Hold 'em

Poker craze takes Steamboat Springs

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Upstairs at Dos Amigos, groups of poker players casually eye their cards and toss clay chips in the middle of felt-covered tables.

The scene is worlds away from the high-stakes games on TV: Nobody here is wearing sunglasses -- though a few wear ball caps low on their heads -- and, aside from a few quiet players with serious faces, most smile and occasionally balk at their bad luck.

With local tournaments offered throughout the week, Steamboat Springs has joined the rest of the nation in a poker craze largely driven by T.V. and Internet games.

"The poker thing it just going crazy," said Meghan Younker, who, with her husband Eric, recently organized a local Texas Hold'em series through their business, Full Boat Productions.

The games, hosted by local restaurants and bars, average about 50 players a night, she said.

Players stand only to win in the free games.

Gambling outside of designated casinos and organizations is illegal in Colorado. Tournaments are considered gambling if players pay fees or buy-in and also win prizes, according to the Colorado Attorney General's Office and the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission.

The state allows social gambling -- among players with an established relationship outside of the game (i.e. family or friends) -- in most cases.

Incentives at Full Boat tournaments include gift certificates and a point system that rewards players based on how well they do in a game. Just participating guarantees players at least a few points.

Those who play three tournaments -- there are two games per tournament or night -- or accumulate 30 points qualify for a September tournament with a free trip to Cancun as the grand prize.

The current points series will conclude in February with a big tournament. The winner will receive a seat in the World Series of Poker tournament in Grand Junction next year.

Although most players naturally have their eyes on big prizes, they say the games are fun opportunities to brush up on their skills.

"It definitely improves your skills not playing with the same people all the time. ... You're always learning," said Tim Dever, who joined the Full Boat tournament after playing with friends in his garage.

After players learn the rules, they begin to build strategies, learning the odds of the game based on the cards in their hand and those on the table, he said.

After that, it's about learning to read other players -- perhaps the most important aspect of the game.

"It's not just playing cards, it's playing players," said Sue Gariepy, the points leader in the tournament.

Gariepy finds that being female often is an automatic advantage in the male-dominated game.

"I think men underestimate female players -- that's just been my experience," said Gariepy, who says she can read a big male ego right away.

"Those are the ones I bluff," she said.

The tournaments may seem intimidating to beginners, but players are friendly, and the games are a good way to learn, said Gariepy, adding that there typically are one to two new players each night.

"Everybody just talks you through it," she said.

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