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Kelly Tesoro walks into West Sedona?s Relics and leans against the bar, alone. Although in a few minutes she?ll become the life of the party, she takes a brief moment to put on her game face — her poker face.

By Nate Hansen
Larson Newspapers

Kelly Tesoro walks into West Sedona?s Relics and leans against the bar, alone. Although in a few minutes she?ll become the life of the party, she takes a brief moment to put on her game face — her poker face.

Every Tuesday night, Verde River Hold?em comes to Sedona to offer up free poker fun and practice.

The quickly growing trend throughout the nation recently reached the Verde Valley seven months ago when Robert Ruppel took over Verde Valley Hold?em Free Poker.

Now it?s in red rock country.

Tesoro smiles and walks up to four gentlemen waiting to sign up for the evening?s game.

?You guys playing poker tonight?? she inquires.

The men nod their heads.

?Me too,? she says grinning.

The five players dart their eyes back and forth between one another. So, the game begins.

Ruppel, donning a long white beard, saunters into the bar from a back room of Relics.

He scans the room through a pair of squinting eyes, searching for poker players no differently than the players will soon seek out bets and bluffs.

?Let?s go, poker players,? Ruppel booms.

After people pick up their assorted chips and walk to their assigned tables, they select a card from a random deck to decide seating.

Tesoro pulls a nine and seats herself next to one of the quiet gentlemen she introduced herself to earlier, Greg Nix.

As two tables organize themselves, Ruppel reminds the 15 players this is free poker. Instead of money, people play for points.

Like the popular games Ruppel oversees at Cottonwood?s Franco?s and Clarkdale?s 10/12 Lounge, there are plans to sponsor top players in tournaments at Cliff Castle Casino, as well as casinos in and around Las Vegas.

Until then, he explains to people, poker is a learning process and game of patience. Some of the people in attendance may be terrific players, others are only beginning.

?I can almost guarantee you?ll know how to play when you leave tonight,? Ruppel says, giving a wink to an amateur.

After Tesoro wins a couple hands, she reminds Nix that her father once owned a casino outside of Long Beach, Calif. She hints she learned a few things during those days.

The next hand, Nix tries to bluff his way to the pot.

Cards are shown and he loses.

?That?s a straight,? she says, pointing to the winning hand.

?That?s jack [expletive],? she laughs, pointing at his.

Isolde Dryer sits across the table from Tesoro, smiling.

She doesn?t talk the game like Tesoro does, but instead carries a ?lucky poker stone.?

Evidently it works. Dryer makes it into the finals.

Ruppel sits down as the dealer for the final few games of the night while people who lost their chips scurry over to the ?mulligan table? to play hands. The play won?t earn them points but can win them extra chips for the next week?s play.

Seated at the finals table is Donnie and Sheri Lynn Denton, Karen Rosner, Angela Sneed, Michael Sohaski, Dryer, Tesoro and Tesoro?s nemesis, Nix.

Nix improved dramatically, to Tesoro?s dismay.

At the mulligan table is Trudy Riggs, Tyler Midkiff, George Gray, Christopher Fox Graham and Sam Sneed.

Tesoro continues to joke with players. She taunts friend Donnie Denton who happens to work for an opposite timeshare company as herself.

?I?m going to kick his [expletive],? she says.

Sam Sneed looks over to his wife, Angela.

They?re a couple from Tennessee on their honeymoon who found the game through their hotel concierge.

Not unlike Dryer?s lucky stone, Sneed hopes his wedding ring will act as good fortune.

?She?s a much better poker player than I am,? he admits.

He?s correct. Sneed loses at the mulligan table.

Ruppel loves the action. In the few weeks since he began the game in Sedona, it?s picked up to be one of the most popular evenings at the restaurant and bar.

He hopes it will be a big night for all of Sedona.

Eventually, players dwindle down to their last chips and leave. The ones remaining face bigger blinds, or antes, and bigger bets.

Tesoro stands up after finishing sixth. Slightly disappointed in her evening?s play, she bids farewell, but not before ruffling the feathers of Nix.

?See you guys next week,? she says.

Two players remain and one is Sneed?s wife.

He hollers to the table urging her to win but remembers he?s from across the nation and on his honeymoon. He can?t do anything with the points.

?Win, lose or draw, honey, we?ve got to consummate this marriage,? he yells anxiously.

Ruppel?s played poker most of his life but is now in a position to give back.

Even though the games are free, each location kicks back a commission on food and drink purchases to pay him for his services.

Considering the entertainment provided and no risk to play, it?s worth the gamble to pay Relics a visit and play a hand.

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