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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Poker players stay in, reach out

4 July 2007

NEVADA -- The town's commercial poker rooms shouldn't feel threatened, but Clyde Ernaga is thinking about going up against them in his own small way.

Already, his dining room is the preferred gambling spot for a handful of his neighbors, friends and co-workers.

And now he wants to open up his home-turned-poker lounge to total strangers.

His oak-top table flips over to reveal a felt top with drink and poker chip holders. He will take a collection for pizza and Pepsi and let you watch sports on his 65-inch flat - screen television. Welcome to the world of this 39-year-old bachelor.

No need to tip the dealer after winning the pot; these are just friends, after all. And Ernaga won't take a fee, either.

But there are some house rules: Keep the jokes in line and don't scream over bad cards. Also, this crowd doesn't smoke and rarely drinks. Everyone, it seems, wants to stay sharp and win some cash.

And they don't need to worry about keeping a low profile.

Nevada law has long protected home poker games, as long as nobody takes a rake, or a percentage of the pot, as a fee. The size of the stakes doesn't matter.

Such home poker games are now being taken to a new level. Ernaga is among a growing number of amateur hosts across the country who are publicizing them on the Web to get more players.

Ernaga, like many poker players, wants to mix things up with new blood. Having, say, eight players instead of five can make for more interesting - and frequent - poker nights.

Ultimately, he hopes these strangers can become trustworthy, chummy colleagues up for more regular games.

Like a gambling version of Internet dating, the site - www.homepokergames.com - lists buy-ins and limits for games as well as any house rules, such as no smoking, drinking or swearing.

But the amount of money at stake - buy-ins and organized tournaments that in some cases start at $20 and go up to $100 or more - is alarming some lawmakers and players.

At a recent gathering in Las Vegas, legislators from casino states beyond Nevada discussed how the Web site may be advertising games that are illegal or, at the least, generating tax-free winnings.

"I had no idea this was going on in my state," said Steven Geller, a Democratic state senator from Florida. "You've got all of the problems of casino gambling and none of the benefits. There's no job creation and there's no programs for problem gambling."

Geller also said players are risking their safety.

"You've got serious, hard-core gambling by serious, hard-core gamblers," he said. "You don't have to watch 'The Sopranos' to realize you've got a big security issue."

Games advertised on the site generally don't publicize a rake, which would be illegal in many states. But they do list game hosts in states such as Utah and Missouri that prohibit home games. The site also advertises illicit high-stakes games in Florida, which limits games to $10 hands.

A representative of homepokergames.com declined to comment.

It's unlikely Nevada regulators will investigate and bust for-profit home games, just as regulators have shown little interest in prosecuting individual players engaging in Internet gambling, even though it's illegal under state law.

Home games don't pose much threat to the proliferation of regulated poker rooms offering a range of games and limits and which, for their part, generated only about 1 percent of Nevada's gambling revenue last year.

It's also unlikely regulators would even know of illegal games - unless the host is turned in by a neighbor.

Poker regulars and pros have long hosted high-stakes home games among friends. And yet, the popularity of Internet-spawned home games may be limited by the unwillingness of players to sit down with strangers.

"Internet dating is one thing. But gambling for money in your home is another," said Debbie Burkhead, who sells advertising for Poker Player, a local tabloid. "That would just scare me."

"I've played in some home games ¦ and was never very comfortable with it," added Linda Johnson, co-owner of a poker tournament production company and a studio announcer for the World Poker Tour. "You don't know if you're going to be cheated or robbed."

Ernaga, who posts his e-mail on the site but not his phone number or address, expects to exchange a few e-mails and phone calls to get a feel for whether players are legit and should be extended an invitation into his home.

"Some people do not take those precautions," he said. "I know that bad things can happen, especially when someone knows money will be there."

Ernaga, an information technology manager, hosts poker about once a month, and has had a difficult time drawing the same people because he doesn't have a regular date or time. He has attracted only two strangers to his poker table so far - and neither returned. So he continues to rustle up friends, co-workers and their acquaintances.

Advertising on the Internet is a decent trade-off, he says, for the luxury of avoiding the crowds at nearby Texas Station or other occasional haunts on and off the Strip.

Then there's the home theater system, and Ernaga's soft spot for 7-card stud.

Like the dozens of other home poker games advertised in Nevada, Ernaga's games have players take turns dealing their choice of game.

"When I get adventurous and have some extra cash, I will venture out into the casino," he said. "But everyone at the casino is wanting to play Texas hold 'em. I hold true to 7-card stud."

Because, in his own home, he can.