A White Ram is coming out of the closet next weekend in Dawson City holding a $100,000 jackpot.
The underground Texas Hold’em poker tournament that has been drawing international gamblers and even some Dawson RCMP officers to its tables for 20 years is set to become fully legal at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s casino on September 8th and 9th.
“Last year the pot was $72,000, and it was starting to get too big — too big to be doing something that you’re not making any money from,” said John Hendley, the tournament’s founder and Dawson’s unofficial poker god, on Sunday.
“I said to Gerties, ‘It’s time for you guys to hold the tournament here.’”
Close to 90 players participated in last year’s White Ram tournament, he said.
Hendley has tried to keep the White Ram poker tournament “under the radar” since he started it in 1985.
But it has existed in a quasi-legal state and was well known by Dawson authorities, he added.
“It wasn’t an illegal tournament, it just wasn’t sanctioned. The part that’s illegal in a tournament is charging money to play,” he said.
“The very first year, the gaming commission came to me and said, ‘We can tell you not to do this, but we know you’ll set it up elsewhere, so here’s the criteria we’d like you to follow,’” said Hendley.
Those rules — not to charge money, not to skim the pot and not to allow the tournament to get too big — have been followed, he said.
“That’s basically why they left us alone for 20 years.”
Some sources have confirmed that members of the RCMP have played in the White Ram.
However, no one currently posted at the Dawson City RCMP detachment has participated, said Sgt. Dan Gaudet, in an interview Thursday.
The Klondike Visitors Association, which owns Gertie’s, is taking over the White Ram because it meshes with the organization’s mandate, said Valerie Anderson, the group’s executive director.
“We have the facility to do it, we have the capability to train staff, we have the infrastructure between our bank operation and our surveillance operation, and the expertise of our staff,” Anderson said on Wednesday.
Running the White Ram at Gertie’s “seemed a natural fit,” she said.
The tournament will cost $125 to buy into on Saturday, and $225 on Sunday, though re-buys are also allowed.
With about 100 players expected from across Canada and some US states, the potential value of the pot at the end of the tournament is massive.
The pot “depends on the number of participants,” Anderson said, but could total about $100,000 for the entire weekend.
The association is hoping the fully sanctioned White Ram will attract new visitors to Dawson.
And it is hoping a successful tournament will bleed off action from the myriad underground tournaments that still exist there.
“There are a number of other ‘illegal’ tournaments in Dawson,” Anderson said. “But some of the more illegal ones just use the local player base.”
Though Gertie’s currently has licences to hold small poker tournaments, the number of players and the size of the pot in the White Ram necessitated a new licence from the Yukon government.
The association has been working to secure the licence for a long time, said Anderson.
“This is the first of its kind, when it comes to the scope of the tournament, so we’ve been working with our licensing bodies to put together some regulations — because they’re setting precedent,” she said.
All the association’s profits from the White Ram will be re-invested into facilities and marketing, Anderson said.
The group is “definitely” hoping the tournament will be held annually, but that depends on the fall election and the wishes of the new government, she said.
One person happy to see the White Ram being held at Gertie’s and not underground is Klondike MLA, Peter Jenkins.
“It was getting quite large and questionable as to its legality,” said Jenkins on Tuesday.
“I think the law people were looking at it quite seriously. That’s why the venue is being changed,” he said.
“It’s a big pot, it’s a lot of money, and it’s questionable as to how it was done in the past.”
The White Ram and other underground tournaments — mixed with Dawson’s gold rush flavour — have created something of a legend in the burgeoning world of Texas Hold’em poker.
Players have moved to the town to get in on the action: Dawson, it seems, is an underground poker mecca.
One player who heeded Dawson’s call is 67-year-old Red Roberts.
Roberts has played in the White Ram since the beginning, has won it for the past five years running, and has played poker for 47 years, he said.
When he first visited Dawson 21-years ago, he won $5,000 in a week.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to come back up here,’” Roberts recalled.
He now works a gold claim on Hunker Creek, plays poker four times a week and spends his winters dealing Texas Hold’em on cruise ships.
The White Ram “was one of the things that attracted me to this town,” said Roberts.
“This place is just absolutely heaven to me.”
Like Roberts, Hendley — who describes himself as a “Texas Hold ‘em boy” and who claims to have made more than $200,000 playing poker — will be at the White Ram tournament at Gertie’s.
It would be odd to expect anything else.
“I moved to Dawson because of poker. I decided I was going to be one of those regular guys you see at the tables,” he said.
“Last night I made $640 (playing poker) then did backhoe work in the evening.
“This is the greatest game in the world,” he said.