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Locals ante up after catching poker fever

By Justin Boron

Hat brims and sunglasses shadowed the faces of about 40 poker fans recently at the Buffalo's Caf? in Jonesboro.

Leaned over stacks of multi-colored chips, there were stony glares and cemented expressions as players glanced at their two-card Texas Hold ?em hands, raising and folding as if their entire bankroll was at stake.

But no money exchanged hands in this game. This was just a free roll, with only non-pecuniary prizes and points to gain at the end of the night.

The style of tournament is increasing in frequency across metro Atlanta as novice players – many of whom say they have never sat down at a cash game – look to mimic what has become a nationwide sports and entertainment phenomenon.

Traditionally found in casinos, poker's media saturation has catapulted a market entirely separate from gambling, where anyone wanting to play can sit down for hours without losing a single dollar.

Nationwide Poker, a company based out of Kansas City, has lurched into the new market defined by poker fans who don't have dollar signs in their eyes, but just pride and emulation of the pros on their mind.

One local player, Mike McConatha of Conley, responds to the moniker "Jesus." His friends say he strives to look and play like the poker pro Chris Ferguson, who takes the same nickname.

"He's my favorite player," McConatha said.

The actual "Jesus" acquired the name for his long brown hair and long, well-groomed beard. But McConatha was willing to take the name too.

Brad Dymond, a co-owner of Nationwide Poker, said his company seized on the fanaticism sweeping the game, which takes its roots in the saloons of the Old West.

"We knew what the Texas Hold ?em phenomenon would bring," he said. "We're really growing at a rapid pace."

The company, which sets up poker tournaments throughout the country, seeks to feed the requests dealt out by hundreds of eager poker enthusiasts just looking for a place to play, Dymond said.

"The game is geared for what people like us would like," he said of his two partners Scott McCorkle and John Addison, who helped launch the poker league.

Taking ideas from their dorm room games in college, the three ventured on the poker craze after they graduated and got jobs.

Spreading the league east, Dymond said they hit large metropolitan populations with no gambling.

In each region, they assigned a supervisor.

Locally, Daryl Wulf has taken up the cause for Nationwide Poker, setting up weekly games in bars, restaurants, and clubs.

Wulf started in the south metro area in towns like Jonesboro, Rex, and Stockbridge, initially drawing 40 to 50 people.

Now, more than 600 people play at one of the close to 30 tournaments set up in the Southside each week. For every game, Nationwide Poker collects a fee.

The dynamic is beneficial to the restaurant and players, he said.

The business establishment hosts the event, which brings in customers while the players have a place to meet up with friends and play, Wulf said.

"It brings business in, and it keeps servers and bartenders happy because it brings more customers and more tips," he said.

Informal games had popped up in the summer at several Atlanta bars. But not until recently did the action get so organized.

Players meet at local bars and play two tournaments a night. They can gain points that will go toward an overall competition with people in their region and other 4,000 players around the nation, he said.

On some level, a player in Jonesboro may be competing with a player in St. Louis, Wulf said.

Prizes range from 50-inch high definition televisions to real-money tournament entries.

The possibility of national prestige draws large crowds that fight for available seats.

As many as 20 people sat on line Monday, waiting for a seat to open up at one of the tables, Wulf said.

Tim Chhom of Henry County recently played at a Nationwide Poker event and said all the television coverage caught his interest in the game, spurring the belief that the poker craze might be more than just a passing fad.

"It's blowing up big," he said

The leagues and hours of cable programming devoted to the game might be signs of its transition from a craze to a more formal past time, said Kevin Demmitt, a professor of sociology at Clayton College & State University.

"One of the reasons I think poker is successful is because it is a communal activity. It gives people the opportunity for people to gather together and interact," he said. "That can be very appealing in a society such as ours where many people feel isolated."

With groups of people gathering around the television to watch poker coverage, the game's progression in popular culture shares characteristics with the development of other past times like baseball or racecar driving, Demmitt said.

Admiration and heroism are two of the traits that are engrained in current diversions and have come out of poker recently, he said.

"Exalting someone and then associating yourself with that person has always been a way that people try to raise their own status," Demmitt said. "That is why hometown sports heroes enjoy the greatest prestige. People feel like they have a connection with that person that somehow elevates their own status."

All of the admiration aside, players ultimately come just to play, McConatha said.

Beneath the romantic idea of heroes and stars, he said his passion for the game is fed by the simple urge to play.

"I would love to play seven nights a week," he said.