Playing for high stakes

Garlic City Club General Manager Raul Rivas, right, plays a form

GILROY — There were enough players to get a game of cards going
at the Garlic City Club last Friday evening, but no one seemed to
be in a hurry to get the game going. Instead the patrons of the
club were chatting and watching the San Francisco Giants game on a
television in the corner of the card room.
GILROY — There were enough players to get a game of cards going at the Garlic City Club last Friday evening, but no one seemed to be in a hurry to get the game going. Instead the patrons of the club were chatting and watching the San Francisco Giants game on a television in the corner of the card room.

Fridays are always a little more slow after the club’s tournaments on Thursday nights, but it seemed especially slow after everyone had taken a bit of a beating from club champion Jose Gomez, who won more than $700 from them the night before. Gomez had just returned from the 2003 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the biggest poker tournament in the world, and he was looking to take out some of his frustration from losing on the first day of the event.

“I had to take it out on somebody,” he joked.

But Gomez’ appearance at the World Series of Poker itself was an amazing feat in itself for the Garlic City Club, putting the small card room on the map.

“It is really exciting for such a small card room to play in such a big tournament,” said Raul Rivas, the general manager of the Garlic City Club, located at 40 Hornlein Court just off of Monterey Street.

While Gomez, of Hollister, usually finds himself playing Texas Hold’em – a 7-card game that has evolved into the most popular form of poker over the years – against other locals with varying degrees of experience, he found himself playing against some intimidating competition last week.

“Those guys are much better,” he said. “They’re the best players in the world.”

The competition, which takes place at Binion’s Horseshoe on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, is five rounds of tense, high-stakes poker with the best of the best. During the first two days, competitors play 10 hours of poker each day, starting with $10,000 in chips. On the third day the competition is whittled down to just 63 players, all who are then considered “in the money.” On the fourth day, the players go on until there are just nine left, and on the last day the winner receives the coveted gold bracelet and $2.5 million. The runner up gets $1.5 million and each place from there on gets a smaller and smaller share of the winnings. The event is covered annually by ESPN.

This year, 839 players qualified for the event. Gomez represented the Garlic City Club by winning one of the club’s 10 weekly tournaments and then beating out the other nine winners to represent the club. The Garlic City Club, one of just eight California poker clubs represented in the event, was the smallest of the group – the small community poker club is virtually an unknown to the players outside the region.

Gomez, 31, bowed out at the end of the first day, but not before he had outlasted more than 500 other players, including last year’s champion, Robert Varkonyi.

Gomez was able to get on a hot streak for a little while, but he was too far down to make a run.

“I started getting lucky and I won five hands in a row,” he said. “I got my 10-grand back, but it was too late.”

Gomez, who has been playing poker games like seven-card-stud since he was just 14 years old, lost out to Daniel Negreanu, widely considered a great poker player and also a contributing columnist for “Card Player Magazine.”

Gomez had $4,000 left when he was dealt an ace and king of diamonds with his two cards – considered a very high hand to begin with. He decided to go “all-in” with his hand, meaning he was betting his entire $4,000. Gomez didn’t know at the time, but his hand was better than Negreanu’s, an ace and jack of different suits.

“He thought about it and thought about it,” Gomez said about Negreanu, who took his time before matching the bet. There was only one way Negreanu’s hand could beat his, and that was if a jack came up with the rest of his hand. Unfortunately for Gomez, that’s exactly what happened.

“Only a jack would’ve saved him, and it turned up,” he said.

Gomez said there definitely is a difference when trying to beat the best players in the world.

“They can tell by the way you look and the way you act,” he said. “That’s what separates the good players from the best.”

While there are players like Gomez at the Garlic City Club that can really play, there also are those who come more for the comraderie than anything else.

“It’s mostly like a community club,” Rivas said. “They talk about politics, sports and things going on in town. They like the small card room atmosphere. It’s friendly.”

The players come from Gilroy, Hollister, Morgan Hill, Salinas and San Jose to spend their evenings – and anywhere from $20 to $50 – at the card tables.

The club has a license to be open 24 hours, but actually opens at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday nights and at 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

And unlike a big cared table with hardcore players, even beginners have the chance to come out a winner at the local club.

“Anybody can come in here with 20 or 30 dollars in their pocket and walk out with several hundred,” Rivas said. “I’ve seen first-timers walk out of here with $800.”

The club will celebrate its sixth anniversary of being in Gilroy July 4, and Rivas hopes that he can continue to bring in more guests, especially when the club’s restaurant opens with an American-style diner theme in a few months.

And Rivas hopes to qualify another poker player – or even two – for next year’s World Series of Poker.

“I expect next year to send two guys,” he said. “Maybe they’ll have a better chance.”

For more information about the Garlic City Club, call 847-3777.

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