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Poker night is popular at area bars

A table of poker players plays a hand during a poker game at BJ's Barbecue Shack Tuesday night in Detroit Lakes. Brian Basham/DL NEWSPAPERS

Looking for a fun way to fill your Tuesday nights during the long, cold winter months?

Every Tuesday from October through March, BJ’s Barbecue Shack in Detroit Lakes is hosting a full evening of Texas Hold ’Em Poker — and the price to participate can fit into even the tightest budget, because there is none.

That’s right, the weekly games at BJ’s Barbecue are all free — but that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high.

The local eatery is one of a growing number of bars and restaurants across Minnesota — and in 15 other states across the country — that take part in the Free Poker Network (FPN).

A handful of qualifiers each month earn the opportunity to advance to a regional championship, held once every three months. At the regionals, they can earn a spot in the state finals and ultimately, a trip to the national FPN tournament in Las Vegas, with the grand prize in that tournament being the “Ultimate Poker Fantasy” — a $10,000 seat in the 2014 World Series of Poker, where the winners can, and usually do, take home millions.

“The first regional tournament will be held in January,” says Chris Engberg, manager at BJ’s, who helped establish the weekly poker night tradition at BJ’s last year.

“You can qualify for the regional tournament in October, November or December,” he added. “The more times you qualify, the more chips you can get to play with at the regionals.”

Qualifiers are determined via a points system — the more times you play, the more points you can earn, and the better your chances of qualifying, Engberg added.

You can even play in more than one league: Other FPN participants in the area include Billy’s Bar in Vergas; Silver Moon Lounge in Perham; Z103 Bar & Grill and Mabel Murphy’s in Fergus Falls; Spot-light Bar in Hawley; JC Chumley’s and Courtney’s Comedy Club in Moorhead; Wadena Elks Lodge (new this season); Hitterdal Municipal Liquor Store and more. A complete list of participating establishments is available at the FPN website,

“You can qualify at different places, but you can only qualify once per month,” Engberg noted. What that means is that a person could qualify one month at BJ’s, then the next month at Billy’s, and then another month in Perham.

For those who don’t qualify during one of the live games, there is also a “second chance tournament” available online at the FPN website,, Engberg said.

A special incentive for BJ’s players, he added, is that the first-place winner each week earns a full rack of ribs, while the second place winner gets a half rack of ribs, and he also throws a few free drink chips into the pot each night.

Another incentive for players is that if they show up at least 15 minutes before the official start time of 7:30 p.m., “They get an extra $500 in chips,” Engberg said.

“It draws some attention to us, and it brings in a different crowd than we might see otherwise,”

“It’s not a huge moneymaker for us, but it does bring bodies in the building,” says BJ’s Barbecue owner Brent Blake, noting that the number of players each week can range from about 18 to 30 or more.

“The number grows as the season changes,” he said, and “they always enjoy the food and drinks (which are not free, but quite tasty) — I think it’s a win-win for everyone.”

This Tuesday night’s crowd may have been on the small side, with 18 players on hand, but it was a fairly diverse group, ranging from young players in their 20s to those who had been playing for decades.

“I’ve played poker for about 60 years now,” says Bud Maahs, Detroit Lakes, who has been a participant in the Free Poker Network since its inception in 2006.

“I also play at Billy’s,” he said — and it was at the Vergas bar where he qualified for the spring FPN regionals in New York Mills, where he then advanced to the 2013 FPN State Final, held this past Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.

A total of 227 players took part in the state final, which made for a long afternoon and evening.

“It was pretty grueling,” Maahs said. “We started at 12 noon on Saturday, and we didn’t finish until after 10:30 p.m.”

But the long hours at the poker table paid off for Maahs, who was one of 21 players that earned a trip to the FPN Nationals, to be held in Las Vegas on Nov. 15.

“I’ll be there next week,” he said, adding that he had qualified for a Las Vegas tournament once before, as part of a tavern league back in 2006.

“That one was played at Binion’s in downtown Las Vegas,” he said. “This time we’ll be at the Stratosphere.”

Not all the participants in Tuesday’s game were quite as experienced as Maahs, however.

Lake Park resident Vanessa Fairchild admits that while she plays at more than one venue, she mainly participates just for the fun of it.

“I started playing (in a league) in Willmar about three years ago, when I turned 18,” she said. “But cards have always been in my family. My dad started teaching me poker when I was about 13 or 14, playing at home with my family.

“I do it for fun and entertainment, and I’ve met a lot of people through playing,” she said, adding that in addition to BJ’s Barbecue, she also plays regularly at the Audubon Liquor Store. “I just enjoy playing.”

For more information about the Free Poker Network, visit; to learn more about the weekly games at BJ’s Barbecue Shack, call 218-847-7427.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454