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Betting on poker's appeal: Businessmen giving game an image makeover

As he was preparing earlier this month for his first visit to the state Capitol since a high school field trip, Brook Lyter, owner of Powerplay DJ in Fargo, wondered what to wear.

As he was preparing earlier this month for his first visit to the state Capitol since a high school field trip, Brook Lyter, owner of Powerplay DJ in Fargo, wondered what to wear.

A dark suit and tie or his standard uniform - jeans and a snug hooded sweater with an ace of spades image on the shoulder, as in "an ace up the sleeve"?

Does he go as a lobbyist or as a poker-playing everyman?

Lyter was heading to Bismarck to support a bill that would make his native North Dakota the first state to license and regulate Internet poker sites.

He was partly lured by the chance to meet luminaries from the high-visibility world of televised poker tournaments. In a demonstration game at the Radisson Hotel, he'd tackle Greg "Fossilman" Raymer, who won a record $5 million at last year's World Series of Poker tournament.


But he was also hoping to face House legislators and speak for the state's healthy, upstanding poker enthusiasts.

"I consider myself the average poker player," he would say. "I do not consider myself a gambler."

He picked the suit. No tie.

It's not that Lyter, 33, doesn't have a vested interest in the status of poker. Under the auspices of his brainchild, the Dakota Poker League, about 1,500 people across the state are competing in weekly poker tournaments for an $11,000 grand prize - entry fee and travel expenses to this year's World Series of Poker in Las Vegas that starts in June.

But unlike the patrons of most Internet poker sites with a stake in the bill, league contestants play for free.

With a blend of passion for the game and business acumen, Lyter - and others of a fairly new entrepreneurial spirit - have tapped into the popularity of Texas Hold'em poker, in which players seek to form the best hand with their two "hole" cards and five communal cards.

These businessmen dream of a fresh image, one that will take poker from a sleazy netherworld of crooks and gambling addicts to a family friendly form of entertainment.

Armed with the relatively new idea of free poker, they have launched a public relations campaign to exorcise the gambler out of the poker player.


Free chance to win

Early 2005 has been a busy time for Lyter and his friend and Dakota Poker League partner Jason Drake, a Fargo chiropractor. It didn't help that in mid-January, in the buildup to the league kickoff, Lyter tore an Achilles tendon during a basketball game.

Lyter, a soft-spoken extrovert who used to run a Detroit Lakes bar called The Islands, worked his connections in the industry and forged new ones as he pitched the idea of hosting weekly tournaments to bar owners, who would wager an average weekly fee of $150 for the prospect of fresh clientele.

He traveled as far west as Minot to help kick off local leagues and spent many evenings in Fargo-area bars during five-hour-long tournaments - hobbling from table to table, crutches under his arms, solving rule conundrums.

Besides presiding over a Casselton tournament, Drake, an imposing 6-foot-4 figure with a stern bearded face, logged an estimated five to 10 hours a week - in between clients or after putting his family to bed - researching poker - keeping up-to-date on legislative developments and fishing for ideas to adapt to the league.

His secret to the success of the tournaments: "A very, very, very patient wife." His description of the team: "Two entrepreneurial spirits who latched on to a phenomenon."

Lyter shaped the league after long-running gambling events. Players face off over piles of chips until all but one drop out. They get points based on weekly performance.

After 10 weeks, the highest scorers progress to the finals.


"We tried to replicate all the realistic aspects of a live poker tournament, with one exception - there's no money involved," Drake says.

The premise was that people will want to show up weekly even if no cash changes hands. So far, they have. More than 1,400 men and women have signed up to leagues at 25 bars scattered across the state. Lyter's goal was to enlist 15 bars.

When it came to the legal aspects of the venture, Lyter did his homework. He had kept an eye on the Clear Channel Communications tournaments, which last year pioneered the free poker idea at local bars without any legal tussles.

Still, he e-mailed the state attorney general's office and consulted a lawyer. Keith Lauer, director of the gaming division in that office, refers to free poker tournaments as "leaks," events not explicitly condoned by state legislation that, however, do not fit the criminal definition of gambling.

That definition calls for three elements: chance (as in the randomness of the draw), a prize (as in a trip to Las Vegas to gamble for big money) and consideration, or something of value players risk. And when it comes to the third element, the rules of the league are cast-iron: no entry fees, no drink minimums, no cash on the table.

"People come in and play for free," Lyter says. "There's no gambling involved."

Chance & sensibility

Lyter's initiation into poker was something of a rite of passage. His father and six uncles would converge each fall at the start of hunting season on a farm in Sanborn, N.D., where they hunted whitetail deer during the day and played cards at night. Into his early teens, he'd look forward to those nights, though, "They always cleaned me out."

Like many recent converts to Texas Hold'em, Lyter got hooked on the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour a few years ago. So, when in 2001 a friend proposed an off-the-wall approach to his own bachelor party - an afternoon poker game followed by curling - Lyter was all in.

The poker game was such a success that the same group turned it into a weekly tradition. Lyter set up a Web page to keep track of developments and, when he tackled work on the league, he hired his main rival for highest score, Chris McDonagh, to help with customer service.

They never play for money, Lyter says, just for the thrill of winning. But he also makes gambling trips to Dakota Magic Casino in Hankinsonand to the Las Vegas Strip, where he hasn't done as well as playing with friends.

Once, at the Mirage in Vegas, Lyter made a full house and got swept up in a raising match. Five minutes later, he lost $500 to one of the few stronger hands possible - a straight flush.

To Lyter, poker is about dodging those bouts of weakness and recklessness. The game is a condensed version of human nature: the push-and-pull between arrogance and humility, between resolve and patience. Beyond getting the winning hand, it takes reading others and not letting them read you, or - even better - leading them to read you the wrong way.

"It's a thinking man's card game," Lyter says.

In poker's march into legitimacy, those arguments are more than a philosophical debate. The game has shed a good deal of its aura of seediness, a legacy from the times shady opportunists playing poker on Mississippi riverboats became a dubious staple of 19th-century westward expansion.

But poker is yet to make its way officially into the clique of so-called social skill games, like pinochle and bridge. "They can play for money, and the stigma is attached to us," says Drake about a local pinochle tournament.

State Rep. Jim Kasper, the main sponsor of the bill Lyter and Drake lobbied for in Bismarck, had the exempt status of social skills games in mind when he included a sentence in the bill draft to the effect of, "Poker is a game of skill and not a game of chance." Under pressure from follow lawmakers, he took that part out before the successful March House vote on the bill.

But Kasper stands by the statement. As each hand unfolds, Texas Hold'em players have four opportunities to fold their cards, raise the stakes or call other players' bets, and, Kasper says, "Those are all thought-provoking decisions you base on the odds of getting the cards." The game is much like chess, he says. Kasper's bill, recently defeated in the Senate, is one of a spate of poker legislative proposals, the legal repercussions of the game's push for acceptability. Most recently, at a St. Cloud bowling alley whose free poker tournament had been raided by Minnesota authorities, eight Republican lawmakers played a free game of poker in support of a bill that will legalize Texas Hold'em as long as prizes do not exceed $200.

Loaded cards

Mike Bice and his business partner were considering a charity Texas Hold'em tournament when the Clear Channel Communications team approached them last year with an offer to host one of the free poker tournaments.

About six months after taking over Knickerbocker Liquor Locker, the two proprietors were looking for ways to boost attendance at the bar, which sits on a windswept lot between the outer edge of Hickson and the flatland south of Fargo.

After the success of that event, they kicked off monthly free poker tournaments, with prizes ranging from T-shirts to barbecue grills. Attendance more than doubled after two months.

So when Lyter suggested the Knickerbocker host one of the Dakota Poker League contests, Bice signed on. Before, the bar's typical Monday crowd topped out at a dozen people. Now, about 100 show up.

The owners recently organized a charity tournament for a local heart transplant recipient in which contestants wagered and won cash. But, "People seem to be showing up for the free ones as much as they do for the other ones," Bice says.

Gateway game?

Frank Ball, director of Minnesota's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division, is unsure about the appeal of free poker and the push to revisit the definition of the game.

"I am skeptical because poker has always been gambling," Ball says. "Typically, people have always played poker for money."

And forms of gambling that are lawful in the state constitution, such as lottery and charity games, benefit charitable causes. The windfall from poker will benefit bar owners, Ball says.

Based on similar reasoning, authorities in a handful of states have lashed back at free poker tournaments in an attempt to do away with legal ambiguities. The California Justice Department, for example, now requires a gaming license for such tournaments, and there's a moratorium on new licenses.

The adjective "free" doesn't allay Dick Elefson's anxiety about the word "poker," either. He works at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of North Dakota and is troubled by the rising popularity of Texas Hold'em, especially among high school and college students.

"The inherent danger of free poker is that people learn the game and think, 'Now I have this thing mastered, and I can start wagering on it,' " Elefson says.

Lyter doesn't rule out spillover to for-money poker, but he points to the popularity of the league as evidence that people get truly passionate without risking money.

By Lyter's estimate, three-quarters of players are newbies or amateurs with modest ambitions. A good part of them would not savor the intensity of high-stakes money games.

Then, there are experienced players with solid casino and neighborhood money game experience. ("Are they winning? No doubt about it. But not always," says Lyter.)

Among both groups, there are those who come for the social experience and those who crave winning - for the chance to prove themselves or for the prize.

The varying degrees of intensity can be felt on tournament night at any participating bar. An hour into the game, the air is a chirpy cocktail of wisecracks and small talk wafting over the 10 or so tables of poker players.

Four hours later, when a single table of players remain in the game, the air is palpably denser and a tense silence lingers over them. The ray of a projector focuses intently on the table, and baseball cap visors throw shadows on solemn faces.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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