It's a common sentiment heard from participants in the event, now in its seventh year. Friday and Saturday mark the third stop for this year's tour, at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City. (At press time, it had not been determined whether the tournament would be canceled because of Hurricane Sandy damage.) It's held here in March as well, and in July in Las Vegas.
"Poker is a quiet blessing," said Hollie Fallstone, 38, a human resources coordinator from Maryland and mother of two.
Playing cards was a big part of her childhood. Her parents, who are hearing, used cards as a way to interact and bond with Fallstone and her two sisters, one of whom is also deaf. It also reinforced critical and analytical thinking and strategic skills that she uses today in her business and personal life. But she didn't start playing poker until 2007 - only weeks before she played on the Deaf Poker Tour. Now the game releases stress and stokes friendships, she said.
As deaf students and fraternity brothers at Rochester Institute of Technology, the six tournament founders - Jarrod Musano, Nathan Montoya, James Rydstrom, Joey Seifner, Alok Doshi, and Andy Foster - shared a love for playing cards, namely poker. (Deaf players will agree they may have a poker-playing edge because their lack of hearing enhances their other senses, like the ability to read the nuances of body language.) After college, they scattered across the country but would meet regularly in Las Vegas to play. It was there, in 2006, 10 years after graduation, where they cooked up the idea for the first amateur event.
The plan was to create a tour that would allow deaf poker players from all over the country to relax and hold conversations without worrying about being understood. The only prerequisite for play would be knowledge of American Sign Language.
The road to making it a reality began with a phone call to the Taj Mahal.
"When Jarrod Musano reached out to me with the idea of having the hotel host a deaf poker players' tournament," said Tom Gitto, veteran manager of the Taj's 54-table poker room, "I was skeptical." It had never been done, he said. But after meeting with Musano, and realizing he had "an outstanding idea," Gitto was all in.
That first year, there were 228 entries. Now more than 150 hotel rooms have been booked to accommodate the players who have made more than 500 entries into the five tournament events of Texas Hold'em, hotel officials said. There's also one ladies-only event, hosted by Fallstone at 6 p.m. Friday. A portion of the proceeds from that game will go to DeafHope, a nonprofit organization benefiting abused deaf women and children.
In Texas Hold'em, up to 10 players at a table are each dealt two cards face-down, with five shared cards shown in the center of the table. They have to make the best five-card hand after multiple rounds of betting. The dealers aren't deaf, so an interpreter is always on hand to help with communication.
Founder Montoya, 40, a teacher of the deaf in California, said the event feels like a family reunion. "The deaf community is small," he said, "and this is a great opportunity for them to socialize, play, and talk about poker in their own language."
There's money to win as well: Average prizes in the main event can range from $8,000 to $14,000.
Anne Oyler, an audiologist with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Md., is not surprised that poker is popular in the deaf community. "It is a visual game that is fun and exciting, and a great excuse to get together with people who are on the same page," she said. "People who are deaf or hard of hearing, like anyone else, like to socialize with each other."
That's clear to poker dealer Darnell Hood. He has been dealing at the Taj Mahal since the poker room opened its doors nearly 20 years ago, and the Atlantic City native says he feels honored to be a part of the action.
"There is so much energy in their body language, so much joy when someone wins a big pot, so many high-fives, and so many smiles that I feel good," Hood said. "They come as friends and leave as friends. And that's beautiful."
For more information about the National Deaf Poker Tour, go to www.nationaldeafpokertour.com. Registration will be open two hours prior to the events.
Contact Barbara Evans Sorid at email@example.com.