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Learning to play poker without money

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Jason Silva watches the action after making a raise during a West Coast Poker League event at Rooster Juice.


POSTED May 14, 2013 2:04 a.m.

Efren Juarez had a good thing going with his business that hosted poster tournaments for non-profit organizations.

But there was only one problem – he simply couldn’t find enough players willing to pony up.

With his take tied directly to how many players he helped put into the seats, Juarez – a plasterer who had watched the pool-finishing business in the Central Valley business dry up almost completely – came up with an idea that seemed as far-fetched as it was genius.

Why not create a makeshift poker school that helped teach people the game that he had come to love and usher in a completely fresh crop of seasoned poker players?

Right then and there the West Coast Poker League was born.

It didn’t take long before players started to trickle in to local bars that Juarez had contacted to host the weekly events which cost nothing to participate in and initially featured prizes for those that won.

And like anything fresh and new, there was a learning curve.

Because the prizes constituted an incentive, the Department of Justice still classified the events as “gambling” happenings, even going so far as to issue a cease-and-desist letter that forced Juarez to take a closer look at how things were structured.

Not even nearly getting shut down could stifle the growth.

“I had seen other bar poker leagues, and I thought to myself, ‘why can’t we do that here’” he said. “We started out with just a few players and now we have hundreds of members in only our second year. It’s been a process but it’s been great to see so many people take an interest in poker.”

While sitting down at a table in a card room can be a risky, and often intimidating, proposition for the inexperienced player, Juarez says that the league offers a friendly atmosphere that’s centered more on learning than actually winning.

People, he said, will talk about how they played a particular hand, and offer pointers to less experienced players who might not have the breadth of poker knowledge that other players at the table have.

Learning the game, he says, directly translates in winning money down the road.

“I think one way to telling the kind of environment is the number of female players that we have – it’s friendly and easygoing and people can learn the game here,” Juarez said. “Nobody cares if you mess up. Everyone is very helpful, and you constantly hear stories about people that learned the game and then went to the casino and won.

“We have a saying – ‘practice makes profit.’ We have people post that all the time on our Facebook page with how much money they won. They learned to play here.”

Filling out the roster on a Wednesday night

Art Diaz makes sure that the three tables each have eight matching stacks of chips in place before the first errant poker player even wanders into the bar.

It’s Wednesday, and it’s a relatively new night for the West Coast Poker League in Manteca – offering patrons and poker regulars the chance to grind it out at Rooster Juice in a tournament-style format for the bragging rights and the chance to hone one’s skills.

Diaz is no newcomer to the game – spending more than half of his life watching people turn cards over after calling raises and spending time himself waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike and take down a huge pot. And, thus, he’s paying it forward – giving those who have always wanted to learn but been too afraid to ask the venue and the arena in which to do so.

“I just love the game. I’ve been playing since the 5th grade,” he said. “No matter how good you are there’s always room for improvement and everybody has a different style. We teach situational poker, and you might get the same hand twice but you play it two different ways. That’s what we’re teaching players here.”

While players can no longer claim prizes by besting their opponents every week, those that win three events become a “red felt”-er – earning a medallion designating them as either one of the best and brightest or the luckiest players around.

You see the medallions protecting cards while hands unfold. Others, like Juarez, carry them in their pocket.

But newcomers like Marcus Jones keep their eye on the medallion as something to strive for – a mark to reach as his game gets stronger week-in and week-out.

“I’ve only been at it a few months,” Jones said while settling into his chair. “I like that it’s a learning league, and it’s not like going into a regular casino. But it’s better than playing online because it’s live and you get to meet new people – you get to learn.

“I’ve always like card games but poker is something new. Blackjack used to be my game, but poker is challenging. You learn different styles of play. I like it.”

The West Coast Poker League continues at Rooster Juice, located at 1325 W. Yosemite Avenue, Wednesday at 7 p.m. and Jack’s Pizza Café, located at 1223 W. Yosemite Avenue, on Thursday at 7 p.m. For additional information, search for The West Coast Poker League on Facebook.

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