Texas Hold ‘Em exploded in popularity a few years back, when everyman poker player Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event.
Moneymaker’s run to the title inspired a lot of amateurs to take up the game — dreaming of winning millions like he did.
But where to start and learn how to play the game?
Right here in Central Texas is one such way — the Hill Country Poker League.
Players come from Seguin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, Canyon Lake, Bandera, and even from San Antonio and Austin, to learn the game and play in nightly tournaments.
Entry fees are just $10, providing newcomers with an inexpensive introduction to the game.
The Hill Country Poker League was established in 2007 by co-founders Jerry and Cathy Cooley.
The league has since grown to host a game every night of the week at one of three locations, in New Braunfels, Canyon Lake and Bandera, and boasts more than 3,900 members in the last 12 years.
The league was formed with a simple idea in mind, Cathy said.
“Our goal for the league is to teach people how to play properly, with the right etiquette,” she said. “We want them to be able to go to a casino, sit down and play like they know what they are doing — and if they’ve been playing with us they do.
“People that don’t know how to play come in and they get treated properly, they learn the rules, and they’re not chastised for not knowing. That’s our goal, to teach them how to play.”
Payouts are nightly for the regular tournaments, with usually anywhere from three to five tables, or about 25 to 50 players.
“Everything that’s collected from a game is paid out in that game,” Cathy said. The league makes its money from the bars where the tournaments are held.
Winners on a usual night could make anywhere from $20 to around $200, depending on how they place, and if the final players left in the tournament decide to “chop” (split) the remaining pot.
Charity tournaments are held for a number of causes, including the Rotary Club, the Blanco Conservation Society, and the Humane Society, among others — and also to individuals in need.
“Today we gave $2,200 to one of our players whose granddaughter was diagnosed with brain cancer,” Cathy said. “We gave her another $1,000 last month to help them out with her medical expenses.”
Donations to those charitable causes, organizations and individuals have exceeded $50,000 in the league’s 12 years of existence.
Once every three months, the league hosts a quarterly championship, with players qualifying through points earned at the regular nightly events.
Players can keep up with where they stand on the league’s website, hillcountrypoker.com, with point totals updated every night and the standings available for each location and the league overall.
Last Sunday, 93 players showed up at the Watering Hole in New Braunfels for what is the league’s largest tournament.
Putting on the quarterly events is no small task.
“It takes hours and hours of work — mostly by Jerry,” Cathy said. “This goes on all month. We’re keeping up with everybody’s points, the website, and then making sure the venue is set up, and that there’s parking and food available. We make sure that we have everything that’s needed to make everybody comfortable.”
Sunday’s quarterly tourney was the 47th hosted by the league since its inception.
At the quarterly were players looking to collect the league’s largest payout — first place was more than $1,000.
Kevin Bowens found the league online about four months ago and has played regularly ever since.
“I went online and searched for poker leagues in the area,” Bowens said. “It’s been great, they’re good people and I like the action and the competition.”
Bowen has played in much larger games, in Vegas and elsewhere, but noted the level of play in the league.
“What I like about the league is there are some really good players in it,” he said. “I’ve played in other $10 or $20 leagues where anybody that can hold two cards in their hand will play — but there’s some experienced poker players here.”
It was his second quarterly to play, and although he was out earlier than he would have liked, the tournament was still enjoyable.
“The game was organized, structured and well run,” Bowen said.
He agreed that the league is a good starting point for those looking to learn the game.
“It a good place for them to learn to play poker,” Bowen said. “Everybody at the table will help you out and won’t treat you like you are a first time ‘donkey.’ They’ll take your chips and make you learn.”
Casey Shearer was also out early, but he enjoyed the tournament for a variety of reasons.
“The quarterly is a great time,” he said. “‘It’s good to see people from the other locations come and hang out, meet new people and play some cards.”
Also new to the league, and relatively new to poker, Shearer played around 40 of the regular tournaments over the last three months.
“I’ve been playing for less than a year and I’m still learning how to play poker,” Shearer said, “but I felt like I played good over the quarter.”
Dennis Gressett has been playing with the league for a couple of years now, and also plays regularly in poker rooms in San Antonio and Austin. He enjoys the variety of players he faces in the league.
“The players are much more diverse here,” he said. “You have really sophisticated players, and then you have players that have only been playing for a few months.”
Gressett has played in five of the quarterly tournaments, with at least one where he had some success.
“I won the first one I played, so I’m running a solid 20 percent on the quarterlies,” he said.
The structure of the tournaments and the organizers have made an impression on him.
“I have a lot of respect for the Cooley’s,” Gressett said. “I really like the way they run the games, they are clean games, and I’ve met a lot of friends here.”
Kevin Duke is the sports editor for the Seguin Gazette. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.