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Posted February 7, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Full house: Poker nights have revitalized some local bars, bringing in customers

Mac McDonald
Mac McDonald, center, of Winchester, picks up a card while Trent George, 18, left, of Middletown, and Tom Zirkle, of Stephens City, wait their turn on a poker night at New Town Tavern in Stephens City. Rich Cooley/Daily

Patrick Levdahl
Patrick Levdahl, 26, of Winchester, watches his competition make a move during a poker game at New Town Tavern. Rich Cooely/Daily

poker chips
Introducing poker nights on Tuesdays at the New Town Tavern has increased business on an otherwise slow night. Rich Cooley/Daily

Denton Stotler
Denton Stotler of Winchester holds on to chips during poker night at Newtown Tavern in Stephens City. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Elizabeth Wilkerson -- Daily Staff Writer

In a room full of crowded tables Tuesday night, the gentle clatter of poker chips and the muffled shuffling of cards were audible just under the constant hum of conversation and friendly laughter.

"The challenge of winning brings you back," said Marsha Barlow Borror, of Winchester. "Some players are challenging."

Borror and about 30 other players were on hand Tuesday night for poker at Stephens City's New Town Tavern, which is one of numerous area restaurants that host the games.

Jen Mounts, with Stars-n-Bars Entertainment Inc., said she hosts games at about four area restaurants. At last count, Stars-n-Bars had more than 3,000 members in the area.

Mounts, who's been hosting the games since August and is a self-proclaimed poker addict, said she thinks the players keep playing because they want to make it to the World Series of Poker. It's fun to just come out, meet new people and have fun, she said, but players are largely "here to try to get the money."

The games often bring new faces to the bars and restaurants that offer them, she said, and Stars-n-Bars offers incentives, such as bonus points for food or drink purchases, to encourage players to support the venues.

"We always try to tell everybody to support the bar, because the bar pays for us to come here," she said.

Christy Davis, a manager at New Town Tavern, said the bar's Tuesday poker games began in January as a way to attract customers and help counteract the effects of the deteriorating national economy. The response has been good, so far, she said, and it's definitely improved sales.

"A lot of them are really serious about it," she said of the players. The games have brought in both drinkers and nondrinkers, she said, and the poker is played in a nonsmoking room.

"It's definitely brought in a whole new crowd of faces I haven't seen before," she said.

Judy Shipp, who's owned Double Overtime Sports Grille in Woodstock for nearly four years, also said the economy prompted the restaurant to host poker games. There were a few days of the week that "we were just not getting the customer flow in there," she said.

"So, I was trying to think of something that would bring the crowds in," she said. One of the restaurant's waitresses, who also works at a bar that offers the games, suggested that Double Overtime host them as well, Shipp said.

The games, which are offered Sunday and Monday, began this week, she said.

"Even though the weather was pretty bad, it was a lot bigger crowd than I would have had if I had nothing," she said. "We had a lot of regulars come in, then we had people from places that play other nights."

Conrad Coffman, owner of Blue Fox Billiards Bar & Grill in Winchester, said his restaurant, which opened in March 2008, has been offering the games since last summer.

"We jumped on a poker bandwagon," Coffman said. "Poker is very popular," and, with the state's laws, the tournaments are "a way that Virginians can actually hold poker tournaments."

Shipp said no money changes hands during the games.

"It's all a points system," she said. The restaurant pays the entry fee for the player, who is given "so many points of chips," she said. A company -- Stars-n-Bars Entertainment Inc., in the case of Double Overtime -- brings in the equipment, though the restaurant provides the tables, she said.

"It's hard to go out and find entertainment for free," Shipp said. "There's nothing to lose here. It doesn't cost anything to get in. The restaurant is paying for your seat fee, which is very minimal."

Mounts said players at the local level are competing for a seat at the regional tournament. At the regional level, they compete for a seat at the annual tournament, at which they'll compete for a seat at the World Series of Poker, she said.

Shipp, who is admittedly not a card player, said a combination of new and veteran players was at the restaurant's first games.

"Right now, I just think it's people getting out with your friends and being able to sit down and have fun," she said, without the threat of lost money or hard feelings.

When asked what keeps players coming back to the table, Coffman said it's "all about competition."

"It's about playing cards," he said. "It's a way to do it legally and not be in the neighbor's garage. ... This way, you're out, you can eat, you can drink at a bar location and a bar setting."

On Tuesday, Kevin Sites, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., said he's played poker since he was 13 years old and now plays about three nights a week. Sites, who has competed in several national poker tournaments, said there are a lot of good players in the area.

"Poker ... takes a lifetime to master," he said. "It's a good hobby," though an expensive one, he said, but "you're gonna meet a lot of good people" at the tables.

Steve Armel, of Stephenson, has been playing poker for 15 years.

"[I] went to a friend's house and he was having a poker game and it was over," he said. Armel, who plays once a week and has also competed in national tournaments, said the friends and the atmosphere keep him playing.

"Come and learn, cause it's a lot of fun," he said. "Even learning's a lot of fun, because it doesn't cost anything."

Contact Elizabeth Wilkerson at ewilkerson@nvdaily.com

Venues offering poker

Front Royal
Breaktime Billiards 2
460A S. Commerce Ave.
Friday -- 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Victoria's/Union Hall Bar and Grill
231 Chester St.
Sunday through Thursday -- 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Stephens City
New Town Tavern
356 Fairfax Pike
Tuesday -- 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Strasburg Theatre
151 W. King St.
Wednesday and Thursday -- 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Blue Fox Billiards Bar & Grill
1160 Millwood Pike
Sunday -- 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Monday -- 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Cork Street Tavern
8 W. Cork St.
Thursday -- 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Goodfellas Restaurant and Bar
821 N. Loudoun St.
Tuesday -- 7 p.m.

Double Overtime Sports Grille
23228 Old Valley Pike
Sunday -- 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Monday -- 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

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