Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007 | 7:45 a.m.
WASHINGTON - In their suits and ties and with little plastic name tags dangling from their necks, the men who gathered in a room with heavy drapes and a makeshift bar could have passed for software salesmen.
Then they started talking.
On this evening in the nation's capital, the discussion was poker, poker ( Want another beer?) and poker.
" Aruba Bubba " (his family knows him as Steve Brubaker of Rochester, Ill.) said he plays online poker to gauge whether he's smarter than the next guy.
Another fellow said he plays poker online so he doesn't get tilted at work. (Translation: to keep his cool.)
And a third said he turned to Internet poker to see him through his wife's death.
These card players came out from behind their computers to the halls of Washington as part of a two-day lobbying blitz by the Poker Players Alliance to undo restrictions put on Internet gambling last fall.
Tuesday evening's reception in the House office complex was a coming-out party of sorts for the group, which started as a grass-roots effort in Las Vegas and now has more than 800,000 members and offices in Washington , and has brought in former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York as its spokesman.
Its goal is to take online poker out of the political shadows and fight attacks from such opponents as the Christian right, which orchestrated a campaign against the group last fall. The alliance debuted in the most Washington of ways: by hosting an evening schmooze fest with drinks and appetizers to woo members of Congress .
That's why " Aruba Bubba, " " The Engineer " and the other guys were crowding into a meeting room just down the hall from the stately House Armed Services Committee room and the offices of several prominent lawmakers.
Beer bottles were being cracked open. Wine was flowing. Waiters carried trays of fancy little appetizers on silver trays.
Hardly your normal poker party.
The room grew hot and the volume kept rising as more than 100 men and a few women who had spent their day lobbying lawmakers let loose. Cameras flashed as celebrity poker players dropped in to lend their names to the cause.
Lawmakers stopped by to seize the pulpit - a lone lectern plopped in the center of the room - because these receptions work both ways, allowing members of Congress to preach to their choir.
Who wouldn't want to address a friendly audience? Lawmakers seeking votes or, better yet, future campaign contributions offered thoughtful remarks before dashing off.
Rep. Robert Wexler, a poker-friendly Florida Democrat pushing legislation to loosen on line restrictions, went straight for the patriotic nerve by calling his bill the "most pro-American, pro-freedom piece of legislation filed in this Congress."
The poker guys cheered.
Rich Muny, an engineer from Kentucky, might have gone to bed hungry the way things were going. He held a delicate salmon-topped wafer in one hand and a beer in the other, but neither made it anywhere near his mouth as he talked about online poker .
After a day of designing airplane engines at work , Muny loves nothing more than bellying up to the computer and playing a few hands. He's trying to convince Washington he should be allowed to play in peace.
"It should be my business what I do in my own home," he contended . Then he finally took a bite.
A third-year law student from Harvard said he co-founded a group to support poker players' rights. His buddy, a recent New York University graduate, said he will make more money this year playing poker than from his day job.
Many of the out-of-towners wore ribbon-shaped lapel pins (think AIDS- and breast cancer -cure advocates) - accented with tiny red and black clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades.
The Poker Players Alliance's debut comes as various bills to ease Internet gambling restrictions are making their way through Congress, including one by Nevada's delegation to study whether regulation of the online games is possible.
The player from Illinois was chatting with a woman from Nevada - he apparently didn't know who she was - when she excused herself to take the lectern.
She was the hands-down crowd-pleaser after identifying herself as Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas. The Las Vegas part was the big hit.
She riffed about it s being "absolutely outrageous for the federal government to be telling the American public what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes with their own computers."
The guys cheered some more. She dashed out. The party continued.