Free poker league plays in D.C. area

Many poker players dream of winning the WSOP Main Event, like Jamie Gold in 2006. (Getty Images/Ethan Miller)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — What if I told you that you could win a trip to the World Series of Poker Main Event for free?

For poker players around the country, the WSOP represents the Mecca of the game, a pilgrimage to aspire to make perhaps once in a lifetime. But with a prohibitive $10,000 buy-in, it is only available to either the very wealthy or those who can win their way in. Thanks to World Tavern Poker, though, a good enough hot streak can get you in without ever having spent a dime.

The organization opened for business 10 years ago with a novel business model: Offer free tournament games in restaurants and bars for fans of the game. Establishments pay a fee to host the league, but have an easy chance to recoup that expense and more through sale of food and drinks to the patrons.

For the players, the game provides a no-risk way to enjoy the game without having to trek out to a casino and risk losing hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The Northeast Virginia Region has been running for nearly three years now, under the guidance of franchise owner Christi Bowers. What started as a one-bar operation with just a few players has grown into nearly 20 establishments hosting 700 to 800 players throughout the week.

“A lot of people have made good friends playing,” says Bowers. “There’s a lot of people in the Crystal City area who are government workers and military, and a lot of them don’t have their families around. This allows them to come out and make friends.”

Myles Esmele, a retired Navy captain, has been living in Crystal City for the past six months or so, since being evacuated from Egypt. Living on his own prior to his last trip abroad, he was out looking for something to do one evening and stumbled across one of the games.

“I happened to be walking by the Crystal City underground mall,” he explains. “I saw a sign and I participated. Then I got stuck back here after we got evacuated.”

Esmele enjoyed his time enough to get involved with World Tavern Poker. He played in the 2007 WSOP, and this provides a chance for him to enjoy both the adrenaline rush and the social aspect of the game.

A new game has opened up on Tuesday nights at Flying Fish, in Old Town Alexandria, and on a recent night Esmele was the tournament director. Being a WSOP veteran myself, I decided to check it out and see whether a game with no money invested still scratched the poker itch.

Tuesday’s game marked just the third played in the new venue, drawing two full tables of players. There were young players and old, men and women; at least as diverse a crowd as you would find in any poker room. There were some clear novices and some obvious veterans, with a range of aggressive, passive, loose and tight players. The starting stack was 10,000 chips with a 100-200 opening blind structure, going up every 20 minutes, which allowed for a decent amount of flexible play.

Overall, the mood was easy-going, no chastising of beginners for unskilled play or bad beats, as there is in many games. The old guys joke and poke fun at the young guys, whether winning or losing. I decided to take a conservative approach, folding in a couple spots I may have normally called to last in the game as long as possible. Pretty soon, as players were knocked out, we consolidated to one table.

Winner

Winner

Thanks to a healthy combination of patience and beginner’s luck, I won my first ever World Tavern Poker tournament. (World Tavern Poker)

Esmele made the final nine, but bowed out fifth or sixth — I honestly don’t remember, as the action picked up quickly and, after a successful double-up, I found that we were sitting three-handed. The short stack bowed out, leaving me heads-up at a major chip disadvantage. But I was able to get in with the best hand a couple times in a row and double up twice, then wait out my aggressive opponent.

Finally, I caught him pushing all-in with rags, trying to steal the pot with a 5-2 of spades. I called with pocket sevens, survived a five on the turn, and took down the tournament.

In all, I got about two hours of fairly lively, friendly gameplay in for no cost. I even got a $10 gift certificate to use at the bar next week. And I earned a nice chunk of points in the World Tavern Poker standings. It may not mean anything in the long run, or it may mean a trip to Atlantic City or Las Vegas to play for a very real prize pool.

It’s enough of a draw to be intriguing to those looking for a place to play. And clearly, it’s catching on.

“We had our first regional event earlier this year in April,” Bowers explains. “We had 240 players at that. That’s where I saw everything come together.”

Qualifying has begun for the next national tournament, coming up in May/June 2015. Players can qualify a number of ways through Feb. 1, which marks the end of the regular season. At the National Tournament of Champions, 24 seats to next year’s WSOP will be on the line.

If you’re looking to find a game in the area, or are an establishment interested in hosting a game, check out WorldTavernPoker.com.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPSports on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.


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