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Sunday Extra

Full Houses

Poker's sudden popularity produces a good draw in Tampa Bay.

Published February 22, 2004

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
From left to right, dealer Candice Callahan, St. Petersburg's Harold Bacon, Tampa's Ralph Jones, Bartow's Rob Coleman and St. Pete Beach's Ron Sturgeon play a game of seven-card stud at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Tampa's Sam Ayers, right, looks over his Texas Hold'em hand at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg while Seminole's Greg Farrey, left, and St. Petersburg's Kenny Moore wait out their hands.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Jerry "Wisconsin Willie" Miller plays Texas Hold'em at St. Petersburg's Derby Lane.
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Jerry Miller, when he's back in Janesville, Wis., is a retired mailman.

At the poker table, he's "Wisconsin Willie."

The nickname stuck a few years ago in Las Vegas after a few nights at the tables with retired baseball star Kirby Puckett.

"He yelled, "Wisconsin Willie!' " Miller said. "He had been playing a long time but remembered me. You can call me that, too, if you like."

Fine, but maybe he should be handing out the nicknames now. Miller was a newcomer on a Tuesday at St. Petersburg's Derby Lane, hearing there was a card room.

Now he's a regular.

"I've been here every night since," Willie said three days later. "Seen a lot of the same faces, too."

Welcome to the game, Wisconsin Willie.

Join the crowd.

At one time a hard-core gambler's specialty reserved for your uncle's kitchen and smoky Nevada card rooms, poker over the past year has exploded into the American consciousness with all the brashness and glitz of the Las Vegas strip.

Don't bet on it folding any time soon.

Just two years ago the World Series of Poker was a one-hour wrapup show used mostly to fill ESPN's off-hours. Now it is a prime-time fixture, airing last year as a seven-part series and scheduled this year to become a 15-to-20-episode miniseries.

The Travel Channel's World Poker Tour became the network's most popular program early last year, then drew even better ratings in summer reruns. On Super Bowl Sunday, NBC filled two hours of valuable pregame airtime with poker.

And that's just poker you can watch.

Amateur players, many already fueled by Internet casinos that now generate $4-billion annually in revenues, are flying into casinos and poker rooms from Connecticut to Florida to California to try it themselves. In Las Vegas, poker revenue reached almost $6-million in 2003, up some 33 percent from the previous year.

In the Tampa Bay area, there are live games around the clock.

Want to put your money on the felt? There's more than one place to do it. But unlike betting the races at Derby Lane or Tampa Bay Downs, or hitting the buttons on the gaming machines at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, you might not be able to get your hands on cards for up to an hour after walking in the door.

Looking for a seat in the newest craze? Put your name on the waitlist.

As poker has mushroomed in the past year, so have area card rooms. Derby Lane, after cutting back a few years ago, expanded from 16 to 27 tables, Seminole from 24 to 32. Tampa Bay Downs went from not having a room at all to building a 14-table poker parlor.

"Poker's exploding," Tampa Bay Downs controller Greg Gelyon said. "There's more than enough for everybody."

* * *

Quick peeks around any local card room reveal today's poker culture. Forget those sunglassed professionals on TV, the nomads who travel the casino circuit grinding out paydays.

Tampa Bay's game has your neighbor, your boss, your kid's football coach, the guy who took your 75 cents on the Veteran's Expressway (he can't bluff his table, the shirt gives him away).

And there's often the player who would just as soon his significant other didn't know he was there.

"It's just like home, just more organized," said Miller, 57.

As Wisconsin Willie spun tales of Vegas in Derby Lane's poker room, two seats over, Bill Knight of Tampa nodded. At the other end of the table, a couple laughed about something else over cocktails. Another man kept one eye on the table and another on a television screen showing the next race. Winning this pot would be nice, winning that greyhound trifecta would probably be really nice.

The table's citizens had little in common but their white $1 Derby Lane chips, a desire to take someone else's and the game.

Poker, but more importantly: Texas Hold'em.

The game everyone's playing.

When Derby Lane opened in 1997, players' interest in Texas Hold'em was enough to fill one table out of 25. Seven-Card stud was most popular.

On a recent night, 19 were Texas Hold'em, the game popularized by television and the fastest-growing everywhere.

Its format can be learned in moments; its details can take years to conquer.

With Hold'em, every player receives two hole cards to play in conjunction with five community cards dealt face-up in the center of the table. The seven cards are used to make the best five-card poker hand.

Betting rounds come after the hole cards are dealt and after the "flop" (the first three community cards, revealed all at once), "turn" (fourth card) and "river" (fifth card).

It is a game of position, aggression, deceit. Players represent the strength of their hand by the size of their bets, unless of course they're lying.

The betting on TV is almost always No-Limit, where players can bet as much as they want and frequently make dramatic "all-in" bets by pushing their entire pile of chips into the pot.

Here, players are limited to a fixed betting amount. But it's still Texas Hold'em, and the newcomers are flocking to it.

"You can tell who's never been here before," said Kim Smith, manager of the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, where half the tables are Hold'em. "They ask, "Can I go all-in?' We explain it to them."

* * *

Kibitzing at the table, a no-no among professionals where it's considered distracting, is business as usual at the local rooms.

Take one table on a Saturday afternoon at the Seminole Hard Rock, where one side had several young people, from a River Ridge High assistant football coach to a chatty, loose (read: he'll play any hand) player who told the cocktail server to keep the Miller Lites coming.

A guy like that can carry a table for quite a while with his entertainment and, when the cards turn bad, his chips.

Then you get the real gems such as the guy at the other end of the table, Michael Sherson of Winter Haven. He has named himself the "Darkdavinci." "Dark" because he likes comic books. "Davinci" because he fancies himself a genius. Both words together? Just because. He pledges to become "the Celebrity Poker Tour's first non-celebrity character."

He wore sunglasses, maybe figuring himself a pro-caliber player, but he didn't fool anyone at this table. After an hour or so he walked away without a chip.

"What was up with that guy?" another player asked.

Television poker promotes a wide range of characters, from the bratty Phil Hellmuth (son of a professor, he shocked the family by taking up poker full-time yet won them over with a World Series title at age 24) to the cunning Annie Duke (a personable, sweet, stay-at-home mother until she hits a card room and destroys the men).

But the local characters also are in abundance now, partly thanks to, of all things, the law.

Until a new state law took effect in August, the most a player could win on a single hand in a card game was $10. That was the state's pot limit, fed by 25-cent chips in lousy games largely devoid of any skill or chance to win money over the long haul.

Many players did the math and stopped coming. Derby Lane cut its tables from 25 to 16. But just as poker hit the mainstream last year, racetrack lobbyists succeeded in their quest to raise the stakes of poker rooms.

That timely pair saved the game.

Instead of pot limits, the state instituted a $2-per-bet limit with a maximum of three raises per betting round. Players can now win pots of $30, $50, even $100 or more if the action is fierce, and while a $2 raise carries a bit more weight at the table than the old 50-cent maximum, it's not crippling.

"You can't get hurt too bad here," said Bill Knight, 59, a real estate salesman from Tampa, right before he was dealt a fourth 10 at Derby Lane.

* * *

Arlington Park racetrack outside Chicago was Rob Henneberry's summertime home, long before he could legally bet the ponies. The horses were popular in his family, while poker really brought them together.

At family reunions, it was not uncommon for six tables to be running.

"Poker's a magnet. If it's anywhere near me, I tend to be attracted to it," said Henneberry, 24, of Tarpon Springs.

For him, The Silks card room at Tampa Bay Downs is a regular stop, and he gets so engrossed in Texas Hold'em that he doesn't bet much on the horses. A true cardplayer in a room full of them.

Gelyon said that during the day usually 70 percent of the players in The Silks stick strictly to poker. At night, it can be as many as 90 percent.

It's not that parimutuel wagering is inconvenient, televisions are all over the tracks' card rooms, and tellers with handheld computers allow players to bet without leaving their seats.

Yet many do not, their eyes transfixed on the green felt.

"It's not exactly what we expected," said David Tiano of Derby Lane. "But we thought, and the state thought, it was going to bring a lot of new people to the track."

Poker is doing that, and even the players not betting races are helping in their success.

The tracks' rake at poker tables is 10 percent of a pot or $5, whatever is lower. A significant percentage of that goes right back to dogmen and horsemen via purses. Gelyon said that this year The Silks will pull in $130,000 to $160,000, enough to cover at least one day of racing purses.

They are not the only ones winning. With the increased traffic and better games, service jobs are more lucrative. The Silks recently hired 30 dealers, of 150 who applied. Many dealers who left Seminole Hard Rock when there was little money to be made have rushed back, making $5.25 an hour plus tips, which average just under a dollar a hand (and 20 to 35 hands can be dealt in an hour, depending on the game).

And there appears to be no end in sight.

"I don't see a ceiling on it," Gelyon said. "There's a big pie out there, the more popular we make it, everyone's going to share in it.

"This has taken the Saturday night game you played at home and made it legal."

[Last modified February 22, 2004, 01:45:26]

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