Going All In: Don’t settle for average food at your next poker night

Poker used to mean a group of guys in a smoky room playing late into the night. Not anymore. With the popularity of televised and celebrity poker tournaments, more and more Americans are taking to the game. It’s drawing female players and moving out of the basement and into the family room as a result. Poker – particularly Texas Hold’em – has become a popular form of casual entertaining, but that doesn’t mean that just any ol’ food will do.

Amy Wheat goes all in when she decides to host a Texas Hold’em tournament at her home.

“I’m one of those people who really prepares for parties,” Wheat said. “I plan them months in advance and make sure I get everything I need.” She owns a set of nice clay poker chips, and she likes to have new cards for each tournament she hosts. She also owns several poker table tops. “The felt tops are easy to play on,” the 31-year-old Florissant resident said.

For provisions, Wheat puts out a stash of snack foods, such as chips, meatballs or little smokies. Guests bring their own drinks, which usually entails beer.

Kris Tebbe, 32, of Florissant, enjoys playing at Wheat’s house; she also enjoys hosting her own tournaments. “Playing Texas Hold’em is a great way to get your friends together, especially during the winter when it’s too cold to hold a barbecue,” she said.

Wheat and Tebbe prefer a crowd of 20 or more people, but Ron Sharek of Chesterfield likes his monthly poker game to remain small. Sharek, 58, and his close friends have been playing for about 10 years. “We’ve all gotten to know each other through social events over the years,” he said. “The poker is an excuse to get together and have a few laughs.”

The seven players, who range in age from 40 to 83, take turns hosting the poker game. The host supplies the food and drinks. According to Sharek, the group goes through a lot of red wine and root beer. When it’s his turn to host, Sharek is known for putting out popcorn sprinkled with red pepper flakes or tortilla chips with a bowl of homemade Oklahoma Dip. Other popular snacks include candy, trail mix and cheese trays.

Although no good home game or tournament would be complete without munchies and libations, professional poker players prefer to focus their attention solely on the cards being played, according to Vince Burgio, author of the book “Pizza, Pasta and Poker: The Private and Public Life of a Professional Poker Player.”

Burgio, who sold his construction business and turned pro after discovering tournament poker in 1987, estimates that only 10 percent of professionals drink alcohol while playing poker. “A bottle of water is the drink of choice for most of the players who are professionals,” Burgio said.

Food typically isn’t allowed at the table during a professional poker tournament, so Burgio usually grabs something easy, such as a hot dog, during scheduled 15-minute breaks. And if he’s on a roll and plays into the evening, most tournaments halt play for an hour to allow the remaining players to have a meal. “They usually give you a food ticket and they either have a players’ buffet or you can use the ticket at a snack bar or something like that,” he explained.

Burgio, who grew up in Kansas City and is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, realizes that the rules for hosting home tournaments are different, and one must carefully select the foods offered to guests. “A perfect option is a finger food like pizza,” said Burgio, who favors thin-crust pizza topped with pepperoni and black olives. “Forget about the hot wings – you’ll get grease on the cards.”

Burgio, who no longer plays poker with friends and family (“I drive the bus all week, so why would I ride the bus in my free time?”), said there are a number of ways to make tournaments more exciting. He cited gimmicks such as rewarding the person who has the evening’s best hand, known as the “high hand,” or putting “bounties” on certain players, such as the person who owns the house or the person who won the previous tournament. “If you knock that person out, you win a prize,” he said. “I host a tournament in Oregon twice a year, and we have bounties on eight or nine players. They’re usually professionals, so they don’t mind.”

Another way to add pizzazz to a home game or tournament is to hire a company such as Game World Event Services, a full-service event company that provides clients with game and event equipment.

“Poker’s extremely hot right now,” said Sherrye Bond, event planner for the Chesterfield-based company. “We can offer any kind of poker game, but we’re mostly hired for Texas Hold’em.”

Game World Event Services provides clients with poker tables, chips and professional dealers. Prices are customized to meet the clients’ needs and demands.

“All the dealers are really professional, and they will help teach the game if needed,” Bond said. “We’re there to make decisions if there’s one needed on a certain play or to keep the game in line.”

Stress is minimized for the party host, she said. “It’s really easy with us,” Bond said. “We increase the blinds just like in a professional poker tournament, and we deal for the clients.”

For those who want to avoid the stress of hosting a poker tournament altogether, a game can be found on just about any night at dozens of locations throughout the St. Louis area. The Poker Pub, Inc. runs roughly 50 games a week at 19 bars and restaurants, including Lemmons Basement Bar in south St. Louis, Ruiz’ Mexican Restaurant in Florissant and Shrewsbury Lanes in Shrewsbury.

Much like karaoke and trivia, a poker tournament is a service that bar and restaurant owners employ to entertain patrons, said Scott Rismiller, co-owner of The Poker Pub’s St. Louis franchise. “We bring in dealers, chips, tables and cards,” Rismiller said. “The bar owner doesn’t have to do a whole lot. From the setup to tear down, we take care of it.”

The number of players dealt in for tournaments run by The Poker Pub ranges from about 40 to 120. And, to meet Missouri Gaming Commission regulations, it’s always free to play.

“The interest has just been phenomenal,” Rismiller said. “People see it as a fun time, to come out and eat, drink and play. It’s a social thing for these folks.”

Rismiller said that his franchise’s popularity is noticeably on the rise, despite being in operation for only about 20 months. “We see 60 to 80 new players a week,” he said. “We always encourage people to come out and play.”