Placing Their Bets

In Tallahassee and Across the Nation, the Poker Game Texas Hold ’em Has Players Seeking Fame and Fortune

If you’ve been to any casino, you probably remember windowless, oxygen-pumped rooms filled with cigarette smoke; the hoots of excited winners mixed with the cacophony of long rows of slot machines; the card tables beckoning you to sit down and win big. In such environments, one card game has quickly captured the imaginations of gamblers looking to strike it rich. Texas Hold ’em poker is now played by millions of people all over the world. And right here in Tallahassee, they’re even going online to get their Hold ’em fix.

Television broadcasts of the World Series of Poker and, more recently, the World Poker Tour have significantly added to the game’s massive popularity. However, the advent of Internet poker is another contributor to the resurgence of fans and players enjoying Texas Hold ’em. Many Web sites, including bodog.com, pokerstars.com and fulltilt.com, offer players a chance to strike it rich — or go broke — almost anytime and anywhere.

One Florida State University student turned his online success into triumph at the Las Vegas casinos, winning more than $1 million at the World Series of Poker in 2006.

Leif Force, 26, was never a stranger to card games.

“I grew up home-schooled, and the way we used to (learn) our math was by playing cards and using numbers like that,” he says. Force came to Florida State for one reason — to play on the Ultimate Frisbee team — but he ended up getting an education in Texas Hold ’em instead.

“I never really had much money growing up, so I had to figure out some way to get money so that I could travel,” Force said. “I was working to play Frisbee, and I was working to travel and eat, which was the only reason I ever wanted money.”

He began learning to play the poker game in his first year at FSU, honing his skills between games at friends’ houses and in Internet casinos. Eventually, Force made the decision to test his newly acquired skills in Las Vegas.

While there, Force had only enough cash in his pocket to play poker. After a few months, he eventually built up enough money to enter into the 37th annual World Series of Poker. The yearly event has brought the best and brightest Texas Hold ’em players since the 1970s, offering riches, bragging rights and, more recently, fame. Winners of main events within the televised tournament also receive the prestigious gold bracelet, the Super Bowl ring of poker.

Spending all of his money on the $10,000 entry fee, Force could hardly afford to eat or stay in hotels. While most players enjoyed the little time that they had off between the many different games of the tournament, Force was playing additional games at other casinos so he could have a place to stay and food to eat for the night.

“I would always ask the other players in the tournaments if they wanted their complimentary meal tickets,” he says.

Force says he didn’t get into Hold ’em to become the richest player or the most famous; he got into it because he enjoys playing the game.

“You have to love the game, and you have to want to be better, and you have to have that desire just to know that you can play anyone,” he says. “I’m all about the entertainment value. I like to be involved with the people, to hear their stories and laugh and enjoy. It’s so much fun.”

While his lifestyle is free-spirited, Force played the tournament “tightly” (conservatively), folding on hands that many pro players would usually play. Many pros, including 10-time bracelet winner Johnny Chan, were annoyed by Force’s somewhat unconventional style. Force explains that he only had enough chips to play the tournament, and wanting to stay in, he made those chips last as long as possible. After a grueling tournament, he placed 11th, winning a total of $1,154,527.

Force did gain some publicity in the casinos because of his unorthodox looks. His dreadlocks and a full beard earned him the nickname “Caveman.”

“I use my look to my advantage,” he says. “I used to make soooo much money at cover tables just because of how I looked. I’d go to the tables in my board shorts, surf shirts, dreads and whatnot, and people would give me the funniest comments after I took their money. They’d tell me to ‘go back to the woods, you stupid hippie,’ and ‘Where’s your backpack?’ Stuff like that.”

A good friend of Force’s, who prefers to remain anonymous, doesn’t play at casinos; instead, he is making money during college at the online “tables.” Coming to FSU with more than 50 hours of college credit from his IB/AP high school program, he intends to apply to law school soon.

“I’d rather not use my name because I don’t want people to look me up and the first thing that comes up on Google is that I play poker,” Force’s friend says.

The young man came to FSU with a loan and a low-paying internship. He began playing poker online to try to raise money to support himself.

“I lived with my grandparents in high school, but they’re both retired and they live off a pretty fixed income, so they really couldn’t afford to support me in Tallahassee,” he says. Starting with no money, he began playing “free roll” games to build up his money.

Internet players have a couple of options when playing Texas Hold ’em online. They can play games that don’t involve real money — good practice for amateur players, or for those who don’t want to part with their dollars. There also are money games and tournaments in which players use actual money and compete for cash prizes at the end. In many larger tournaments, participants can win money even if they don’t get first place.

Another option in Internet poker is free roll or free money games. These tournaments give players the opportunity to participate in money games without having to deposit actual money. Usually the top 50 to 100 people win money in these tournaments, with the poker sites floating the bill. Pay tournaments typically offer more prize money, however. The Sunday Hundred Grand Tournament, for example, runs online every Sunday and gives players the opportunity to pay $11 and get the chance to win $20,000.

Cash is not the only thing players can win, however. Many of the matches, known as “satellite tournaments,” offer prize packages in which players can win seats in World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour tournaments. This gives players the opportunity to play poker all over the world, including faraway places such as New Zealand, China and Australia.

Force’s friend started playing online with only $5 in his bank account. He now keeps more than $5,000 in the account at any given time, using the money to pay tuition and fully support himself.

“I keep more money in my Poker Stars account then I do my own bank account,” he says, “It’s like liquid currency. Even the roommate I’m living with now, I pay him rent through Poker Stars. It’s like an entire sub-community, like an underground world.” The student continues to win big online and uses his bigger win profits to travel the world and meet up with the friends he met playing poker online.

There can be a downside to the game, of course.

“I have had a couple of students over the last few years with online gambling problems that have been really serious,” says Charley Mack, a mental health specialist and Certified Addiction Professional at FSU’s University Counseling Center. “I know it goes on, but you don’t really see it that much because it’s not considered a big deal by most people. I don’t think there is enough education about it, and I think it’s a much bigger problem than we recognize.”

Many players have lost their money, their families, even their lives over the game.

“There’s such a grind playing for so many days,” Force says. “It’s just such a heartbreak, you know, like one hand can make your three- or four-day session. That’s why so many people break down.”

“My best friend just kept losing,” Force remembers. “He couldn’t take it anymore, and he ended up killing both his girlfriend and himself.”

How to Play Texas Hold ’em

The game is simple. Each player is dealt two cards, known as “pocket cards,” and asked to pay a minimum “buy-in” in order to play the game. In each game there is a “big blind” and “small blind” player. If the player is not big blind or small blind, he or she must decide whether to pay the buy-in or “fold” (quit the game) based on how good the cards are.

The big blind must pay the buy-in, while the small blind must pay half the buy-in. If the player is big blind, he or she can choose to stay in or fold and lose the big-blind bet amount. If the player is small blind, he or she must pay the other half of the blind to play or fold and lose the small-blind bet amount. Of course, if anyone “raises” his or her bet, everyone must meet that raise to start the game.

Once the starting bets are in, three cards, known as the “flop,” are dealt out. Betting begins again based on the hand that players can form between their two pocket cards and the three “community cards” on the table. After bets, raises and folds are over, another card, known as the “turn,” is put out on the table. Once again, players get the same opportunities with betting and folding as before. The last card, or “river” card, is the fifth and final community card put on the table. Whoever is left wins by either betting people off the table or by having the best hand between the two pocket cards and three out of five of the community cards on the table.

One other popular option is when players put themselves “all in.” Players may do this whenever it is their turn to bet. This strategy allows players to wager all of their money in order to win. Every other player at the table has the option to take up the bet or to fold. This option is popular because it often allows players to both double their chips and to knock out other players on the table.

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