When Alex Palacios moved to Gilbert four years ago, he knew only his sister. Last fall, the 42-year-old decided it was time to get out of the house more.
To meet people, he became a regular at a local watering hole — but Palacios doesn’t go there to belly up to the bar. He goes to throw down bets at a poker table.
Palacios and friends meet at Famous Sam’s on Baseline Road in Mesa each Monday and Tuesday night to play Texas Hold’em poker, a card game popular well beyond the borders of the Lone Star state. Now Palacios has enough friends to field a softball team — he plays ball with the poker crowd on weekends.
Texas Hold’em, the high-risk sport of card games once played in the back rooms of saloons, is now out in the open. It’s enticing diverse crowds of amateurs who play for the competition and the chance to socialize.
At 7 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, the crowd at Famous Sam’s begins to gather at round tables packed tightly in the aisle. The chatter rises to a low roar. Marlboros are lit, beer is ordered and cards are dealt.
The sound of plastic chips falling onto one another begins. It will serve as background noise for the next six hours.
This is Texas Hold’em poker — neighborhood style.
"Man, I have everybody (playing). Businessmen, retired people, 21-year-old kids. It doesn’t matter," says Tom Wiley, owner of the Poker Pub of Phoenix. "I have tons of women winners."
Along with his wife, Kenda, and his brother-in-law, Wiley runs tournament-style poker games in Phoenix and the East Valley every night of the week. The Wileys work 50 locations in the East Valley alone, and they’ve only been doing this since November.
About 4,500 people compete weekly for points — not money — and winners play in a monthly tournament. Each of those winners will go to Las Vegas at year’s end to compete against franchise champions from across the country. The ultimate chip taker gets a buyin (worth upward of $10,000) to the World Series of Poker or the World Poker Tour, courtesy of the Poker Pub’s sponsors.
On this Tuesday, players are betting and bluffing at seven tables that are full for the first round. Everyone is in — and No Limit Hold’em is under way.
After an hour, players begin to drop off, losing chips to opponents with better hands and sharper skills. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to go home.
People hang out by the bar or sit in booths and eat. Inevitably, they talk loudly about the pocket pairs they thought were sure bets and losing it all in an unforeseeable twist of the game.
Sharon Redmond and her girlfriend, Darlene Kaminski, both of Gilbert, started showing up together at Famous Sam’s in November. Avid card players, the women wanted to learn the game and get some practice for the casinos.
They never expected their opponents would become friends.
"After a while, you know like 30 or 40 people," says Redmond, 35. "It’s the thrill of the game, and the people."
The players meet at different East Valley locations for poker tournaments during the week to get in on a game or two.
Redmond and Kaminski often get together for money games at players’ homes or go bowling with people they’ve met through poker.
And it doesn’t matter that they are women — not traditionally represented at poker tables in the Old West. Hold’em is for anyone and everyone — it’s now common for women to throw down bets at tables across the country.
"It’s supposed to be a men’s thing, but it isn’t. Women are very good poker players," says Redmond. "The bottom line is, when you beat a man at the table and you’re the only woman there, it’s exhilarating."
The men, who are still the majority, say they don’t mind who sits next to them on any given night.
"People welcome you in," says Tim Lindenken, 31, of Mesa. "It’s not young, it’s not old. It’s everyone, and they all get along."
Where to watch on TV
"World Poker Tour": Travel Channel. Check dates and times on
"The World Series of Poker": ESPN. Check dates and times at
"Celebrity Poker Showdown":
Bravo. Check dates and times on www.bravo.com.