Houston Hold 'Em

There are plenty of opportunities for poker here, legal and otherwise

The old man flicks the cards around the table, his wrists deft from years of practice. Ten players sit around him. Soon there will be nine.

"Check," says the player to his left.

Betting is tight. Most of the players bail out of this hand, but a few chips make it on the table.

At Jim Burrell's house, the tables are felt and the 
money's real.
Daniel Kramer
At Jim Burrell's house, the tables are felt and the money's real.

The dealer takes five bucks from the pot and puts it back in the till. This is the house's cut, the rake. It's what makes this particular game illegal, but it also guarantees the action.

For an underground poker den, the place is a lot less sketchy than you'd imagine. There are no blue clouds of smoke floating over the players. There are enough snacks -- brownies, cookies, chips, peanuts, sodas and beer -- to fill the aisle of a convenience store. Twentysomethings rub elbows with seventysomethings around three felt tables. Everyone is friendly, and everything is well lit.

But there's a buzzer on the door and there are security cameras monitoring the parking lot, not to mention the tough-looking dude who looms nearby. He's in charge of the money. This guy greets guests as they walk in, during the ten minutes each day that the door's unlocked. After that he'll buzz in only people he knows.

You need 100 bucks to sit down here, and the joint is open as long as there's cash on the table. Play usually begins midday and goes on long into the night. A few televisions are scattered about, but there's not much point in hanging around once your money's gone.

The old man tosses three cards down and then flips them over: a nine and two tens.

"All in," says Toby, a 25-year-old in an Aggie cap. He's got a nine and an ace in his hand, and he's pretty confident in his ability to read the other players at the table. His stack has dwindled to about $20, so he needs to make an aggressive move to stay in the game.

Toby is part of a new breed of gamblers, fueled as much by the celebrity of televised poker as by the rush of the draw. (He asked that his real name not be used.) He started playing about a year and a half ago, while a student at Texas A&M. He and his buddies met every Friday night to play for nickels and dimes.

"We would play from, like, 9:30 at night to three in the morning," he says. "Where else can you find that much entertainment for $10?"

But Toby also dabbles in higher stakes. Which explains why he's now sitting in the back of a warehouse in north Houston, surrounded by strangers, hoping the next two cards will do him right.

"Call," says an older lady at the table. She has gray streaks in her hair and a penchant for fiddling with her chips. They click away as she stares at Toby.

Getting in here wasn't easy, but unless this lady's bluffing, it's going to be even tougher to stay.

Poker is hot. What was once an activity reserved for businessmen, addicts and pros is now popping up in much more unlikely places: dinner parties, church functions, sleepovers, prime-time television.

Local gambler John Smiley began playing "a couple of years ago," right about the time when the Travel Channel started airing the World Poker Tour. This show schooled previous attempts at televised poker, thanks to small cameras showing the audience what cards each player had in his hand.

"Poker was not fun to watch until they added the cameras," says Smiley. Omniscience was key to knowing who was bluffing.

Smiley used to play a lot of Texas Hold 'Em online, but he knew he needed to start playing in more live games if he wanted to take his skills to the next level. So the 42-year-old started an online forum, PokerCampus.com, in February of last year to help players meet up and find games.

"I thought a hundred members would be huge," he says. "But we're pushing 1,700 members right now. For a regional forum, I haven't seen anything close to this."

And it all happened in the span of a year.

Now local players can find a home game practically any day of the week, with multiple games happening on Saturdays and Sundays. This convenience has almost spoiled the forum's members, who used to make the three-hour trek to Louisiana in search of action. "A half-hour drive to find a poker game is now a big deal," Smiley says.

Home games are perfectly legal in Texas, so long as the host doesn't take a cut. In other words, all the money put in the pot has to be paid back out to the players. Smiley spends a lot of time making sure his site lists only legal games, knocking off posts that talk about rake games. People looking for illicit action have to search elsewhere.

Sergeant Rose Terry, spokeswoman for the Houston Police Department, says the police don't keep track of how many people are cited for illegal gambling. But Captain Keith Coleman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission says the Houston office issued 146 citations last year to individual players and venues, as well as 22 written warnings. A large portion of these tickets was given out last December at the Yorkshire Pub on West Little York.

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