For players who can't make it to the major centers of poker in the United States, there are few options. You can play with friends in home games but, after some time, those can become predictable - you get too familiar with your opponents' playing styles.
One avenue that many are embracing, not only in the United States but around the world, is the multitude of free bar poker leagues that have sprung up.
The bar poker leagues have much in common with one another. They generally have some sort of points system to crown a champion of the particular circuit they're a part of, they operate consistently, sometimes seven days a week, and they are free for players to participate in (skirting the nasty issues of legality in most locales).
Biggest Bar Poker Leagues in the USA
A look at some of the bigger players in the game show how popular these bar leagues have become.
One of the largest bar poker leagues out there is the World Tavern Poker Tour. Created in 2003, the WTPT boasts an active player roster that numbers around 100,000 players spread across much of the East Coast of the United States, with smaller branches in Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado and Canada. The players play three-month seasonal (fall, winter, spring, summer) schedules and crown champions during those seasons.
The seasonal champions advance to regional championships and those titleholders go on to compete in events in actual casinos, ranging from Atlantic City to Las Vegas.
The Amateur Poker League is also at the forefront of the bar poker movement. Born in 2004, the APL has around 68,000 players in its leagues, stretching across the United States. The APL recently scored a coup in finalizing a partnership with the World Poker Tour.
Back in September, the two organizations signed a five-year agreement which officially changed the name of the organization to WPTAPL (World Poker Tour Amateur Poker League) and introduced the opportunity for APL championship winners to earn their way into WPT events.
Individual states, including Colorado, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, also have their own bar league state championships.
The common thread is that bar leagues are free and open to anyone who wants to sign up and play. However, this means the veteran player can sometimes run into trouble when they step up into the bar league poker venue of their choice.
First of all, the bar poker leagues will sometimes play two games in a given evening. They normally will set out the tournament to be finished in a three-hour time block, with multiple levels and blinds that will eat into your stack quickly. Skillful players sometimes find the adjustment to such a system difficult, and might end up not playing a hand for several levels.
Another issue is that the bar poker leagues run the gamut in terms of players' experience levels. It is entirely possible to enter one of these events and have two or three people at your table who have never even picked up a poker chip before.
This is something that veteran players have to deal with: explaining the blinds and dealing rules, waking a player up when it is their turn, even sometimes reading the hands when a showdown occurs.
Finally, the tournaments are not run in strict accordance with the accepted rules of the Tournament Directors' Association. String bets, unannounced raises, playing out of turn and inaccurate rulings of exposed cards are commonplace.
A TD at one of these tournaments actually said to me once, "Well, we don't play like they play in Vegas. We play for fun."
Despite the downsides of bar league poker, remember that if you play in them. Most of the people are there just to have a bit of fun, but the experience you gain by playing in these events can go a long way to improve your own play.
You will see one of the cardinal rules of poker - not drinking while playing - broken frequently in the bar leagues. It is interesting to watch a player who, in the first game, is a successful TAG player, get a few more drinks under her belt and morph into a LAG maniac by the time the second game starts. You're constantly reminded of the rationale behind the rule.
Because these are freeroll-based games, you will see people playing outrageous hands. I have often asked players if they would play that same less-than-quality hand if money was on the line and they said yes (which makes me secretly wish for them to be at my money table when they do!). But this is an excellent test of your reading skills of an opponent, something that you can translate later into strategy in a money tournament.
With the structures the way they are set, it can also lead to some experimental play on your part that you might not be using with cash on the line. Especially if you are familiar with your opponents and their styles (not completely unlikely - some of these tournaments can have as few as 30 entrants, although some have up to 80), the experimentation can be useful as a tool to change up your game and give you experience playing post-flop.
Apart from such material benefits, the bar poker leagues do offer an opportunity to get out and enjoy the game of poker with like-minded people. While the quality of the games might be worse than you might see online, the chance to play live poker is what drives most players to these leagues.
Whether you're a veteran player or a newcomer, you can learn a lot at these tables and put it to good use in another game down the road.