Bellied up to a table in Players Sports Bar, the east-side tavern he's owned for a quarter-century, Mark Kroon adjusts his cap and points a thumb over his shoulder to a corner of the room.
"We used to play right back here," he says. "This was about the mid-'80s. Phil probably wasn't even old enough to be in the bar at the time."
He's talking about Phil Hellmuth, the Madison native and legendary University of Wisconsin dropout known as the Poker Brat. At 24, Hellmuth became the youngest ever to win the game's biggest prize and is now arguably the most famous -- if not the best -- poker player of all time.
But when his old playing partner won the World Series of Poker in 1989, Kroon wasn't exactly star-struck.
"I'm like, 'He won? He wasn't that good of a player.'"
As it turns out, Kroon was no slouch himself. A few years later, at Hellmuth's invitation, he entered -- and won -- his first Las Vegas tournament, netting a cool 40 grand. Then, when online poker took off in the early 2000s, Kroon -- known by his handle "P0ker H0" -- plopped himself at his computer up to 12 hours a day. For a time, a major poker website ranked him the top online player in the world. The game was booming, and by the mid-2000s he was touring North America with legends like Hellmuth, Annie Duke and 2004 WSOP winner Greg Raymer, giving lessons to aspiring players.
"It was almost too good to be true," he says.
Meanwhile, his hometown tavern kept hosting weekly poker games. Contestants usually ponied up $50 to play each other. None of that went to the bar, which didn't take a "rake," or commission for each pot, like casinos do.
"We used to have a tournament every Monday night," says Kroon. "We'd have 50 players. Everyone would look forward to having a burger, drinking a beer, playing poker and socializing."
But in September 2011, the fun stopped.
As Kroon tells it, one afternoon a man in a suit came into the bar and, nice as could be, informed the staff that he was from the Green Bay office of the state Department of Justice.
According to an incident report provided by the DOJ, the state Division of Criminal Investigation had, a month earlier, received an anonymous complaint that Players was hosting illegal poker games.
Kroon was confused. Taverns across Madison and Dane County had been doing this for years. What's the big deal?
According to the report, the agent later explained to Kroon's mother, who co-owns the bar, that poker -- when played for money -- is illegal.
Kroon says the stakes were clear: Keep it up, and he could face felony gambling charges and lose his liquor license.
"I said, 'Okay, that's it. I'm not going to lose my bar."
The games stopped, but three years later Kroon is still irked.
"We had Madison police officers play here!" he says. "They think it's ridiculous, too."
Lawsuit in the works
Just about everyone, from grandmothers to President Obama to Madison's mayor, has played some variant of poker. But Wisconsin is among roughly half the states where playing for money is considered illegal, unless you're at one of a dozen tribal-run casinos that have poker rooms.
Still, cash games or tournaments like the ones at Players can be found nightly in Dane County, even though participating could cost you a $1,000 fine and nine months in the clink. Hosting a game could yield a felony charge, $50,000 in fines and 15 years in prison.
Even home games -- like the $10 games my friends and I play -- are against the law, according to the Department of Justice.
But area poker players are launching an effort to change that.
Last December, leaders of the state's chapter of the Poker Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization that aims to decriminalize the game, asked local players to chip in money to hire a lawyer. By June, they met their $10,000 goal and retained Stan Davis, a local private attorney and former chief legal counsel under Gov. Jim Doyle, to challenge the state's interpretation of the law.
Cross Plains resident Steve Verrett directs the Alliance. The crackdown at Players spurred him to act, but he's long been peeved by the notion that his poker-playing buddies -- including his wife -- have to be "shady" about a hobby they think is perfectly legal.
Case in point: Area players are even wary of publicizing a closed Facebook page that lists upcoming games and lets players talk trash and relive hands. They let me join the group, but only after screening me with a phone call.
"It's almost like we're an underground criminal organization," Verrett says. "It's shameful."
The agent's warning to Players appears anomalous. Verrett has never heard of strictly poker-related arrests in Wisconsin, and spokespersons for the Madison Police Department and Dane County Sheriff's Office couldn't recall instances of cops breaking up games. The latter chuckled at my question.
"We're certainly not going around and doing search warrants on people's houses that are doing poker tournaments," says Elise Schaffer, spokesperson for the sheriff's department.
An Internet search turned up a few relevant cases. In 1997, Dane County deputies, acting on an anonymous tip and undercover work, raided an afternoon game in the basement of Cross Roads Tavern in Cottage Grove. No players were arrested, but the owners got three years' probation after admitting to allowing betting on sports, poker and blackjack, according to media reports.
In 2005, Department of Justice agents raided the Dream Lanes bowling alley on Madison's east side, seizing video gambling machines and sports-betting cards, as well as poker chips, playing cards and banners advertising Hold 'Em tournaments.
But by and large, poker seems to fly under law enforcement's radar. Dana Brueck, spokesperson for the Department of Justice, hints that's no accident.
"Both law enforcement and district attorneys are mindful of how they manage their valuable yet limited resources," she writes in an email.
Even with lax enforcement, Verrett says the Players incident shook people up. Last fall, he and others considered calling the state's bluff by setting up a card table at the state Capitol and fighting subsequent citations in court. But the possible penalties scared them. Instead, the group intends to file a legal petition as early as this month to ask for a "declaratory judgment" from a judge in an as-yet-undetermined county, Davis says.
That process, he explains, will get a judge to rule whether poker is, as he and Verrett assert, legal under current statutes.
"If we didn't think we had a strong argument, we wouldn't be bringing this in the first place," Davis says.
Skill or chance?
When it comes to poker's legality, states hold the cards. They can ban or allow the game, and the rules run the gamut from allowing poker in homes, casinos or licensed card rooms in states like California to airtight bans in Arkansas and West Virginia. In between are states like Colorado, where home games are okay if the contestants previously knew each other, or Michigan, where only senior citizens can play for pots no bigger than $5.
Wisconsin's constitution bans most forms of gambling outside of tribal-run casinos governed by gaming compacts between the tribes and the state. But the ban, Verrett says, hinges on a separate state statute that defines betting.
"A bet," the statute reads, "is a bargain in which the parties agree that, dependent upon chance even though accompanied by some skill, one stands to win or lose something of value specified in the agreement."
In that skill-versus-chance continuum, Verrett sees an opening. In recent years, judges in other states have ruled that poker -- like darts or golf, and unlike roulette or the lottery -- requires much more skill than luck.
For years, that argument was based on common sense. After all, how would top pros like Phil Ivey, Hellmuth and Johnny Chan perennially play deep into major tournaments? Are they just luckier?
In the age of Big Data, the argument runs deeper. In recent years, testimony in cases in New York, Idaho and Pennsylvania has made headway in proving that skill predominates in games like Texas Hold 'Em.
When I asked the DOJ's Brueck for the state's stance, she sent me several decade-old documents, including a 2004 article in the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Bulletin titled "The Legality of Poker Tournaments." Its thesis was clear.
"Chance predominates over skill in all poker games," it says. "This is due to the fact that the game involves a deck of cards in which nobody can predict...what card will appear next." Poker played for money is "illegal and should be discontinued."
Davis declined to speculate on who might oppose their effort. Perhaps the justice department or the tribes will step in, or it could generate heat from the anti-gambling crowd. For now, Davis says he's focused on getting a judge to rule on the statute.
A court win
Idaho's gaming law mirrors Wisconsin's, and if opponents materialize here, Verrett and company can only dream they'll mount as weak a case as the state of Idaho did this spring.
In July 2013, Mike Kasper, a radio host in Boise, was playing Hold 'Em with eight buddies and one undercover cop at a friend's rental property when police entered with guns drawn.
"It was shocking," Kasper says. "There were literally two soccer moms at the game. We're not talking about criminals."
The players were cited with misdemeanor gambling charges. Most pleaded guilty and paid their fines, but Kasper and another man took their case to a judge. In May they won, as the judge agreed with experts who contended that poker is a "bona fide contest of skill."
It didn't hurt that the state's sole witness, a detective, copped to playing poker himself.
Testifying for the defense was James McManus, a journalist who famously parlayed a $4,000 advance from Harper's Magazine to write about the 2000 World Series of Poker into a fifth-place finish that earned him $247,760.
In his testimony, McManus cited statistical studies -- including one by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame and another that analyzed a billion hands of online poker -- concluding that skilled players simply win more money than their opponents.
The Idaho case was not the first to favor poker players over the state. In 2012, a federal judge in New York overturned the gambling conviction of a New Jersey man who'd profited from poker games he hosted in a Staten Island warehouse. In that ruling, the judge cited a study analyzing 415 million hands of online poker and concluded, again, that skill trumps luck.
Davis declines to reveal his legal strategy but hinted such research might be his ace in the hole.
"It is not an analysis where you've just got some people saying, 'Well, we really, really believe this.' It's quite scientific."
This will all unfold as a separate legal battle continues over the Ho-Chunk Nation's right to continue offering "electronic poker" -- a touch-screen game with no physical cards, chips or dealers -- at its Madison casino on the city's far east side. Ho-Chunk recently appealed a federal judge's ruling that the games violate gaming compacts.
The casino, formerly known as Dejope Bingo Hall, opened its eight-table poker room in November 2010. It occasionally draws crowds for bigger tournaments. But the casino's executive manager, Daniel Brown, says poker is more of "an amenity" than a moneymaker for the casino, as the game's popularity seems to have waned since federal authorities cracked down on online poker in 2011.
Speaking for himself and not the Ho-Chunk Nation, Brown suspects the state's tribes might oppose loosening poker laws, as such a move could be seen as infringing on the gaming compacts.
Multiple calls and emails requesting comment from Ho-Chunk leaders in Black River Falls were not returned.
Seeking a local politician's take, I phoned Mayor Paul Soglin, who I heard was a poker fan. Soglin says he used to play more often -- "primarily Texas Hold 'Em, occasionally Omaha hi-low" -- but has cut back to "six or eight times a year" since being reelected in 2011. That campaign, by the way, got a $1,250 boost from Hellmuth, a Soglin supporter.
On why he plays, Soglin says he likes "trying to see if you can outwit others. It's the competition."
In his experience, skill trumps luck, he says, but he's not stumping for legalization. He says he'd need more details, and, as mayor, he has bigger fish to fry, like managing budgets and tackling racial disparities.
Fair point. And support for poker might not win political points in a county that in 2004 soundly voted down a referendum to expand gambling at Ho-Chunk's Madison facility.
If poker were legalized, Verrett says he or others might someday open stand-alone poker rooms, which exist in such states as California and Ohio. The games would be regulated and more secure than "underground" tavern games that risk being robbed, he says. That could yield a "free market" effect of more options and better games.
"If it was a legitimate place...I think you'd see more people come out of the woodwork."
More players, of course, also means more money. That's music to the ears to some local players.
"Think of all the college kids at UW from all over the world who will come and play," said one commenter on the local poker Facebook page. "This is a never-ending river of talent and money!"
In early May, I had what I like to call "my mini-McManus moment," when my poker-playing neighbor drove me to a tavern outside of Madison for its weekly No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em tournament.
I didn't have an advance to blow, but the buy-in was a reasonable $45, which bought me a tidy stack of 20,000 in chips and a seat at one of three green-felted tables.
It's an intimidating thing to walk into a roomful of 32 people, mostly men, knowing they want your money and are quick at spying ineptitude. Among them, the amateurs are the "fish" or the "donkeys."
I hoped, briefly, that my competitors would mistake me for someone who'd been there before. But when I folded my first hand, instead of mucking the cards into the center, I set a pile of chips on top of them and said "fold," like I do at my low-stakes home games. Play paused for one and a half excruciating seconds.
"You fold?" the dealer asked me.
"Then I need your cards."
Men, meet your donkey.
I took some deep breaths, then watched the others do battle while I happily folded another dozen crappy hands.
Each player in Hold 'Em is dealt two "hole cards" face down. Five common cards -- three on "the flop," then one each on the "turn" and "river" -- are then dealt face up between rounds of betting.
My admittedly poor strategy was to play "weak-tight" early on, folding unless I caught strong hole cards. Eventually I did and won a small pile of chips. At the first intermission, my neighbor offered me a menthol and congratulations on not being the first guy to bust.
Then things got interesting. I went all in on a big pot with mediocre cards, sensing my opponents would assume I had something good. I guessed right. Later, I reluctantly called with a King-Queen unsuited after a gray-bearded man named Gary shoved his chips in. He turned over a Queen-Jack suited. The flop-turn-river went my way. A few hands after that, I made a bundle by catching a flush on the river.
Nearly five hours in, I was astounded to find myself at the final table. I pushed all in again with nothing but a pair of nines on the flop, logic again telling me the time was right. Not so logically, I wondered if the others heard my heart pounding.
That bluff worked, too. Minutes later, an aggressive player in his late 20s, two seats to my left, shoved in his stack before I saw what I was holding. I made a little cave with my hands, pried up the corners of my cards, and spied two aces. Thank you, Jesus. I called. I won again.
Suddenly it was down to the final four, and my stack was the biggest. The guy to my right, wearing a flat-brimmed ball cap and a sneaky grin, suggested we call it a night and split the $1,460 pot, with me taking a little extra. I happily concurred, and the dealing was done. The organizer handed me a few hundy that I coolly tucked into my wallet. But on the drive back to Mad Town, my neighbor and I let it out.
"Can you believe that shit?!"
We could not.
I didn't fall asleep until 3 a.m., and the next day I felt wiry and weird and didn't get much work done. But I was also exhilarated. For less than $50, I got to take some risks, place some bets and stare down guys who could beat the crap out of me if they wanted to.
I tell a brief version of this story to Verrett.
"It was fun, right?"
Damn right, though winning helped. Still, wasn't I lucky?
That I won my first-ever tournament suggests so. Pocket Aces on the final table's pivotal hand was four-leaf-clover-esque. I did follow some basic rules of thumb, gleaned from several hours of online poker tutorials, my home games, a couple strategy books and conversations with my experienced neighbor.
But I'm smart enough to know that, over the long haul, I'd lose nearly every time. Judging by the erudition on the local poker Facebook page, these are players who know the odds of making a straight by the river from a gutshot straight draw on the flop (16.4%. I looked it up).
Verrett, who holds an electrical engineering degree, learned poker at age 20 in a tent in Saudi Arabia, when he and his Army comrades would play during the first Operation Desert Storm. His passion for the game didn't peak until he moved here from Chicago in 2004. Players in Wisconsin are topnotch, he says. But they want to be legitimate.
"We don't feel we're breaking the law," he says. "We're just trying to clarify it so people don't get into trouble."
[Editor's Note: Stan Davis filed a petition in Dane County Circuit Court Aug. 14 asking for a "declaratory judgment" on whether poker is legal under Wisconsin's current statutes. The defendant is Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and the assigned judge is Richard Niess. Check isthmus.com as we follow this story.]