards in hand, every player has the opportunity to call – putting the minimum bid into the pot – raise, betting more money – or fold.
The dealer throws the top card away, and flips the next three cards face up onto the center of the table. Those cards are known as “the river.” Players again have the opportunity to check, raise or fold.
The dealer throws away or “burns” another card from the top of the deck and flips one more card face up on the table. Again, the remaining players check, raise or fold. The dealer burns another card and turns a final card face up onto the river. Players again bet, check or fold. The player with the best poker hand selected using the two cards in their hand and three cards from the river wins.
In a tournament, play is repeated until one player has all of the chips.
Sigvaldson said he learned to play poker by reading the rules in Hoyle’s card book at home, but Rod Wiseman, Gardner, said local, free games help new players learn the ropes.
However, he warned learning at a free tournament is a good way to become a bad poker player.
“If it’s real money, you’ll learn the game,” he said.
Wiseman said one year, he could count on one hand the number of weekends that he didn’t play poker at the casinos. The following year he could count the number of weekends on one hand that he played at the casino.
“I used to go to the casino all of the time,” Wiseman said. “But now it’s whatever money will allow.”
Although the stakes are small at Wally’s – the evening’s winner received a $25 gift certificate and bragging rights – local poker league tournaments can lead to a seat at the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
Rodrigues said Prestige runs a quarterly tournament in which the winner earns a spot at a Harrah’s Casino satellite tournament for the WSOP. A win there can lead to a trip to Las Vegas and the WSOP.
“Free poker can lead to tournament play at Harrah’s. Harrah’s play can lead to a seat at WSOP,” she explained.