Poker's nationwide resurgence has reached Juneau, drawing full houses to tournaments on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Marlintini's Lounge hosts the games. Last week, all 98 slots were filled with another 30 to 40 on the waiting list, all competing for, not Benjamins, but bragging rights.
"I think it's a lot of fun because you don't have to put your own money down," college student Niko Hoskins said.
State laws prohibit gambling for money, but regulators can't stop people from gambling for door prizes and having a good time.
Texas Hold 'em poker is a global phenomenon that people are playing in basements, kitchens, casinos, online and on PlayStation consoles. Several cable networks now televise tournaments routinely.
Marlintini's is anything but a casino. It has 16 poker tables, some donated by beer sponsors and others that the management found through distributors. The tables don't match and the dealers are volunteers.
What Marlintini's does have are scores of guys and gals, wearing caps, sunglasses and other props to disguise their poker faces as they buckle in for a competitive evening.
Chips are assigned a value between $25 and $500. If it were real money, winners each night would be taking home about $30,000 to $40,000.
Instead they are sent off with beer mugs, hats, fishing rods and other items donated by the community. The final gambler of the 10-week tournament will receive a $1,000 travel voucher arranged by the bar.
"People aren't here to play for prizes, they're here for the love of the game and the practice," Marlintini's proprietor Ethan Billings said.
Ever since Kara Altman was introduced to Texas Hold 'em on PlayStation 2 in May, she and her boyfriend play Canadians and Americans via the console's Web capabilities. Altman and her virtual poker buddies plan to meet in Las Vegas later this year.
Texas Hold 'em is the world's most popular version of poker. Each player gets two cards and then matches those with the dealer's cards, which are face up. Often a hand will be won with only a pair, or a single high card.
"The hardest part is trusting your hand," said Altman. Anyone who has ever bet his entire pot on a single round knows exactly what she is talking about.
Mike Symons described it as an "adrenaline rush," even though he only stands to lose artificial chips.
There's not even an entry fee to play. Billings said the bar doesn't have to charge money because it gets plenty of revenue from drink sales.
The Alaska Legislature has a bill awaiting approval to legalize card rooms in the state.
Support has come from Anchorage, where poker tournaments such as the Marlintini's events already existed.
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