By Joe Earle

Carol Tibbles, at left, deals a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em for the players in the weekly game at Corner Pizza in Brookhaven. College student Robert Lee looks on.

They play for points and for glory.

And, of course, these card players pursue the rush of adrenaline they know accompanies a winning hand. Perhaps above all, they play to be part of the group.

“It gets to be a very social thing. It’s just an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon for those of us who love to play games,” said Debbie Levy of Sandy Springs. “And I love to play games.”

So just about every Saturday that Levy’s not working at her job as a nurse-midwife, she joins the crowd at Corner Pizza in Brookhaven for an afternoon around a card table.

Their game is poker. They play Texas Hold ‘Em, just like the folks on the TV poker shows. Corner Pizza owner Chris Hagearty even calls the weekly poker game at his restaurant a “show.” The Corner Pizza show began about two years ago, he said, and now draws 50 to 60 players each Saturday for three-or-so hours of poker

Hagearty hosts the weekly poker game as a way to draw business. A company called Full House Hold ‘Em runs the game. The company runs similar Texas Hold ‘Em games at other taverns and restaurants in Sandy Springs and around metro Atlanta. It provides the cards, chips, felt-covered poker tabletops and a person to run the game. Each player starts with chips valued at $1,000. For every beer, slice of pizza or pizza a player buys, he or she receives more chips.

Corner Pizza owner Chris Hagearty, at right, started hosting poker games to attact customers to his Brookhaven pizza restaurant. Then he got interested in playing the game himself.

“This poker thing really works out well for me,” Hagearty said. “We were looking for something to fill the void between lunch and dinner. If we didn’t have the poker, we wouldn’t do anything [in customer traffic]. Now we have 50 to 60 players.”

They play until only one competitor holds any chips. The last eight players eliminated from the weekly tournament get from 100 to 800 points that count toward qualification for an invitation-only tournament held once each quarter. The winner of that tournament qualifies to play in a game used to select players in the big game, the World Series of Poker.

After watching a few games in his restaurant, Hagearty started joining in. “It looked like a lot of fun. Over the years, I’ve played more and more,” he said. “I try to play as much as I can.”

Corner Pizza’s a good place to start, Levy said. “This is a safe place to learn poker,” she said. “The only thing you can lose here is your pride — and I’ve done that, believe me.”

As tournament director, Tony Pellegrini’s job is to keep the players supplied with chips when they buy beer and pizza, decide when to combine tables as players are eliminated by losing all their chips, and to referee any disputes that might arise. “The thing that amazes me is how seriously people take their free poker,” he said.

Players come from all walks of life, Pellegrini said as he kept a close eye on the Corner Pizza game one recent Saturday. That day, the Brookhaven tournament drew college students and retirees, blacks and whites, men and women. Some play in several games a week, moving from bar to bar or restaurant to restaurant in pursuit of card games. “I know 75 percent of the people I see [at a game],” said Pellegrini, who also runs games in Norcross, Sugar Hill and Buford.

He knows Carol Tibbles, for sure. She said she plays poker at Corner Pizza just about every Saturday she isn’t being visited by her grandchildren. The 72-year-old DeKalb County woman knows her way around a poker table. She plays poker about five times a week, she said. During that Saturday afternoon Corner Pizza tournament, she was down to a mere $300 in chips at one point, only to surge back and finish third overall..

Tibbles says she’s played poker for years in a regular Friday-night dealer’s choice game with her friends. She discovered Texas Hold ‘Em and the tournaments a couple of years ago when a friend invited her to tag along for a game.

Since then, she’s has done well. She’s accumulated more than 10,000 points, enough to qualify for the quarterly tournament, she said. Last year, she won one of those tournaments, she and others said. She had a conflict and couldn’t travel for the next tournament, though, so she took a cash prize instead. “But if I win again,” she said, “I’ll go.”

She enjoys the game. “It keeps you on your toes,” she said. “It’s very social. You meet a lot of interesting people. They’re very interesting. It’s like a family outside your family.”

Besides, several players said, with every new hand, poker offers a shot at that adrenaline buzz—either a chance for a big hand or the chance to bluff another player.

“Poker’s not a card game. It’s a storytelling game,” Pellegrini said. “Most people confuse it with a card game. You’re trying to tell a story by the chips you have and everyone else is trying to tell their stories. That’s one of the mistakes people make. They confuse it with a card game.”

What sort of stories? “You can play a 7-2, which is the worst hand in poker, like you got aces,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you have. You’re telling the story that you’ve got aces.”

Mary Craven of Sandy Springs says she plays, at least in part, for the thrill that comes with a big win.

“I’m here about every Saturday,” said Craven, a real estate investor. How long has she been playing? “Let’s just say I’ve been playing many, many, many years. Let’s say I started when women didn’t play. It was just me and the boys.

“I love it. I like the challenge. Since I’ve been playing for so many years, it’s, I guess, because of the adrenaline…. It’s great for your mind. I also like it for the social part, especially with this league.”

She paused for a moment and then grinned. “Of course,” she said, “I’m looking for the big pot, too.”