National Deaf Poker Tour makes its first stop

"Playing poker is like a rush. Your heart rate increases, the blood is flowing in your veins as if you are playing in a championship tennis match, or a final round of a golf tournament because it takes patience, strategy, and confidence to carry through and defeat your opponent for that elusive trophy, to be the best."

Anyone who plays poker would agree with Luke Faxon-St. Georges. However, without him writing this statement down, only a select few would understand what he was trying to say.

Faxon-St. Georges loves the game of poker, but he is held back by one thing at the table: he is deaf.

But on Saturday at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., Faxon-St. Georges and around 200 other deaf players will get their chance to prove they can play the game, using only sign language to communicate.

This will be the first stop of the National Deaf Poker Tour, an innovative event that is specifically for deaf and hard of hearing players whose main mode of communication is sign language.

Tom Gitto, the Taj's poker room manager, was excited about hosting the inaugural event.

"It will be interesting and a learning experience the first time," Gitto said. "It's the first one ever and it's unbelievable the response they are getting."

Among the many logistics involved, Gitto said his staff is trying to come up with ways to communicate with the players. In addition to hiring an interpreter, other creative ideas have been developed to solve the problem.

"We're going through different ideas of what we can do to make things work for [the tournament]," he said. "Different members of the staff are coming up with ideas such as having signs made up and having a pen and paper at each table so that they can communicate with [the tournament staff]."

Either way, Gitto is positive this tournament will be a success.

"The organizers have been great people to work with," he said. "There are over 200 players already registered and we have no idea how many will walk up. We're very excited about it."

According to its Web site, the National Deaf Poker Tour was established in 2006 "by six deaf guys who wanted to bring the top deaf poker players on the East Coast together." The six, Nathan Montoya, Jarrod Musano, Andy Foster, Alok Doshi, Joey Seifner IV and James Rydstrom, went to school together at the Rochester Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1996, the group spread out across the country and looked for opportunities to get together.

Although trips to Vegas and playing in the National Deaf Flag Football Championship were both appealing to them, the group's passion for poker brought these players back together for this venture. In December, Montoya proposed the idea and the group signed on to bring the deaf community this tremendous opportunity.

In just over seven weeks, that opportunity has now materialized. Just two days prior to the start of the tournament, there are 178 entries in the $100 event, for a prize pool over $14,000. The low entry fee (in comparison to other national tournaments) and 100 percent payout (after the casino recoups its costs) has proven that the group will do everything it can to run a popular and successful event.

"Sure, we have all played at a local table at casinos or at small tournaments," Musano said. "I can say that we have yet to play at the big events yet, such as WSOP. This deaf tournament will be a good springboard for some of the serious deaf poker players. It gives them an opportunity to practice in a large setting and better understand the poker odds.

"Another reason we are doing this is to enable more feedback about poker among those who are into the craft. It is hard to do so when we are in the local tournaments and we do not know anyone at the tables. By hosting a deaf tournament, we have the ability to develop our skills by discussing our game afterwards."

This is just the start. The tour plans to make a stop in Las Vegas immediately before the World Series of Poker main event. Holding events around the country will allow for additional growth and awareness, something the group continues to focus on.

Musano's description of the tour's vision was clear: They are looking for the best deaf poker player in the country.

"We plan to host a series format where winners of each tournament accumulate points and the winner at the end of the year will be crowned as the ultimate Deaf Poker Champion," he said.

Although currently limited to home games and online poker, the deaf community is ready to expand its reach and awareness by hopefully obtaining support from a professional player or sponsor.

"We would love to have support/feedback/opinions from professional players because it would benefit our tour," Faxon-St. Georges said. "If we could ever have a pro poker player show up as a celebrity appearance to support our tour, that would be fantastic. We are always going to be looking for sponsors, supporters everywhere we go because poker is a growing sport that you can play for the rest of your life, unlike other sports."

Musano also notes that deaf players may have a slight advantage at the table, because they avoid all the table talk.

"We do miss out on the conversation that occurs but we make it up by being more observant," he said. "Keep in mind, those who yak are often not paying attention.

"Deaf people nationwide are becoming more integrated in the 'hearing' community. We are starting to get involved into activities and events that have not been previously accessible to us. We have seen deaf actors, athletes, businessmen and … why not poker players?"

For more information on the National Deaf Poker Tour, email info@nationaldeafpokertour.com or visit its Web site at http://www.nationaldeafpokertour.com/index.html.

Andrew Feldman is the ESPN Poker Club's columnist, editor, producer and tournament director. To contact Andrew, e-mail andrew.j.feldman@espn3.com.