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Posted: June 5, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Local plays in Vegas poker championship

Gabriel Khouli/

When Ernie Smith peaked at his cards, barely raising their left tips, he was greeted with pocket aces. Naturally, he was confident after receiving the best starting hand in Texas hold ‘em.

He was on the verge of a big pot at the World Poker Tournament Amateur Championship. So he raised, and then raised again.

Poker, however, is a cruel mistress.

The flop actually did him in, though he had no idea. All he saw was no chance for a straight, little hope for a flush and nothing to be afraid of. The turn and river didn't change much.

In a perfect world, everyone else would have read that Smith had "pocket rockets" (poker is full of slang, check out the box to learn more) and gracefully bowed out. Vegas is far from a perfect world, even when it comes to poker.

"I ran into the same junky players I run into here anyway...classic suck-it poker" Smith said to his fellow players back in the cozy confines of Covington.

His opponent was holding a queen-nine off-suited hand, and what should turn up on the flop, but the dancing partners needed to turn that hand into two pairs.

"I was broken hearted. Three times I raised to the blind; that doesn't show the kind of discipline you'd expect," Smith said. "After that, I was short stacked and went to another table and got "the chair." The chair where every hand dealt is death. I ended up going all in with a king-jack and losing."

Luckily, there was more in Vegas than the national amateur poker tournament, and there's more to playing cards than winning - at least to some.

"I'll be your friend all day long, but I want to win," said Matt Horner, a loud talking, sunglass wearing local.

Horner, Smith and a rag-tag bunch of locals gather at 7 and 9 p.m., every Tuesday and Wednesday at Five O'Clock Somewhere to mock each other, have a good time and play poker in a competitive, yet easygoing environment.

"This crowd is your more laid back, fun, happy crowd," said Frank Hustek Jr., president of the southeast amateur league for the World Poker Tournament. "It's a laid back bar crowd having fun. Everybody messes with everybody."

The poker is free, so the stakes are low. Regulars can rack up points, and on any given night players may win bar credits or movie tickets, but this isn't gambling, so no money changes hands.

"It's a great place for players to come in and learn how to play. We get new players almost every night," Hustek said.

"We like to refer to them as FNG's," Smith interjected. (You can figure that one out.)

Players can come in to Five O'Clock at 6 p.m. to receive a how-to from Hustek, who's played professional poker for several years.

If you get good enough, you can make it to the annual tournament in Vegas, like Smith, or his good friend Dave Carter who won a regional tournament to earn his spot.

"It's just one of those feelings, you're this high off the ground, going yeah! I went out and called my wife, said "I'm going to Vegas!" By hook or by crook," Carter said.

Carter and Smith were both knocked out in the first round of the nationals, but that just gives them something to work on for next year. Texas hold ‘em is incredibly simple, yet chocked full of complexity.

"I have a hard time bluffing," said Carter, laughing. "Which you really need to know how to do, because you need to be able to win the pots you're supposed to win and the pots you're not supposed to win."

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