Weekly Poker night facing a surge in popularity
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Three times in this friendly game of Acey-Deucy (sometimes called "In-between" or "Red Dog"), Ching has played the odds fairly and faithfully. Three times the odds have proved unreliable, leaving Ching with an unlikely run of worst-case draws each exacting a 2-to-1 penalty: $10 dollars wagered, $20 gone.
"That's why they call it the Beast," says Ching, 24.
And the game isn't over yet.
It's a warm, breezeless Sunday evening on Birch Street in Honolulu, and Ching and older brother Gary have again opened their small two-bedroom apartment to a slowly rotating cast of card-loving friends.
Like a growing number of younger Americans, the Ching brothers and their friends are rediscovering the joys and agonies of the weekly Poker night.
Across the country, an estimated 40 million to 50 million Americans play Poker recreationally, according to the World Poker Tour and other sources.
In fact, thanks to cable broadcasts of the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker, the proliferation of online gambling, and an increased presence in movies and television, Poker has quickly and quietly become a major challenger to surfing as pop culture's fad du mois.
Gary Ching said he started playing about a year ago, sporadically at first, then with increasing interest.
"Watching the World Series on ESPN did it for me," says Ching, 33. "I never thought Poker could be that exciting."
The Chings and their friends play once or twice a week, sometimes joining larger, more serious games at another friend's place. For them, the fun comes from the calculated risks and cold-eyed bluffing that sometimes mitigate the luck of the draw. Money is wagered, but with rent and other considerations accounted for, stakes are low and the ups and downs of winning and losing are moderate.
Financially, at least.
The beast was supposed to be a short breather from the group's standard program of Texas Hold 'Em and Seven-card Stud. It was intended as a respite to smooth the competitive hackles and, perhaps, to reclaim a few lost chips. But as in any game of chance, unpredictability supercedes design. The only predictable thing tonight is John Ching's bad luck.
Ching draws a three and a king, an excellent hand. If his next card falls anywhere between the two cards in value, he wins.
With his eyes on the surrendered chips stacked in the middle of the table, he again puts his faith in the odds. He bets $10.
And the beast bites again: Ching's next card is another king. The two-to-one penalty applies, and Ching adds $20 to the pot.
Combining elements of the Persian game Nas, Indian Ganjifa, French Poque and German Pochen, modern Poker is believed to have taken shape sometime in the early 1800s in Louisiana.
The game spread across the country by steamboat, rail and wagon, and by the Civil War, thousands of soldiers for the North and South were said to have played the game in various forms, contributing such modifications as Stud, Draw, and straight Poker.
Like jazz, another American invention, Poker is a sometimes complex, often mistrusted cultural institution. Where poets and barroom philosophers see an enactment of human determinism in the face of indifferent chance, others see little more than a gateway to vice.
"It has an image," says Puni Rudolph, an avid Poker player for more than 30 years. "It has baggage. It's kind of dangerous, but a lot of the risk is your own creation. Do criminals play it? Sure. But so do Ma and Pa Kettle down the street."
The other World Series
Casino owner Benny Binion started the World Series of Poker in 1970, seeking to recreate the drama of Johnny Moss' legendary five-month game against Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Dandolos. The event is open to anyone willing to cough up the $10,000 entry fee.
It's grown from eight players to more than 7,000, with a total purse of nearly $20 million last year.
The World Series has become a surprise hit on ESPN.
With telegenic figures such as Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Carlos Mortensen and a sophisticated on-screen presentation that allows viewers to see the players' held cards, the event has produced moments as dramatic and engaging as any on the sports network.
One year later, for example, Poker fans are still buzzing about amateur Robert Varkonyi's amazing run to the championship in the 2002 World Series.
"It's not like the movies with imaginary people winning imaginary money," says Lance Tamashiro, 22. "The World Series is real money. You have a guy with a pair in his hand going all in with five cards still left, and it's real money. It's crazy."
Tamashiro says he doesn't pay much attention to shows like FX's "Lucky" that are capitalizing on Poker's newfound chic. He does, however, have a soft spot for the 1998 Matt Damon film "Rounders."
Like Poker enthusiasts who obsessed over "The Cincinnati Kid" film more than a generation ago, Tamashiro says he and his friends from college watched the 1998 Matt Damon film "Rounders" over and over.
"It's just the most perfect description of Poker culture," Tamashiro says. "In college, everybody watched that and everybody was quoting lines like, "Don't splash the pot."
Touring the game
The success of the World Series has paved the way for the newly introduced World Poker Tour, a joint venture between award-winning filmmaker Steven Lipscomb and Lakes Gaming Inc.
The first professional tour for Poker players features tournaments in 13 casinos around the world, filmed for broadcast on the Travel Channel.
Like the World Series shows, the tour maximizes the drama by giving viewers a peek at the players' held cards.
"I'm not really one to watch a lot of TV," says Rudolph. "But that show, I even made my wife tape the second one. It's super suspenseful watching those guys bluff each other and you know what everybody has."
Messing with Texas
The standard Poker variation for most tournaments is Texas Hold 'Em (see sidebar), a variation of Seven-card Stud that, thanks to the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour, has filtered down to the social gambling environs of garages, kitchens and dorm rooms.
Back at the Ching apartment, a fortuitous string of Hold 'Em wins has John Ching back in the black. He is not so confident that he risks one of his signature moves betting at each interval without looking at his cards but that winning feeling is slowly returning.
The games have continued unabated for four hours and will likely extend into the wee hours of the morning, but the players are showing no signs of wearying.
"The cost of buying in is about the same as going out for a movie," says Gary Ching. "So if we can have fun for two or three hours, we're ahead even if we don't necessarily win. It's not about the money; it's just about having fun and competing."
Is your weekend Poker game with the guys legal? State law makes allowances for "social" gambling, provided such gambling meets all of the following criteria:
- All parties must compete on equal terms with each other.
- No player receives anything of value other than personal winnings.
- No other person can receive anything of value or any profit from any source.
- It is not conducted or played at any business establishment of any kind or at any public area. Social gambling may only take place in non-public areas.
- All players are 18 or older.
- There is no bookmaking (accepting bets from people on the outcome of future events or games).
In other words, your game has to take place at a private residence, there can be no "house cut," players win only what is in the pot (no bonuses or grand prizes), and everyone has to be on equal footing.
So-called casino nights, popular as local fund-raisers, are also legal provided they do not meet the state's "consideration, chance and reward" criteria for illegal gambling.
"Consideration" refers to money, services, property or anything else of value that is wagered. "Chance" is considered as a determining factor in the outcome of the game. Poker, while there may be some skill involved, is still considered predominantly a game of chance. "Reward" refers to money, prizes or anything else received as a result of winning.
As Randall Stovall of the Honolulu Police Department's gambling detail explains, casino night sponsors would have to eliminate at least one of these elements for a casino night event to be legal. In most cases, this would mean waiving the cost of participation.
Online gambling is one of the biggest Internet moneymakers. An Internet search last week turned up more than 300 online casinos (many hosted on servers outside the U.S.) that allow participants to compete in electronic versions of casino games for money.
However, it is illegal for someone in Hawai'i to gamble online, no matter where the site is based.
Source: Honolulu Police Dept., Narcotics/Vice Division