By Christopher Cosenza
Isn’t it funny how things come full circle?
Sure, poker may have gotten its start in America on riverboats, but there’s one image that personifies the history of the game: saloon poker. Old West tough guys with sand-encrusted faces tucked beneath cowboy hats staring down each other around a wobbly wooden table, one hand holding cards, the other squeezing a loaded six-shooter. It’s as American as apple pie and botched elections.
Well, this may not be Deadwood or Tombstone, but Florida has been upholding the poker traditions of Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday for years, albeit in a much more civilized manner.
Despite more than 30 legal poker rooms within driving distance from just about anywhere in Florida, bar poker leagues dot the Sunshine State from Pensacola to Key West. And these leagues are thriving.
So what’s the allure?
“It’s a chance to work on your game in a non-threatening environment while not putting your bankroll at risk,” said Bryan Oulton, president and founder of All In Free Poker, which covers North Miami-Dade and all of Broward and Palm Beach counties. “It’s also a great social outlet, as you get to meet and know people that have something in common with you.”
That seems to be the sentiment with all of these bar-league owners and operators.
“It’s the best way to learn how to read other players, when to bluff and basically how to become a better player without risking the potential loss of money,” Jacksonville Poker Association owner Roger Miller said. Since 1991 Miller has owned an entertainment company that runs karaoke, music and trivia contests at bars and restaurants. But the JPA was the result of the “poker boom” and an article he read in the local paper about a league in Kansas. “It’s also a great way to socialize and meet new friends. Since money isn’t involved people are more relaxed.”
Here’s how it works: Find a league (see chart that accompanies this story), go to a host establishment on a night when it’s running a tournament and sign up to play. The operators (or tournament directors) will explain the rules (such as you aren’t allowed to have money on the table) and then they’ll pass out chips and cards. All you are responsible for is dealing when it’s your turn, and sometimes the leagues have dealers or when it gets down to a couple of tables the directors might deal for you. That’s it.
But are these people really showing up every night basically playing for pride? There has to be more than just heading to a saloon and playing poker and making pals, right?
“We offer all kinds of prizes,” said Shawn Dean, owner of Cleawater’s Treasure Chest Poker. “(We give away) gift certificates to the bars, hats, T-shirts, DVD players, TVs, chip sets, tables, even a trip for two to Las Vegas every month, with hotel and airfare included.”
Treasure Chest Poker, which stretches from Spring Hill to Sarasota, gives away at least one World Series of Poker seat a year as well. And that seems to be the brass ring for most of these leagues, including one unique situation in the Panhandle.
“We’re the only bar in Florida that directly gets a seat to the World Series,” said Rick Perez, owner of Attitude’s Food and Spirits in Fort Walton Beach. Perez is a host for the Free Poker Network and he couldn’t be happier with free poker in his establishment.
“This next promotion I’m really excited about,” he said “I might even play if I can work it out.”
It’s an all-expenses-paid seven-day Caribbean cruise in April. But there’s also a $10K High Roller package, which includes a trip to Las Vegas, spending money and $5K in tournament entries (WSOP, Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza, etc.) Not too bad considering all these leagues ask for in return is to support the host establishment by having a few drinks or a bite to eat that night, though it’s certainly not required.
Plus these leagues offer other special events, such as Jacksonville’s Ladies Only tournament for a chance to win a seat into the Ladies WSOP event. All In Free Poker gives players a chance to play in a real card room five times a year.
“Each of our finals is held at the Isle Casino in Pompano, with 300 players in the event,” Oulton said. “We hold a big registration party the Friday night before the multi-day final. We’ve even held a poker night at a Florida Marlins game.”
You may have heard of the Free Poker Network, which is based in Fargo, N.D. According to its administrator, Pete Bushey, FPN is the largest free poker league in the country with 275 locations (130 in Minnesota), but just the one location in Florida. With so many established leagues here, why would FPN make the jump here?
“Well, we didn’t target Florida but we feel our product is competitively priced and we give away the most prizes by far,” Bushey said. “In the past year we’ve given away more than $150,000 in prizes and sent 21 people to the World Series. Florida is a hot scene and some of the owners there may be getting burned out. We know the market is saturated, but we were looking to expand and we hope with what we’re giving away that we might pick up some more locations.”
Burned out? Not likely. These leagues are picking up host establishments daily. And to give you an idea of how many people are playing, the Orlando Chapter of the World Poker Tour/Amateur Poker League has more than 17,000 registered players. WPTAPL, which is a national organization that recently held its national championships in Orlando, also has chapters in the Tampa Bay area and South Florida. All of these leagues have members reaching into the thousands, including Jacksonville with more than 6,000, Treasure Chest (8,000) and All In Free Poker (6,100). And these are just the more established leagues. Dozens of other startups likely blanket the state as well.
So what’s it take to be a host? Different leagues have different arrangements.
“I bought all of my own stuff (from FPN),” Perez said, “and I have a woman who runs the tournaments. They charge $65 a night for the paperwork.”
Most leagues supply the equipment for free, however, and charge on a per-table basis while others establish a flat rate per night. For bar owners it’s a minimal investment that gives their patrons something more to do besides dancing or karaoke, plus it increases return business. Players have a reason to come back because, after all, these are leagues.
“We pride ourselves on keeping our results accurate and timely,” said Oulton of All In Free Poker, which has an affiliation with the Isle at Pompano Park. “On our Web page (allinfreepoker.com), there is a points page that’s updated daily.”
And these free poker leagues aren’t just about the players and making money for the bars.
“We donate a percentage of revenues to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Southern Florida,” Oulton said, “and have raised $15,000 to date, while granting three children’s wishes. We also have an American Cancer Society Relay for Life team in East Boca Raton, and raised $8,800 for them last year.”
Treasure Chest Poker also gives back to the community.
“We run a number of charity tournaments for organizations such as Toys for Tots, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, police organizations and many other local charities,” said Dean, who bought TCP in October 2005.
But there has to be some negatives to free poker leagues, no? Alcohol is flowing liberally at these establishments, and, well, a lot of the players are just learning the game, which is why they’re there in the first place. That’s a lethal combination … you remember all the trouble Wild Bill got into, don’t you?
“Very, very rarely are there ever any physical altercations,” Dean said. “Usually our hosts will step in and intervene before it comes to that. It’s a very controlled environment.”
The JPA’s Miller says his leagues have maybe one fight every six months, and Oulton’s had one incident in more than three years of tournaments at All In Free Poker.
“With more than 5,200 total nights of poker and more than 20,000 total tournaments, that’s not too bad,” Oulton said. “We don’t put up with rude and bad behavior. If a player gets out of line with other players, dealers or the bar’s staff, we ask them to not come back. Over our three years, we’ve had to ban a small handful of players (seven) and that helps to keep others in line. The undesirables realize we run our events like a casino, in that we enforce the rules, while having a relaxing and fun atmosphere, so they choose to play elsewhere.”
Oulton says free poker leagues have to deal with those stereotypes all of the time.
“Some people, mainly those who haven’t participated in it or have with a fly-by-night group, think free poker is nothing but a bunch of drunken players who push all-in with no one trying to play position or with any thought. Those same people think that all of the players will chase any two cards or any draw.”
And that’s not the case. In most of these leagues about half of their players also play for real money in legal card rooms.
Take Max Reele of Fort Walton Beach, for instance. His testimony on BarPoker.com’s home page says it all:
“BarPoker awarded me a World Series of Poker Main Event entry for winning a 2005-06 BarPoker tournament. During the 2006 WSOP Main Event I finished 59th in a field of more than 8,700 players. I took home almost $125,000 in prize money.”
Reele later parlayed that run into another cash at a $5K NLHE event at the WSOP in 2007 and two more cashes at WSOP circuit events this year. Reele is proof some players just need a chance to play, and that’s what’s at the heart of free poker, a chance to play.