Shuffling Till Dawn 

At Scott McNeely's poker parties, guys in tuxes know when to fold.

On the night before his wedding, Scott McNeely played poker until 3:30 a.m. It wasn't a seedy, sweaty, no-girls-allowed thing. His fiancée was there. She was all for it, as McNeely explains gratefully in the acknowledgments for Poker Night, his new book on how to bet, bluff, and -- with the right cards and the blankest poker face -- win. It comes packed in a gift box with a card deck, cheat sheets, and chips.

Poker has become a major spectator sport, boasting an estimated thirty million players in America and a hundred million worldwide -- numbers bound to soar as TV networks continue to launch new televised tournaments. Every Saturday night, San Francisco's Channel 44 airs The Ultimate Poker Challenge, hosted by soap-opera actor and expert player Chad Brown. Each episode of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown features five stars playing Texas Hold 'Em for a $250,000 pot, which the winner donates to charity. ESPN's World Series of Poker includes three dozen different competitions with more than $20 million in prize money. And online casinos beckon with 24/7 virtual poker tournaments played with real cash.

For McNeely, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1991 (and is not to be confused with the Sun Microsystems CEO of the same name), it's more about the people than the prizes, though the prizes are nice too.

"It's a really social game, like golf," he says. "Most golfers I know hate golfing, but they love walking around a golf course for five hours with their friends." Compared with other betting games, casual poker matches such as the one McNeely hosts "are usually played for such low stakes that it isn't stressful. Thirty bucks provides enough spice to keep you interested, but it won't break you." Attempting to really lose your shirt at a friendly poker party "would be like trying to overdose by smoking a lot of marijuana," he laughs.

The night before their wedding, he and his fiancée rented a whole floor in an antebellum-style hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter: "Nine tables with six players at each -- friends, family, and with a whole floor we could make pretty much as much noise as we wanted," McNeely recalls. "The staff brought us up some po' boy sandwiches at 2 a.m. The best part of all was winning a hundred bucks off my stepfather. He paid cash."

Now a travel writer whose previous books include Europe on a Shoestring, Scotland '94, and Great American Vacations, the author remembers childhood nights spent watching his grandfather playing poker with a coterie of old-timers in a rumpus room thick with cigar smoke. A generation later, McNeely and his pals took up the game in college.

"We basically taught ourselves, and over the years we all invented our own games" -- such as Cinco de Mayo, in which all red fives are wild. Poker Night details some of these new mutations along with classics, offering in each case a set of rules, betting tips, suggested strategies, and worst-case scenarios.

But hey, it's all about the people. A few years ago, while living at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, McNeely and his wife hosted their first Fancy Dress Poker Night. After requesting that guests arrive in formalwear, "we had seventy people in tuxes, cocktail dresses, boas -- it was fantastic." A washboard-and-banjo duo was busking in the street below. For fifty bucks, McNeely got them to come upstairs and entertain the card players. "It felt like a speakeasy."

It became a tradition, though the author has also dabbled in other themed poker nights, some of which entail big hair and T-shirts and some of which call for cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats.

As for how to summon the apparent lack of affect known as a poker face: "It's hard. Knowing the game really well helps, because if you're new to a particular game you're struggling to keep up and you're not concentrating. You need to stay sharp -- it's one of those feedback loops where if you have the momentum, it keeps going. You don't want to break the momentum."

Certain dead giveaways betray even the blankest face: "You've got people who count their chips right away. Then you've got people who sit way forward in their chairs, and those who sit way back trying to look really casual. Then you've got people acting very quickly, taking lots of little sips of their beer in a way that shows they're trying hard to appear like they're not excited."

At his parties, two-dollar fines punish transgressors who jump up and down in the wee hours and awaken those who have already crawled off to bed. (McNeely remembers a certain 4 a.m., a Pogues CD, and an Irish jig.) Also penalized is anyone who so much as hums Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler." You know that song -- it's the one that goes, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."

It's tempting -- but there goes another two bucks.


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