October 11, 2006 - The 43-year-old mechanic thought he had the table beat with a three of a kind, what poker players refer to as "trips."

Matt Proud keeps a pair of golden screw nuts in his pocket, as if for good luck. He played his second hand of the night big, pushing all of his chips into the pot and tossing his golden nuts onto the table. He could only shake his head when the player next to him drew a full house.

Smoke and the din of cards shuffling and chips stacking filled the small tavern off La Cholla Boulevard. More than 40 players had come to a recent Wednesday night Texas Hold'em poker tournament at Riley's Irish Tavern, a watering hole that stands in a gravel lot well off the road, amid a rusted-out scrap heap and a couple of auto body and repair shops.

It cost Proud nothing to play. The Northwest resident sat near the jukebox nursing a beer - the bar had a two-drink minimum - and watched the action.

Since February, he has played in tournaments The Poker Pub Inc. runs at 21 bars and clubs throughout town. He joins perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, who play what has become one of Tucson's most popular pastimes - no-limit Texas Hold'em.

Area casinos hold weekly tournaments. College students play organized games every week in the University of Arizona student union, in dorms and in off-campus houses. A monthly poker tour here draws 60 to 70 regular players.

Countless others play online, and still more watch televised tournaments on ESPN, "TV just makes it bigger," said Keith Clement, who directed the Wednesday tournament at Riley's on Oct. 4.

The Poker Pub, which also has franchises in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado and Texas, can legally run tournaments under Arizona law because it doesn't require players to pay. It derives its only income from a cut of the bar's profits.

"We're basically an advertising agency disguised as a poker tournament," Clement said as he floated among tables at Riley's. "You got a new bar, let us come in and we guarantee you at least 50, 60 people will know you're out there."

Held every two months, the company's regional Hold'em tournaments draw as many as 350 players. The top eight finishers can go on to play at professional tournaments in Las Vegas, including the game's holy grail - the World Series of Poker.

"It's all about that bracelet," Clement said.

WSOP champions get bracelets, much like Super Bowl champions get rings. That's how big the game has become in recent years.

The game has its own story arc, fueled by the Internet and lavish television coverage. Like bridge decades before it, poker has become one of the nation's premiere social games.

Proud waited for his next chance to get back to the card table. At 8 p.m. on Wednesdays at Riley's, pub players square off for a chance to qualify for seats at the regional tournament.

"I'm just here for the qualifier," he said with the shrug, as if he went all-in so early during the first round of play just for kicks.

He has played for years, with friends and on family trips. The bar games quickly became part of his social routine.

"How come you're so dressed up?" Paul Brown asked Proud as he walked up to the table.

Proud wore khaki slacks with dress shoes and a long-sleeve polo shirt.

"C'mon, this is what I wear when I'm out," Proud said. "You've only seen me as the mechanic."

Brown shrugged. He, too, blew his chips early in the night's action. But, his wife, Mary, remained in the game at a nearby table. She had a hefty stack of chips.

"I never wanted her to play," Brown said. "But, she's good now."

Proud and a few others who lurked nearby nodded in agreement.

Brown grabbed tournament director Clement by the arm as he waded through the crowd. "Keith, you've seen my wife play, right? She's really good, isn't she?"

The silver-haired director's eyes narrowed.

"If you got the nuts, then call her," he said flatly. "She only plays when she's got a hand."

Players call an unbeatable hand the "nuts." It's not unusual for players at pub tournaments to go all-in on hands they consider the "nuts."

People play that aggressively only when no cash changes hands, according to Mark Oberdries.

The 21-year-old has played some pub tournaments in recent weeks, only to find that his conservative style of play puts him at a serious disadvantage to players on "tilt" - the poker term for wild players who call and raise when they shouldn't or bluff every chance they get.

Oberdries got serious about the game about three years ago, when his father, Kurt Oberdries, an arson investigator, started a house game among fellow firefighters, paramedics and cops.

The monthly game draws up to 24 players, who each pay $35 to play. The top five or six finishers go home with their winnings.

Such games are legal because they fall under the "social gambling" exemption in state law. Players only can win what they gamble, and the house can't take a cut, or "rake."

"It's not so much that people are blowing their paychecks, or so competitive that it's not any fun," Oberdries said of his father's house game.

While attending the University of Arizona, he jumped at every chance to play with his fellow students. Fliers handed out in his classes directed him to games off campus. Word-of-mouth packed dorm room games.

Oberdries also played for free online, a different style of play altogether.

"When I first started playing, it was a huge part of what I did," he said.

He still watches it on television when he can.

Five years ago, while channel surfing, Oro Valley Realtor Mark Snyder caught a part of a broadcast of the WSOP main event. An amateur player who got into the tournament after winning a $250 satellite qualifier made his way to the final table.

It amazed Snyder that someone, a nobody with little professional gambling experience, could make it that far in the biggest poker tourney in the world.

The real estate broker had played the game in college and throughout his 20s, "but kinda the crazy house game stuff, you know, deuces wild."

He started playing online. After all, in 2003, an accountant named Chris Moneymaker parlayed his online success at Pokerstars.net into a $2.5-million win at the WSOP main event.

Snyder, who lives in Rancho Vistoso, now plays in casino games every week. He also plays with a monthly amateur poker tour and has made the trek to casinos near Phoenix to play Hold'em.

Even his 20-year-old son, a student at Pima Community College, has developed a taste for the game.

With relatively little money involved - or, as in pub poker, none at all - most can escape questions about the consequences of serious gambling.

The game's popularity as of late has had little effect on crime, according to statistics maintained by the Pima County Sheriff's Office and Tucson Police.

Only Pima County has made an arrest for illegal gambling in the past two years.

Many can play online for free, but poker sites make their money from pay-to-play games. Of course, recent legislation passed by Congress prohibiting people from using bank or credit cards to pay their online debts could have a disastrous effect on the multi-billion-dollar online gaming industry.

Playing online, however, pales in comparison to playing in-person, according to Snyder. "You can learn strategies (online)," he said. But you can only spot "tells" - a player's mannerisms or ticks - when sitting at a table.

"Almost everybody knows some form of poker," Snyder said. "If you decide to take it seriously, it can be challenging."

It's impossible to tell how many at the Oct. 4 tournament at Riley's took the game that seriously, though.

The bare-bones bar drew a crowd of people who met through The Poker Pub Inc. tournaments. One can only imagine how friendly the players might get if real money was at stake.

"It's fun, that's it," Matt Proud said. "Why not?"

Riley's (formerly the Old Sportsman) re-opened after three years in February. The place has been a bar of some sort since 1972. During the Oct. 4 tournament, its crowd consisted almost exclusively of poker players.

By 8 p.m. a more-serious round of play began. Once again, Proud found himself back at the table, looking to draw the "nuts."

Clement watched as about 50 people played at two rows of tables. Occasionally he opened the front door to let out all the smoke.

This time around, however, the place seemed quieter.

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