The Texas Hold 'Em poker craze has made its way to the Baraboo area, and not just via Internet gaming or one of the multitude of poker shows airing on TV.
About a year ago area bars started hosting poker tournaments and now poker enthusiasts can sometimes find two or three local public games a week where they compete for large cash prizes or trips.
It's not a bad deal for the bars, either, said Jesse DeFosse, co-owner of the Showboat in Wisconsin Dells. "It's a nice way to fill the house," he said. "It's actually fairly inexpensive for the bar."
DeFosse and his brother, Dan, began sponsoring 10-week poker tournaments last spring. The DeFosses both enjoy playing poker, but they understood that, even more importantly, so does their clientele.
A Showboat tournament game earlier this month filled the bar with 40 poker players ï¿½ three or four of them were women, the rest men, primarily in their 20s and 30s. There was no buy-in for the contestants, but they were vying for $50 in "Showboat bucks" given out to the top player and highest hand, as well as the chance to compete in the final tournament, where the winner will take home $1,200.
"It's just good all-around entertainment," said Showboat bartender Chad Colt, who has played poker stateside for the past five years but also had the opportunity to play it in New Zealand last month, proof to him of its worldwide popularity. "And there's a little bit of risk involved. I think everybody likes to take a gamble once in a while."
Austin Schehr, 22 of Lake Delton, was one of the women players in the tournament. "It's a mental game," she said. "I like playing, especially when there's a lot of guys playing, because they don't think girls can handle it, or don't play well."
Richard Ziemke of Baraboo learned how to play poker by watching it on TV and lately has been testing his skills by playing online and in local tournaments. "It was just to see how I would do," he said. The first week he entered a Showboat tournament he made the final table. "Talk about a rush."
Ziemke's not putting all of his chips into the poker craze - he also bowls three nights a week, and only plays live poker every other week, for now.
It's popular but illegal
The trend of young men playing more and more poker for higher and higher stakes has caught the attention of those who study gambling addiction.
The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling cites a 2004 study of high school students that found 46 percent reported watching poker on TV and 55 percent played poker. Studies also show that prevalence rates of problem gambling are much higher among adolescents than adults - 4 percent of adults are problem gamblers, compared to 14 percent of youth.
Gambling, once relegated to dark halls and shady characters, has lost a lot of its stigma in recent years with the emergence of Las Vegas as a vacation destination, as well as poker merchandise and programming in the public eye.
"Poker is very popular," said Kelly Kennedy, spokesman for state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. But he stressed that if you pay money and there's luck to the game, it's still gambling, and in Wisconsin it's still illegal.
Most bar games, like the Showboat's and a tournament held at Marley's in Wisconsin Dells every other week, don't charge an entry fee, though they do award cash and prizes. Others, like tournaments held at Hooty's in Baraboo, charge a "buy-in," though the cash is given back to the winning players without the bar taking a cut.
Those tournaments are in a legal "gray area," Baraboo Detective Sgt. Dave Edwards said. "Part of the problem is the statutes aren't as clear on some of these things as they should be," he said. "Poker tournaments and so forth are considered gambling, and that obviously is illegal."
In April 2004, the state Division of Criminal Investigation sent a bulletin to law enforcement agencies telling them that Texas Hold 'Em poker tournaments are against the law in Wisconsin.
Public games that do require buy-ins or private games for real money constitute gambling, Kennedy said, but they're not at the top of the attorney general's list of concerns.
"The Legislature several years back decriminalized video poker," he said. "They sent the message that enforcement of small-time gambling is not a priority."
Local law enforcement in other parts of the state are beginning to see the tournaments as a problem, however. Last year sheriff's departments in Ozaukee and Racine counties, as well as Green Bay police, began cracking down on bar tournaments.
Baraboo police have not received many complaints on illegal gambling, Edwards said, but if they did they would pursue them.
Making an illegal bet in Wisconsin can carry a fine of $1,000 and nine months in jail. Operating a gambling establishment or holding an illegal lottery is a felony that carries a maximum 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.