Upping the ante: Students place their bets in GW’s poker underworld

It’s official: the popularity explosion of poker, a game that has moved from smoky back rooms to mainstream America, has reached GW. Games that often last long into the night are sprouting up around campus faster than presidential campaign flyers.

As with many American trends, the popularity of poker can be traced back to Hollywood. Many poker aficionados admit to owning or at least having seen movies such as the Rat Pack’s “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Rounders,” starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton. Of course, the portrayal of poker in movies, romanticizes the seedier side of the game – high-roller underground games in the back of darkly lit casinos, sharks chasing losing betters down dark alleyways, winning the pretty girl at the end.

Poker games on campus today rarely involve such high stakes, but the infatuation is real; on any given night, a poker tournament is likely to be in progress in at least one residence hall.

Playing the game

Most poker games follow the same format, but the most popular at GW is Texas Hold ‘Em. It’s easy to learn but difficult to master. Seasoned players must tap into their skills to win Texas Hold ‘Em, but for the novice, luck is often enough. A $20 buy-in is typical of most GW games, but it can go up to about $40. However, rumors abound of high-roller games at GW with buy-ins of $200 to $500.

One male student, who asked to remain anonymous, said he watched one such game.

“I wasn’t playing – there was no way I could afford that,” he said. “But these guys threw the cash around like it was nothing. Within games, some were already close to being down a thousand dollars.”

Most GW poker games consist of groups of friends playing for fun, but they’re usually playing for money as well.

“When I play with (just) chips, I don’t play the same way. You know you’re not really losing anything,” one sophomore said. “When you play with money, even with friends, you don’t want to lose that money. You want to win.”

Texas Hold ‘Em begins with two players placing out a predetermined amount of money, which ensures there is an initial amount to play in the game. This is called posting the blinds. A small blind ranges from 25 to 50 cents, and a large blind starts at 50 cents and can go up to $2. These two players sit to the left of the dealer, who shuffles the cards.

As in all card games, it is important in poker to ensure that the cards are unidentifiable while face down. Because of the fast-paced nature of Texas Hold ‘Em, cards are often bent or marked, meaning that they must be continually replaced. In a single game, it is not unusual to go through two or three packs of cards.

Each player is dealt two cards, called hold or pocket cards. This is when games begin to get serious – chatter stops, poker faces are assumed, “lucky seats” are taken. A round of betting begins with the person to the left of the two who posted the blinds. This round, called the pre-flop, usually determines who will be the main players in the game. Those with good cards will bet high in this round, trying to force those with bad cards to fold.

Players can check, raise or fold. Checking is similar to “staying” – the player won’t raise the bid at the time but remains in the game anyway. A player raises by betting more money and folds when he gives up.

After the round of betting, the dealer discards the top card of the deck to prevent cheating. He then flips the next three cards upon the table. These cards, called the flop, are communal cards, available for use with the two hold cards to form a poker hand. Now the game of strategy begins.

Counting cards is less of an advantage in Texas Hold ‘Em than other poker games. Those who can, however, know to pay strict attention to the cards on the table. After another round of betting, the dealer burns another card and flips one onto the table, called a turn card or fourth street. Now players can use this sixth card to form a five-card poker hand.

After another round of betting, players start to drop from the game. It’s apparent to any onlooker that the true players are being separated from the rest of the pack. Bets begin to grow and are often doubled. The dealer burns another card and places a final card on the table, called the river, and players can use any of the cards on the table and their two hold cards to form a hand.

Following one final round of betting, all the remaining players begin to show their hands. This is called – in true Texas style – “the showdown.” The best hand wins, but celebration is minimal, as everyone in the room knows that another game is about to begin.

Addicted to the game

Each type of poker game comes with its own basic rules, but house rules vary from casino hall to casino hall – or from dorm room to dorm room. Chips vary in color and represent different monetary values. Games range from the most casual of get-togethers to more formal events, complete with a table covered in green velvet and state-of-the-art chips.

But no matter where the game is played or with whom, it is fast-paced and often addictive.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” one freshman player said. “You took someone else’s money. You have to focus during the game. It’s exciting.”

Perhaps adding to the rush is the fact that playing for money is technically illegal, just like NCAA basketball tournament pools and Super Bowl bets, and therefore a violation of residence hall rules, which could result in legal action.

“D.C. law prohibits gambling for money,” Tara Woolfson, director of Student Judicial Services, wrote in an e-mail. “Should students be found gambling for money, they could be charged with a violation of law. The University’s Code of Student Conduct recommends a minimum sanction of Disciplinary Probation for those found in violation of the charge.”

Players interviewed, although seemingly unconcerned with the prospect of being caught, still did not want their names published. Most simply did not think getting caught was a real possibility, and despite the risk, the lure of poker has proven to be far more compelling.

All of the players spoke about the game in near-religious terms. Most were taught how to play by friends or family and still remember what it was like to be new to the game, noting that they try not to harass novices too much – they could one day beat the masters.

One player, a junior, recalled hearing about a game in which a player, out of desperation, bet his brand-new flat screen television.

“(He) just unplugged it from the wall and stuck it on the table,” the student marveled.

More often than not, money is the primary betting source, at GW and elsewhere. And while on-campus games remain more low-key than those in casinos, the idea of betting thousands on a single round represents a kind of ideal forplayers.

“Can you imagine being that good? Just being able to blow that much money?” one sophomore said.

For the true poker aficionado, merely playing is not enough. Televised poker games, including barded the airwaves. Watching is almost as interactive as playing – viewers scream at the television as if they were watching a basketball game at the Smith Center, imagining what they would do with money to burn while playing against the best players in the world.

The excitement is building, the popularity is booming and another World Series of Poker is in the works for this year – and poker just keeps getting bigger. News reports express concern that poker’s growing popularity will effect an increase in gambling addictions among college students, but a majority of students surveyed did not agree, citing each game as a learning experience rather than a potentially permanent blow to the bank account.

“All you need to lose is that one big hand. One bad night and then you realize that you can’t keep blowing money,” one player noted. “You change your game; you learn to bet.”

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