nitially, it was a little intimidating, I'll admit. Texas Hold 'Em night at the Clarendon Grill has the look of a serious poker parlor: The conversation level is low, if constant, and the players huddle tightly over small tables, all the while smoking and sipping beers as they study their cards. Most are men. Oh, wait -- there are a few women scattered about, equally no-nonsense, dealing hands and placing bets in earnest.
What was I doing here? To put it bluntly, I stink at all games, particularly those that require logic, forethought and a deft ability with numbers. In addition, I wear my heart on my face, not exactly a plus when it comes to playing poker. Nevertheless, I was determined to learn Texas Hold 'Em, and this Arlington bar would be my teacher. I don't know what it was that sold me. Was it the shrewd demeanor of actress Jennifer Tilly when she won the ladies' title at the World Series of Poker in June? The calm earthiness of mother and poker champion Annie Duke? These women seemed to exude a special kind of confidence, not just card-playing expertise. Where could I learn both?
It was a far from easy task. After all, "Winning Techniques for Texas Hold 'Em" doesn't exactly appear on the course schedule of your local YWCA. The Internet is poker heaven, of course, and there are many Web sites that advertise private Texas Hold 'Em parties in the Washington area, even some carrying such preconditions as "low-stakes bidding only." But a one-way ticket to Gamblers Anonymous wasn't really my idea of fun; I wanted a no-stakes game in a public venue.
Remembering the Dungeons & Dragons classes my brother attended as a teenager, I phoned a number of stores in the area that sell poker chips and other related paraphernalia to see whether they offered instruction. My questions were met with immediate suspicion followed swiftly by a determined no, no poker here. "Can't you just learn it online?" asked one clerk testily, perhaps thinking I was an investigator for the D.C. police. Gee, I thought, just what we all need -- more time in front of a computer.
I began to lose hope. Card playing, it seemed, like sex and drinking, was one of those adult pursuits that no one teaches you. For vices like these, you're left to your own, well, devices.
Enter the National Pub Poker League, which sponsors local tournaments at Clarendon Grill and elsewhere. "We run play-money poker tournaments at bars and restaurants," said William Blake, D.C. manager of the National Pub Poker League. "The company started about three years ago, just as Texas Hold 'Em was beginning to get popular." On an average night, each tournament attracts upward of 40 players, who play for points that can be redeemed for bar T-shirts, baseball caps and other modest prizes. Tournament winners, meanwhile, can put their points toward raffle tickets for trips to Las Vegas.
Men still account for most of the attendance at National Pub Poker League events, but that seems to be changing, Blake said. "That's not to say there's an even percentage of men and women, but I'm happy with the fact that a lot of women do come out and play. I think the hallmark of a good event is seeing a couple of women at the final table."
One woman often found at that final table is Sheila Reyes-Bunnag. Although she has been playing only since June, the Silver Spring resident recently won a Vegas trip for two through the league. "I'm going with my husband," she said. "We're researching what Texas Hold 'Em tournaments will be scheduled [then]. But I'm not going to play the real money poker. . . . Not yet."
After consulting Blake and Reyes-Bunnag, my two poker gurus, for advice, I figured I was as ready as I'd ever be. I studied the hand rankings for five-card poker intently -- downloaded off the Internet -- as the Metro raced to Arlington and my first Texas Hold 'Em tournament. Still, I knew that experience would be the best teacher, not only of poker basics but also of the game's delicate etiquette. "For beginners, it's good to sit next to the other players," Blake had said. "Online, you don't know how to deal the cards [or] how to keep your chips organized [or] how to read the other players. Once you understand the basic rules of the game, it is best to sit down at a real table."
To newcomers, Texas Hold 'Em looks very puzzling, with all sorts of ritualistic behaviors practiced by its devotees. Players signal their intentions by tapping the table with their fingertips or shuffling and exchanging their chips. It's an interesting sign language, but not one without teachers. Maybe it was the fact that there were no real stakes involved, but I found experienced players to be wonderfully patient with amateurs, offering many prompts and much instruction along the way.
"Do you know how to deal?" asked the fellow on my right with a smile. I did but felt shaky nonetheless, dealing two cards to each player at the table before setting down the flop (community cards) on the table. Next, as is customary, I "burned" two cards -- tossed them out, that is -- between drawing the fourth and fifth community cards. "Burn cards make it more difficult for someone to fix the deck," Blake had explained.
At first, I folded during just about every round, afraid to make a play. Then I remembered Reyes-Bunnag's advice: "See if your hand has a connection somehow." I started playing and bidding with sequential cards such as an eight and nine, or cards of the same suit. Another new player, Sarah Handel of Alexandria, saw a connection in her cards straightaway, winning a large pot of chips with two queens. She scooped up her winnings and shrieked with delight. A couple of men who had bid all their chips got up from the table and shook her hand. "Thank you for your patience," Handel said with a grin. "No problem" and "My pleasure" the men responded, bidding a gentlemanly retreat.
"Everyone is really nice and helpful," observed Handel's roommate, Hunter Hammond. A high school history teacher, Hammond was also a first-time player. "They're very patient . . . and I think it helps that we're two young ladies," she added, eyeing Handel, still flushed from her win.
Soon after, I won a round myself, bluffing -- inadvertently -- with a pair of sixes. "You can bluff, but make sure your hand isn't that bad," Reyes-Bunnag had advised. Also, be sure that you're "chasing a flush draw [five cards of the same suit] or a straight draw [five cards in numerical order]," whatever that meant. I just hung on because I was curious to see how the play would go. My nonchalance (read, inexperience) paid off, or maybe there was a slight gender bias working in my favor.
"Women have an advantage because the number one rule [for poker] is don't bluff a bad player," said Jennifer Walker of Springfield. "Most men think women can't play . . . so they won't bluff."
"A woman can smile or flirt a little," added Walker, speaking of women's bluffing strategies, "and the men don't think she has any good cards." Not that she would ever stoop to the use of such feminine wiles, of course.
As players become more familiar with the game, they often shift to playing percentages. "I don't do that, it's too obvious," Reyes-Bunnag said. "I follow my instinct, and it always serves me right." The ability to read other players is apparently vital. I'm not there yet, but boy, can others read me.
Everyone's ship eventually comes in, and mine finally did in the form of a hand containing a seven and an eight. The flop revealed a six, nine and 10, which meant I had a modest, yet nice, straight. Practically wiggling with excitement, I raised and tossed in a black chip worth 1,000 points. ("You cannot show your emotions," Reyes-Bunnag would have scolded. "You have to put up a poker face.") The other players immediately bid and raised.
So certain that I would win, I went "all in," confidently sliding all my chips into the pot. I lost, of course, to a fellow who held a full house, kings high. Instead of gleefully anticipating a win, as I had done, a savvy player would have observed how others were bidding. Again I heard the solemn tones of Reyes-Bunnag echoing in my brain: "Even though you have a very good hand . . . and you've put a lot of investment in it, [if] other people are betting more aggressive, then you need to know when to fold."
"When I started, I had no poker face," mused Suzanne Smith of Fairfax, a consoling soul at my table. "When I got a good hand, my face lit up." She has since learned to keep her cool. Smith -- a music teacher and therapist -- sees Texas Hold 'Em as a relaxing diversion. "I play in other places just about every night . . . and I practice at home with one of those hand-held poker games -- it's like a Game Boy for adults -- it's made me bet more aggressively."
Although some women, such as Smith and Reyes-Bunnag, hone their gaming skills at National Pub Poker League tournaments, others just come for the social scene, which has its own distinct charms. "I like a challenge," says Meredith Belkov, an Arlington resident and Clarendon Grill regular. "But I like the people more! All walks of life come here, computer nerds, students, lawyers. . . . I tell you," she went on, looking around the room, "if I were 30 or 40 again and wanted to meet a nice man, I'd learn to play Texas Hold 'Em and attend National Pub Poker League games -- they have nice men here."
"I'll file that one away," said Hunter Hammond, who already has a steady boyfriend, thank you very much. But -- "If I wanted to meet a guy, I might come here to play poker . . . just play conservatively, keep your chips and keep talking."
Hetty Lipscomb is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Weekend.