Ed. note: Ashley is working on a book of his poker travels entitled Poker in 50 States (and 26 countries). He has agreed to publish a few of his chapters here first. This is the latest installment in his ongoing series.
How do we extract the most out of our brief time here on earth? For me, it’s by making connections with other people — by sharing something with them, and letting them share something with me about their lives.
The great thing about poker, for me, is that it provides a point of contact with people from otherwise inaccessible worlds. My recent trip to and through the south-central part of the United States known as Appalachia is a case in point.
How Did I End Up Playing Poker in Appalachia?
My wife had a professional conference in the back woods of central North Carolina, near Boone, in a small town called Blowing Rock. I accompanied her there, as our travel would involve a Friday night, and we are always together on Friday night.
For many, my trip from Boston, Massachusetts where I live, to this relatively remote region of North Carolina would be an awful exercise in dutiful spouse-ness — trying to stay occupied in a distant place. But for me, it proved an opportunity to engage in the world.
I had done some research on the area before I arrived. My wife and I were going to be in Blowing Rock, North Carolina — about 20 minutes south of Boone. Boone is a college town — home to Appalachian State University (known as App State). Blowing Rock is a stretch of hilly North Carolina fields, lakes, forests, and estates — known as the summer mansion of Moses Cone, the “Denim King”, a late 19th Century industrialist.
I tried to find a poker game in either Boone or Blowing Rock — to no avail. None of my wife’s fellow conventioneers seemed even remotely interested in playing poker (at least not with me), so I scanned the area around me for other venues for my favorite hobby.
Two hours to the west of Boone is the large Cherokee reservation, home to Harrah’s Cherokee — a full-service casino that houses a beautiful 32-table poker room. Four-and-a-half hours to the northwest, and a couple of hours north of the Cherokee room, is a private poker club in London, Kentucky. This eight-table room hosts a couple of tables of $1/3 every night (sometimes more on the weekends).
Asheville is 90 minutes west of Blowing Rock. Raleigh is three hours to the east. I went on Facebook and found a few poker interest groups. I signed up as a member and posted my interest in a game. I got a few replies.
I did my research and came up with a plan for poker. I would play poker at Harrah’s Cherokee. I would then head up to London, Kentucky for the quasi-legal public poker club. And I would end my stay by playing a night in Raleigh, at a private game, almost surely illegal, but magnanimous enough to overcome their suspicion of outsiders – and to invite me, a stranger, to join them.
Here’s the story of my experience playing poker in Appalachia.
HARRAH’S CHEROKEE: Cherokee, North Carolina
This is a great room, appearing even greater because of the hour-long drive up to it. The road in from the east snakes through the mountains, with severe switchbacks, steep declines, hairpin turns, the rural scenic beauty of a mountainous forest. Anyone with a little sports car would come just for the driving adventure. As it was, I was driving my 2017 Toyota Corolla, with 155,000 miles. But I was hustling to make it by 10:00 AM when the room opened. So the serpentine ride was especially exciting even for me.
Unfortunately, though I arrived a few minutes before 10:00 AM, I didn’t get an immediate seat in the game. I could only muster being first on the waiting list for a $1/3 game, as a table full of regulars showed up in the room before they opened and locked up seats for themselves. I was first on the list for $2/5. I went to the nearby Starbucks, had a cup of coffee and some breakfast while waiting for them to call me to a game.
By 10:30 they had a second table of $1/3 and a new table of $2/5. I sat in the $2/5 game, realizing that with the much larger pots in $2/5 than $1/3, the $7 + $2 rake would not have such a draining effect on my bottom line.
The game was filled with regulars. They were relatively predictable and very friendly and welcoming to me. I don’t think any of them made a full-time living at the game, though a few showed a nice bit of aggression. I enjoyed my two hours. Good conversation; no memorable hands, but I managed to leave a small winner — up about $200 or so for my efforts.
The room has a great promotion going in October. Players earn $500 for 100 hours of play. This promotion ends at the end of the month, to be replaced by an even better one. Players with 100 hours of play in November will earn a free $1,700 seat in a WSOP Circuit event. In addition, I think players also earn another $1 an hour in comps.
I was not there long enough to sample the food places — except for a breakfast sandwich and a latte at Starbucks. Breakfast was, like the players at the $2/5 game, predictable and fairly good but not great.
I spoke to the friendly floor people who informed me that they have four (count ’em, FOUR!) WSOP Circuit events each year. They encouraged me to return then. I just may!
Poker Atlas is a great app that every traveling poker player should have. They list nearly all public poker rooms operating in the US and Canada — and many in foreign countries as well (though their information for those countries tends not to be nearly as accurate as it is for the US and Canadian rooms).
Rooms in the US aren’t listed by state, however, but according to self-described regions. I couldn’t find a listing of rooms in the state of Kentucky, West Virginia, or North Carolina. but rather for “Appalachia”, which lists a room in London, Kentucky, a room in Nitro, West Virginia, and a room in Cherokee, North Carolina. To find a room in Louisville, Kentucky, I’d need to check the list for “Cincinnati”, which also lists rooms from parts of Ohio and a room from Indiana. To find other rooms in Ohio, I’d have to check the listing for Detroit & Toledo. A bit confusing, right?
Nevertheless, the listings make sense for travelers and it’s more thorough than anything else out there. I wanted to know the rooms closest to me, regardless of what state they were in. And Poker Atlas showed me that immediately, including the number of tables, the hours of operation, and the games offered – with their respective rake and player compensation.
The app provides another function for many of the rooms. It allows people to view games “in real time”, and get your name on a waiting list. Not all rooms have this service through Poker Atlas. Some use Bravo, another great app. And some rooms don’t have this feature with anyone. But between Poker Atlas and Bravo, a player has a great way of finding out what games are going, and then signing up for them.
ROYAL SOCIAL CLUB, London, Kentucky
Using Poker Atlas, I found a poker room in London, Kentucky. It’s important to note that Kentucky is in the bible belt. Like many states in that part of the US, running a gambling establishment is generally considered illegal. Even so, a few rooms have sprung up in Kentucky in the last couple of years. They attempt to get around the law by not taking a rake, but by charging a membership fee, that is paid as an hourly charge for playing – like renting a pool table at a pool hall. It’s also how they spread poker in Texas – where over 60 public poker rooms have been established in the last couple of years. But even with this apparent loophole, some Kentucky rooms have had their poker games closed down by local constabulary. Most notably, this included the Moneymaker Social Club in Paducah, Kentucky opened by World Series of Poker Main Event winner Chris Moneymaker. Others, like this one in London, have been allowed to stay open. The Royal Social Club even has the seal of approval from the local Chamber of Commerce.
I found this to be a great small room. Six or so tables, a friendly, neighborhood feel to it, and welcoming players – who made me feel right at home in the $1/3 game I played in for five hours. I paid $12 an hour to play. You get a slight discount if you buy four hours at a time. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to play, so I just kept buying time each hour.
The food deserves a special mention. They have their own kitchen. I met their cook. She produces sandwiches, chili, pizza and other bar food. But I would have none of it – as I was trying to lose some weight by only eating healthfully during my trip. So I ordered the one thing on the menu that appeared healthy: a salad. It came highly recommended. The salad consisted of a bowl of fried chicken, pork, and bacon, buried in melted cheese, on a bed of lettuce! Now that’s a salad! Probably not the healthiest thing I could have ordered – but, my, my, it surely was most tasty.
I washed it down gratis with diet cola from their soda and coffee bar. I ended up eating one of their free hot dogs as well. So much for my diet!
The room is extremely well run, with players seated quickly and efficiently. No alcohol is served by the house. Players who want to drink bring their own bottle.
The House: Raleigh, North Carolina
Outside of tribal land, gambling is illegal in North Carolina. Unlike Kentucky, there are no apparent loopholes that allow establishments that charge time instead of raking the game. Even so, there is a lot of poker throughout the state. It’s just kept on the down low, in private games that keep a relatively low profile. You need to know someone who gets you a personal invitation.
The last time I was in the state, the best I could do was find a tiny $.05/.10/.25 game run by a couple of octogenarians at the Knights of Columbus in Murray, Kentucky. I enjoyed the dealer’s choice game immensely, but I wondered at the time how I could access a bigger game upon my return.
This time, I turned to social media. I went on Facebook, and searched for “Poker in North Carolina”, “Poker in Asheville”, “Poker in Greensboro”, and “Poker in Raleigh”. I found a few Facebook groups, and posted my request for an invitation on each of them. One of them, “Poker in Raleigh” responded, asking me some questions about myself. I guess I was checked out and passed muster, because the following morning I received the address to a private Raleigh poker game.
I was asked if I’d be playing in the tournament or the cash game. I asked about the rake. The tournament was raked at 12% of the buy-in. The cash game was 10% up to $13. I elected for the tournament.
I showed up at the designated time to the address I was given. It was a large apartment in a garden apartment complex. There was plenty of parking. A few people were walking toward the game when I drove up. I followed them in. The place was crowded with people – easily 40 folks were there 15 minutes before the start of the tournament I had been invited to join. There were two cash games going as well. I noticed four rooms with poker tables and a very busy kitchen. Food was provided.
They got three tables for the tournament. It was very professionally organized, with a couple of large display screens listing all of the relevant tournament information – just like in a casino poker room tournament. The chips and cards were first-rate. The chairs were extremely comfortable. The tables were professional quality as were the dealers. In all respects, this private game played like any of a few hundred tournaments I’ve played in public poker rooms around the world.
There were 40 buy-ins from 28 starting players. Four players were paid. There were a few students from North Carolina State, and a bunch of middle-aged regulars. The players were generally experienced. As is often the case, there was a mix of skill levels – with one or two seemingly quite good. There were no players I saw who seemed new to poker or clueless – though some were not very good at all. I finished just barely in the money, in fourth place. The tournament lasted six hours – 90 minutes longer than predicted by the game operator.
It was a highly entertaining evening. I’d gladly return and play in another tournament.
The food was also excellent, with a chicken stew, beans, and dirty rice. The chef was already preparing a lasagna for the next game in two days. There were also tons of small-bagged savory and sweet snacks – candy, chips and the like, and a wide variety of beers, sodas, and flavored water and seltzer.
I was told that there were many games like this one all over the state, including a few right in the Greater Raleigh area. There were regular PLO games as well. Had I been from the area, I’m sure I would have been able to tap into a game every night of the week. As it was, this place alone had multiple games going weekly.
My experience here demonstrated to me that in spite of any law, people will figure out how to play poker one way or another. I rather liked this underground North Carolina poker scene. I’ll gladly come back to this great room if I’m ever in or near Raleigh, NC in the future.
The area known as “Appalachia” is generally thought of as an impoverished rural part of the United States. That’s no longer a valid way of describing the area – as it has undergone a renaissance in the last 30 years – with prosperous cities, college towns, and rural resorts. It is an area of unparalleled physical beauty, with lush green mountains, beautiful rivers and waterfalls, rustic lodges, and hundreds of miles of gorgeous hiking trails and scenic drives. Appalachia is also a region with a lot of poker, in many different settings. There’s Harrah’s Cherokee in Western North Carolina: a large major casino poker room; a legal poker social club in London, Kentucky; and a whole bunch of underground poker rooms in central and eastern North Carolina.
I don’t think I would go to Appalachia just to play poker. There are better parts of the world for that. But any poker player traveling to or through Appalachia will surely enjoy pursuing their passion while they are there. The people are friendly and welcoming; and the poker is great!