Two baize-topped tables have been set up in a Causeway Bay hotel for the Saturday night regulars of the Hong Kong Poker Group. At one table, stony-faced players assess their new hands in a silence that's broken only by an occasional wisecrack. The other table is increasingly noisy as excited players toss in HK$10, HK$20 and then HK$100 chips. Soon the pot amounts to a week's salary and the night has only just begun. The gamblers are playing Texas Hold'em, the most popular variation of poker in North American casinos, which has also developed a loyal following in Hong Kong. According to the portal Meetup.com, it has grown from one online group linking 100 local enthusiasts a year ago to 400 players gathered under four groups. Texas Hold'em is also played on poker nights at clubs such as Philia, Cixi and Drop. At a tournament at M1nt, players are bidding for the top prize of a seat at this year's Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) in Australia, with a return airline ticket and hotel accommodation, worth US$6,000. Players attribute the popularity of poker to online gaming and tournaments such as the APPT and the televised World Series of Poker that have made wealthy stars of the best players since 2003. The portal PokerSchool.com.hk also provides information about local and international tournaments and teaches people how to play the game. 'You have tournaments with massive payouts and fame for the players,' says Kenneth Leung Yuen-kiong, founder of the Hong Kong Poker Group, whose 160 members pay up to HK$2,000 for a seat at games. 'Asians love to gamble, so everyone wants a piece of the action.' Poker playing exists in a legal grey area in Hong Kong, and this has checked the expansion of organised games. Although gaming is generally outlawed under the Gambling Ordinance, games can be legal if played on private premises and are not run as a business or for the gain of any person beyond his or her winnings as a player. Even so, poker playing has kept growing, says 'Mike', a founder of the Hong Kong Rounders group. Ten years ago there were 'literally three or four people who had signed up for the only poker group listed for Hong Kong', says the American who prefers not to give his full name. Through word of mouth and a small online presence, the group has developed a network of nearly 100 members who are involved in 'home games', mostly held in public mahjong parlours, at HK$1,000 per seat and with minimum bets of HK$10 and HK$20. But the local poker community could improve its organisation, Mike says. 'It's kind of scrappy in the sense that you've got several games here and there, when there's huge potential for a successful consolidation of all the games in Hong Kong,' he says. Ricky Cheung Wai-ki is trying to change that. He organised M1nt's poker tournaments and has run similar events at Veto (formerly Club Mod) and Club Cixi. Last year he founded the Hong Kong Game Club, now renamed the Hong Kong Poker League. 'Playing online is limited compared with playing at a real table,' says Cheung, who learned to play Texas Hold'em in 10-hour online sessions while he was a university student in England. 'At a real table you meet people and can make friends,' he says. Leung says Texas Hold'em has caught on because it offers a more communal style of poker and perhaps more acting skill than other variations. 'You're playing the other players, not the cards,' says Leung, who placed second at an APPT event in Manila last year. 'It's about 90 per cent skill and 10 per cent luck.' Corporate sponsors have been eager to make poker nights even more social, Cheung says. He found his first major sponsor outside another venue as he was handing out publicity leaflets for his Club Mod event. 'This guy took a flier and asked if I was organising the game inside,' Cheung says. 'I said I wasn't and he said 'Great. I need you'.' The man turned out to be the distributor for Patron, the Las Vegas-based spirits company. Within weeks, Cheung and his partner, PokerSchool.com.hk, set up the free-entry, no-cash tournament at M1nt. Cheung organised a poker tournament at another local club last year, but it was cancelled after police confiscated security camera videotapes following a separate incident. The weekly events were legal, but the club management stopped his tournament because they were applying for the renewal of the venue's liquor licence and 'didn't want to invite trouble', Cheung says. The sticking point in playing poker at clubs and parlours often involves fees. The Gambling Ordinance says if a fee is charged for admission, the game is illegal. But local venues skirt this by charging for something other than admission. Mike Rickman points to two bowls of nuts on a table at The Best Club in Causeway Bay, where his Geo Hold'Em group plays. 'We have to eat those nuts; we have no choice,' says the American chef. The club charges HK$828 for mandatory nuts and other dishes, tea and filtered water, plus a 10 per cent service charge. Rickman's 140-strong group offers the city's most popular low-stakes game, with minimum bets set at HK$1 and HK$2. The play is faster and louder than in higher-stakes games as participants rarely hesitate to meet a HK$1 bet or raise it twice that amount over a beer. Last Friday's meeting attracted more than 30 players - a mix of Chinese and westerners, and a lone woman. 'For us, it's not about making money or winning tournaments - although we have people who are into that,' Rickman says. 'We play because we love the game.' Mike agrees. 'Give us a table, some chips, and a deck of cards and the guys at the table become old friends,' he says. 'Okay, that may be pushing it a bit, but you get the point. The table banter and the emotions that run with the pots create a sense of camaraderie - a twisted kind of camaraderie that could only exist in a place where you joke with a guy who just beat you in a hand for a week's wage.'