Larry Chebowski would never think of surrendering $10,000 of his own hard-earned money to play in the World Series of Poker, but he'll be competing anyway, courtesy of Fort McDowell Casino, a charitable spirit and an ugly little 5-3 off-suit.
The 65-year-old Mesa entertainer is one of untold multitudes who will make the 400-mile trek from the Valley of the Sun to Las Vegas this July to compete in professional poker's most illustrious and widely watched event. They will fearlessly check-raise poker luminaries such as Phil Hulmuth and Mike Matusow. They will wave hello to their moms on ESPN2. And, like Chebowski, many will do so on the cheap, spending little or no money of their own.
In the world of poker, it's the equivalent of ripping open a chocolate bar and finding one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets tucked inside.
Cheblowski's poker odyssey began in earnest last year. Unmarried since his wife, Amy, died 12 years ago, Cheblowski is a dynamo of hobbies and pastimes. He's an accomplished juggler and unicyclist. Eight months ago he started competing in "free" Texas hold 'em poker leagues in the Valley, moneyless games hosted by bars and restaurants.
"It was something I'd do if I had a little time on my hands," Cheblowski says of the iconic two-card-down, five-card-up poker variant. "After a while, I got pretty good."
Most of the players who compete in free tournaments — by unofficial count, there are six leagues operating in the Valley — are only incidentally concerned with the gift certificates and vouchers handed out to winners at the end of the night. What they really want are the points, points that accumulate over a two- to three-month season and earn the player a seat in a grand prize tournament. In many cases, the prize is a trip to the World Series of Poker.
Joe Dekavallas, founder and operator of All-In Entertainment — a popular Valley-based poker league — sent five players to Las Vegas last year and hopes to make it six in 2006. The business model is simple but ingenious:
For every player who competes, All-In is paid a small royalty by the host establishment, which stands to recoup the money, and receive more, through food and drink sales. At the end of the season, All-In uses the earnings to buy a seat at the WSOP, which is then awarded to its overall "city champion." Very tidy, and all completely legal.
The most active players will devote five or six nights a week to free poker tournaments, behavior that to nonplayers might seem fanatical. Poker enthusiasts regard it as athletic conditioning.
"Seeing a lot of hands, a lot of games, is the best way to get good at poker, quick," says Dekavallas, whose company sponsors 85 tournaments a week. "And if you want enough points to make it to our (300- to 400-seat) city championship, I would say you'd have to play at least a couple times a week."
Dekavallas himself will compete at the WSOP in July, using the profits from All-In to cover his entry fee.
Some Valley poker enthusiasts prefer a less circuitous route to the WSOP. Patrick, a Scottsdale-based financial adviser who asked that his last name not be used in this article, is part of a devoted poker fringe that will send one player to Las Vegas this summer.
Starting next month, Patrick and his hold 'em compadres will organize a series of $120 buy-in tournaments at their homes. The top three finishers from each tournament will earn a seat at a championship table come June.
Grand prize: A $10,000 buy-in at the World Series of Poker at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Not a bad return on a $120 investment.
"It's a good way to spread the risk, you might say," Patrick ventures.
"Most of the people in our group are professionals — lawyers, a couple of cops, tons of accountants. But we aren't the kind of people who can just plunk down 10 grand."
For people determined to play at the WSOP without spending any of their own money, Patrick suggests another strategy: Sponsorships. Last year, 31-year-old San Diego resident William Rockwell was the talk of the WOSP. Having lost the use of his arms in a motorcycle accident, Rockwell uses his feet to peek at cards and bet chips.
Impressed with his story, the Internet poker site GoldenPalace.com agreed to front his entry fee, draping him in as much promotional apparel as possible for the TV cameras.
Private sponsors will often take a cut of a winner's earnings, which presents some intriguing possibilities. Have a rich aunt or uncle? Cut them a deal. Looking for that perfect Father's Day gift? Treat the husband — on the condition he uses part of the WSOP main event's $10 million jackpot to fix the leaky roof. (Yes, the economics are sketchy. But try getting a gambler's rush by contributing to a Roth IRA.)
Though Cheblowski is a regular All-In player, his path to the WSOP proved different. He won his entry fee late last year in a $250 United Way charity tournament hosted by Fort McDowell. Down to the last two players, head-to-head, Cheblowski was dealt that silly 5-3, which he paired, propelling him to potential poker greatness.
"I was a little more emotional than I thought I'd be," he admits. "Now I just gotta figure out how to take 12 days off work."
For amusement only
Are cash poker games legal in Arizona? Yes, according to article 13-3302 of the Arizona Constitution, which distinguishes "amusement gambling" and "social gambling" from casino-style gambling. What does that mean? Everything is fine and legal as long as the house isn't taking a cut. "It's only illegal if somebody is skimming money off the game or taking a service fee," says Andrea Esquer of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. "That would be gaming."
An overview of the best Valley "free-roll" leagues.
1. All-In Entertainment: It's Valley-grown and it's everywhere, with 85 tournaments weekly. Bi-monthly WSOP prizes make it the pick of the litter. (goallininc.com)
2. The Poker Pub: Kansas-based outfit operates multiple East Valley locations. Fun prizes include Vegas bus trips and fantasy camp tickets. (thepokerpub.com)
3. National Pub Poker League: Giveaways include tournament seats and custom motorcycles. Lots of venues. (nationalpubpokerleague.com)
4. American Poker League: Highly respected national promoter. Prizes include seats at qualification tournaments for WSOP and the World Poker Tour. (americanpoker
5. Nationwide Poker Tour: Nice prizes. Sketchy website. (pokerplayersinc.com)