The countdown clocks on the wall are ticking down to 0:00 for the tournament start, and there's a buzz in the air at the Mardi Gras Casino's poker room. It's Thursday night, just before 7 p.m., and 170 poker brats, rats, dreamers and schemers are here. But they're not chasing a life-changing pot of gold.
More like pizza, beer and gas money.
The price is right: Nothing. Or next to nothing.
You've heard of the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas, with its $10,000 buy-in and first-place prize topping $8.5 million?
This ain't that.
Welcome to South Florida's growing world of free-roll poker tournaments, with the house putting up small guaranteed prize pools (usually $1,000 or $1,500) in the hopes of getting people — novices and regulars alike — in the door. (And perhaps to the cash game tables afterward.)
Earlier this month, two Sun Sentinel poker warriors — let's call them Slick Nick and Money Mike — were among them. Our assignment: Play five free-rolls over three days at three different card rooms, and see if we could come out ahead. At least we couldn't go broke.
Just as big-money tournaments have been flourishing in South Florida, with entry fees sometimes topping $5,000 for events paying out six-figure prizes, cheap poker has also staked its place on the local felt.
Card rooms at Dania Jai-Alai, Mardi Gras, Gulfstream and Calder all have regularly scheduled free-rolls, with players having the option of adding more chips for small amounts (usually $10 for a dealer tip at the start, and $25 for a final boost of chips after early rounds).
"It's all about the value — and the entertainment," said Danny Saffer, a Mardi Gras free-roll regular. "Putting up 10 bucks to win $200-$400 is a good deal."
Even though the play can be looser and more reckless than in big-money events, the atmosphere can get just as tense, especially in the latter stages as players make the final table, hit the money and negotiate prize pool splits (called "chops" in poker lingo.)
Our ground rules: We would buy the initial $10 dealer tip/add-on for each event — because it's good poker karma and we have reputations to uphold — but nothing more. And we formed a partnership, agreeing to split any winnings. Here now, Slick Nick and Money Mike's Excellent Free-Roll Adventure …
Event 1, Mardi Gras, 7 p.m., Thursday: Slick Nick and Money Mike sat down at the same table, the only event we'd play together, but Money Mike wasn't happy. He had to leave for an interview at 7:45. A team player, he dutifully picked up two entry tickets for the tournament in the afternoon. (The first 100 to sign up get seats, the rest get alternate spots and those who aren't seated by 6:50 p.m. lose their spots.) Players start with 500 units for free, and 2,000 with the $10 dealer add on. There's also unlimited add-ons at $10 for every 1,000 units.
The game is no-limit hold-em. Money Mike busted out early and made it to his interview with time to spare. Slick Nick had a decent showing, grinding along to the final three tables before he got swallowed up by the blinds. Nice wrinkle: There are no antes in Mardi Gras tournaments, not even in the later stages, because poker room director Dave Litvin simply doesn't believe they belong in hold-em tournaments. Tally: minus $20.
Event 2, Dania Jai-Alai, 1 p.m., Saturday: Dania has six free-rolls a week (and three other $10 tournaments), making it king of the cheapies. All tourneys are no-limit hold-em. Dania also seats 100 players with alternates. Players start with 1,000 free units, 2,000 units with $10 dealer tip or 5,000 units for $25. This 100-player tournament comes down to the final five, including Slick Nick (we could give you all kinds of poker-ese here, but the gist is he got very lucky). We decided to chop up the remaining $815 left for the top five places. Cha-ching! Tally: $148 profit (after another $15 dealer tip) … we can't lose!
Event 3, Dania Jai-Alai, 6:30 p.m., Saturday: Money Mike was happy for Nick, he really was, but he wanted to carry his weight, too. So he built a huge stack with a lucky hand: In a three-way all-in pot, he managed to win with K-J suited against A-A and Q-Q by hitting a J on the flop … and another J on the river. He should have coasted to the final table but tumbled when he got involved in a hand with A-J. Two aces hit the board. His opponent turned over A-Q. Out in 17th. Tally: minus $10, plus $138 overall.
Event 4, Gulfstream, 2 p.m., Sunday. The game here is Pot Limit Omaha, making for a nice change of pace. Entry tickets are available after 10 a.m., and you have to show up early to get your spot, although they've now expanded the field to 75 players. You get a healthy starting stack (2,500 for free, 5,000 units with $10 dealer tip), but Omaha can be a confounding game.
You get dealt four cards, and you MUST use two (no more, no less), along with three on the board to make your hand. Some basic rules of thumb: If the board pairs and you don't have a full house, you're probably going to lose. If you have a flush and it's not the ace-high flush, you're probably going to lose. If a straight or flush card comes on the river, and all you have is three of a kind or two pairs, you're going to lose. And even if you have aces, you're probably going to lose. (That's what happened to Money Mike.) Like we said, a confounding game. Money Mike out in 26th. Tally: minus $10, plus $128 overall.
Event 5, Mardi Gras, 7 p.m., Sunday. This is a shootout no-limit hold-em tournament, meaning only one player survives each table to advance. The 10 winners then vie at a final table for the money. Slick Nick shows up at 6:30 — thinking he's early — and gets handed a ticket to be alternate No. 60. But it's not so bad; there are 30 no-shows. Nick's at the table in less than half an hour … and gone in another half hour. Didn't win a single hand. Well, if you're going to bust out, at least do it quickly. Final tally: minus $10, plus $118 overall.
We split Nick's winnings, bought a pizza, six-pack and filled our tanks. Not a bad deal for a weekend's work — and play.