BARGE—On the Bus With Poker’s Merry Pranksters

by Lou on August 1, 2007

If you were playing Jeopardy this would be the answer: “It’s a zany, madcap poker party—part Monty Python, part Doo-Dah Parade (for non-SoCals, Doo-Dah is the annual pre-Thanksgiving spoof of the Tournament of Roses Parade, complete with such esoterica as the synchronized briefcase marching drill team), supplemented with a dash of the Marx Brothers, Ken Kesey’s merry pranksters, a Shriner’s Convention, the inmates let loose from the asylum in the classic film King of Hearts, an Ionesco play, and for good measure, the Stanford University Marching Band under the direction of Larry, Moe, and Curly.”

The question, of course: “What is BARGE?”

BARGE is the annual Las Vegas excursion of poker’s Internet community. It’s a big circle—or more properly, a Mobius strip—when you stop to consider it. Choose the beginning, the middle, or the end; it’s all the same. Like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, or the movie Pulp Fiction, it is a circular tale—one that keeps coming at you from slightly different angles each time you think about it.

BARGE is an acronym for Big August Recreational Gaming Extravaganza, attended by poker’s online community who originally met on the Internet newsgroup rec.gambling.poker, though many BARGERs avoid RGP like the plague these days. Unlike cyberspace, BARGE is up close and personal, and not at all virtual. We BARGErs are viewed by some Las Vegas locals as computer geeks and cyber nerds, but most of us play poker pretty well, and of course our collective sense of absurdist humor is usually over the top of the same weird spectrum that includes the best of Dilbert and the worst of Monty Python. That’s a polite way of saying we make Benny Hill seem sophisticated, and the Three Stooges subtle.

BARGE is held each August at Binion’s in downtown Las Vegas’ glitter gulch, where the garish and the glitz and the Fremont Street Experience—a latticed-arch running the length of Fremont Street with a light show flashed across it every hour—all serve to reinforce a crazed state that sets in when you’ve lost any inclination to sleep, along with the ability to tell whether it’s day or night, and what’s more, you no longer care.

That’s right where I’m headed tomorrow, and I’ll be there through Saturday night and returning Sunday to reenter the real world, if I can recall where I left it.

They play Chowaha at BARGE. It’s a staple of the fun and frivolity. The game is a variant of hold’em, only it’s played with three flops, two turn cards, and one river card. Each player is dealt two cards, and both hole cards must play. Three flops are then spread—one on top of another. Two turn cards are dealt, one placed between the top and middle flop, the other between the middle and bottom flop. The top turn card plays with the top and middle flops, and the bottom turn card plays with the middle and bottom flop. There is one river card, and it plays with all available combinations.

If some dealers were confused by Chowaha’s intricacies, they loved the game’s fringe benefits, particularly the occasional cries of “mandatory toke,” which required each player to flip a dollar chip in the general direction of the dealer. These mandatory tokes quickly made Chowaha a dealer favorite. Another innovation, designed to liven up the “anyone-can-afford-it” $2-$4 limits, was the occasional multi-straddle, in which four successive players placed progressively larger blind bets.

Chowaha was such a hit that off duty dealers are usually eager to join in the fun and play. One of my endearing BARGE memories was the absolute incongruity of an announcement made at 4:00 a.m., in an otherwise quiet and mostly empty poker room, when a deep and somber voice on the public address system intoned: “Seating is now available in the must-move Chowaha game, table two.”

I’ll be reporting sporadically from BARGE, or at least that’s my intention. My radio show, Keep Flopping Aces, which is web cast on http://www.holdemradio.com/, will air as usual Thursday evening at 6 p.m., Pacific Time, and Amy Calistri and I will chat with leading poker theorist Barry Tanenbaum about his new books. Since Barry is another regular BARGE attendee, and Hold’em Radio’s studio is located adjacent to the tournament area at Binion’s, it’s a natural.

But I’m not making any additional commitments, except to have a bang-up time. I do every year.

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