The Poker Lounge has been spreading the game of No Limit Texas Hold 'Em all across the Memphis area. The local company has set up poker tournaments from downtown to DeSoto County. They've even worked a few bar mitzvahs.
"You have parents setting up tournaments for 12- and 13-year-old boys," says Ira Lipsey, one of the founders of the Poker Lounge. "It's strange, but the kids see it on TV, and they play it on the Internet. I was talking to the mom of one of the kids, and she said the kids play all the time. They know all about it."
The Poker Lounge came about last fall after Lipsey's cousin, David Kaplan, began pushing the idea of setting up free poker tournaments in Memphis bars. He'd seen it work in the bars around the University of Kansas, where he was a student.
"Honestly, in the beginning, I told David there was no way it would work, that the bars would not pay us to do it," Lipsey says. "He said to give it a shot and see what happens."
They recruited Kaplan's high school friend Lawson Arney to run the Web site (ThePokerLounge.net), handed out flyers after Grizzlies games, and started a weekly tournament at Newby's. During the first few weeks, they drew about 20 or 30 people to each tournament.
"It took off from there, and we've been adding locations ever since," Lipsey says.
They now set up the tournaments in about 13 area bars and are expecting to add more in the upcoming weeks.
This is how it works: The Poker Lounge provides all the equipment for a game -- the tables, the cards, and the chips -- charging the bar a fee for each table that is filled. A pit boss makes sure the rules are being followed. There is no entry fee for the tournaments, and no money is bet, only chips.
Each tournament has a first-place prize, such as a poker-chip set or a hand-held poker game. The winner also qualifies for the Tournament of Champions, which is held every six to eight weeks. Whoever wins that gets a weekend stay for two in Las Vegas, including airfare and hotel.
"I think the beauty of it is that when you play in these tournaments, it doesn't require you to spend a dime. You can come in and learn, although experienced players have fun too," says Gary Munyan, general manager of Celebrity's, a Poker Lounge client.
"They even taught me," Munyan says. "I was at the table with three professionals and a couple of other guys who, like me, were novices. By the end of the night, you felt pretty comfortable about what you're doing. I think it's a chance for people who don't know anything about poker to learn."
The only poker game played at the Poker Lounge's tournaments is No Limit Texas Hold 'Em. "That's the game everyone knows right now," says Lipsey, who's been playing poker since he was 12. "My friend and I used to go to the poker rooms down in Tunica, and it consisted of five tables. There were two Seven-Card Stud tables, two Omaha tables, and one Texas Hold 'Em table. Now you go and there's about 30 tables and 25 of them are Texas Hold 'Em, four of them are Omaha, and one of them, if you're lucky, might be Seven-Card Stud. It's absolutely ludicrous how popular it is."
According to Lipsey, there are generally two types of players.
"We have a core group that comes four nights a week to various locations. They know they're going to go to the Sports Pub on Sunday and the Fox & the Hound on Monday. They're going to take Tuesday off, but they'll be at Gill's on Wednesday and then Buffalo Wild Wings on Friday," he says.
There are also players who show up only at specific locations.
"No matter what, on Tuesday night, I know I'm going to see certain people at the Sidecar Café or certain people are going to play at the Newby's game on Sunday," he says.
On average, the games draw between 50 to 60 people each night, about a third of whom are women. Since they've started, 3,300 people have played in tournaments hosted by the Poker Lounge. If nothing else, the company has helped Memphis grow its own poker scene.
"I'd say the scene here is very strong," Lipsey says. "We have people who use our tournaments as practice for going to Tunica or in their home games. They can practice for free with us and then go out and play for money."