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Poker Craze is just getting kicked off

Nick Meyers can be found in a local bar several nights a week, swigging a pint of cold beer and watching a live poker game.
It is, after all, part of his job.

Meyers doesn’t own a pub, nor is he aiming to be the next Texas Hold ‘Em superstar.

Rather, the 41-year-old co-founded the Littleton-based company that organizes 1,200 such poker tournaments every week.

“I really believe the poker craze is just getting started,” Meyers, president of the National Pub Poker League, said recently at the Supreme Court in the Adam’s Mark Hotel downtown. “There’s just a groundswell of interest, and we’re tapping into that.”

It’s a far cry from his life just a few years ago, when Meyers worked as director of retail services at satellite-TV firm EchoStar Communications Corp. After 17 years with the company, he decided it was time to branch out and start his own business.

Two years ago, Meyers - who has a bachelor’s degree in business from California State University - and a partner started NPPL in an effort to cash in on the poker frenzy.

The company hosts free poker tournaments at pubs and restaurants, rewarding players with bar tabs and points that can be exchanged for prizes such as key chains, T-shirts and shot glasses.

Despite federal crackdowns on gambling, Meyers says NPPL games avoid legal hurdles because players don’t pay to play and aren’t risking any of their own money.

“There is no gambling, no wagering of any kind,” Meyers said. “It’s similar to karaoke or trivia night.”

The cream of the crop, though, can actually win money.

The tournament winner at each venue is given a chance to play a free online poker game against other -NPPL pub winners. The winner of that game gets a trip to Las Vegas - including airfare, accommodations and limo rides - to compete in the Mansion Poker Dome Challenge for a chance to win $25,000. The champion of that tournament qualifies for another Mansion competition that awards $50,000 and a seat in a $1 million game to the winner. One NPPL player in Woodbridge, Va., has made it that far and will compete in March.

Many NPPL players, though, have modest expectations.

“For me it’s just about having a good time,” said Englewood resident Andrew Gibbs recently during a break in a game at the Supreme Court. “You can come out, relax and play poker without putting any money on the table. And you meet some great people. That’s probably the best part of it.”

Instead of charging players entry fees, NPPL makes the bulk of its money through the bars that pay for the company to host games. It also gleans some money from companies that pay to sponsor tournaments. Bars and restaurants gain by attracting customers, who then spend money on food and drinks.

“It fills the restaurant up on what otherwise is a slow night,” said Dave Christensen, operations manager at Red & Jerry’s in Sheridan, which offers NPPL poker games Tuesday and Wednesday nights. “It creates a bit of buzz.”

The National Pub Poker League has grown quickly, signing up 600 bars and restaurants in more than a dozen U.S. states and several countries including Australia and the United Kingdom. It has 125 employees, most of them part-time workers, and more than 100,000 registered players.

Meyers thinks the company will continue to grow rapidly, and he hopes eventually to sign up some large sponsors that will help lower the costs for bars.

He believes the poker craze is healthy and will continue to grow and reach new audiences. Every month, thousands of new players are signing up at Full Tilt and playing poker. It’s the wave of the future.

Although most NPPL players are men in their 20s and early 30s, don’t let that fool you.

“I’ve seen little old ladies take college boys to town,” Meyers said. “And while most of our players are males, I’d say 50 percent at the final table are female.”

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