In the Cards

Houston's funkiest sports bar is but one outpost of Houston's biggest poker league.

Across the table sits a man. The name "Shonuff" is stitched on a white rectangle on the left side of his dark-blue work shirt. He is a poker player.

His goatee hangs off his chin, dark, scruffy and unkempt. It makes his teeth look like they glisten when he talks. He's an agreeable enough person, with a warm enough smile, until he has a pair of cards in his hands.

Then when he smiles at you, it seems less like a welcome and more like a threat. If sharks smiled right before they ­attacked someone, his would be exactly what that looked like.

A bracelet on his left wrist curiously reads, "HPD Blue Snowman." When you ask what it means, he says, "It's a job I had when I was locked up."

That's it. No further explanation. As if in the history of time it's ever been satisfactory not to clarify exactly the meaning of a jail job called "Blue Snowman."

Wait. What does he mean? What kind of job?

"I'll tell you later."

Later!? I want to know now, dammit, is what you think.

Shark smile.

Nothing, is what you say.

Shonuff is just one of the characters who belong to the Snowman Poker League. There is no correlation between the name of the league and the word on his bracelet — seriously — but you've likely seen a poster for SPL somewhere around town.

Snowman's membership list has upwards of 13,000 names. Members host about 150 games a week in nearly 40 different bars stretching from ­Baytown to Katy to College Station. It is, without debate, the largest free poker league in the Houston area.

Like skyscrapers, the Super Bowl and sext­ing, the SPL was not born out of modesty.

"I was in a poker league already," says Glenn Taylor, a veteran poker player who co-founded the league with Ron Price and a silent partner in 2004. "I just felt like I could do a better job."

He has. But perhaps more impressive than the size it's grown to, and possibly the most enjoyable aspect of any night out playing, is the social aspect of it.

Even though the players to your left and right are constantly trying to gobble up your chips, Snowman provides a healthy, hospitable environment regardless of age, race or background. One bar's regular attendee is actually a homeless fella, if you can believe that.

Combine that ambience with the atmosphere of a place like the venerable Griff's (3416 Roseland), the ramshackle Montrose institution that hosts two games on Tuesdays, and you've got yourself a bona fide good reason to miss Glee.

Griff's, some 30 years old, is a neigh­borhood Irish pub masquerading as a sports bar. It's beat-up, with stickers all over the front door and TVs seemingly stacked on whatever flat surface is avail­able or mounted to whatever open wall space there is.

With one great big patio at the rear and a smallish one out front, Griff's is usually stuffed with regulars whether there's an important game on or not. As such, it's often cited as one of the best sports bars in the nation by authorities like Sports Illustrated.

Barbara Russell swears by it. She's hosted the poker game at Griff's for more than a year now and actually, as she puts it, "met the love of my life playing in the Snowman Poker League at Mezzanine [Lounge] (2200 Southwest Fwy.)."

"I would hate to not do this," says Russell. "I love my players here. I try to get to know each and every one of them. It's a great group."

Bart Borej, already a regular at Griff's before he started playing in the league about a month ago, now plays two or three nights a week. As he sits there answering questions, it's hard to tell which he likes more, the bar or the league.

These types of things are all relative, ­really, saying that a place (or league) is the best anything. Somebody, somewhere, might have been underwhelmed by Griff's dive-ish atmosphere. Maybe someone somewhere else could list a few things they didn't like about Snowman after playing in it.

But hanging out inside the bar watching the final table of the evening's first game dwindle itself to a champion, while those not playing seem completely unperturbed by anything not swinging a baseball bat, it's pretty hard to imagine there are too many of those folks around.
_____________________

LAST CALL

Scout Bar
18307 Egret Bay Blvd., Clear Lake
www.scoutbar.com/select.php

If we can step toward something a little more vicious than poker games and sports bars, we would be absolutely remiss if the upcoming Battery show did not get mentioned. Battery is a Metallica tribute band playing Friday, April 30, at Scout Bar (18307 Egret Bay Blvd., Clear Lake). Both of those things — tribute bands and Scout Bars — get derided pretty often, but we're almost certain this show merits your driving all the way out to Clear Lake. Why? Because this cover band does not suck. Remember how into it Mark Wahlberg was in Rock Star? Battery is like that, except they're not always doing that "Can't You Tell How Sensitive I Really Am?" shtick Wahlberg leans on in all his movies that aren't The Basketball Diaries or Fear. Get out there.

 
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