As the final straggler takes his seat at one of three kidney-shaped tables, Russell Bjerke, co-owner of the Downtown Poker Club, begins the Tuesday night tournament by uttering the legendary words, "Shuffle up and deal."

The room goes silent and it suddenly seems that the quiet and the cards are the only things this group of people has in common &

there is a representative from almost every gender, age group, class and ethnicity.

There is also one other common thread.

Each player paid $40 for the chance to pit their skill and wit against 24 competitors in order to win the top prize, worth 50 percent of the entry fees, which were around $1,000 on this particular night. Second and third places receive 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

While this scenario might seem to be something you could only find in a casino, the Downtown Poker Club is anything but. It is in fact a non-profit corporation and, because of Ashland's gaming laws, is just as legal as your Friday night games around the kitchen table.

"The reason the games are legal is that this is a social game played in a private environment," says Bjerke. "We are not soliciting the game for business purposes; we are soliciting it for general fellowship and gamesmanship. We're not in the business of profiting or the business of marketing a casino-style environment, we are a fellowship environment."

The club offers tournaments almost every night of the week as well as nightly cash games.

The difference between tournaments and cash games is that in a tournament each player begins with the same amount of chips and the winner is the person with all of the chips at the end of the night; in other words, the chips have no cash equivalent. In a cash game, a player may begin with as many chips as he or she chooses to pay for, each chip is worth a specific amount and a player can begin or end play at any time during the game.

In order to play at the club, each member must pay annual dues of $20. In addition, players pay a $20 table fee each night they play which is deducted from each pot in the cash games. These monies are used for upkeep and improvements to the facility.

While this may resemble a "rake" to anyone familiar with casinos, whenever this fee exceeds $20 per person, it is automatically kicked into a player fund that is used as the members see fit.

The Downtown Poker Club is located underneath the Elks Lodge on Will Dodge Way and actually rents their space from the Lodge, the only other place in Ashland to host poker tournaments.

The Elks Lodge began hosting tournaments as a way to raise money to fund their various charitable organizations around two years ago. Judy Corallo, a semi-professional dealer and avid card player herself, says that the idea behind the games was to provide a social activity that didn't cost very much money, so, in addition to the big tournament that takes place on the second Saturday of every month, they offer smaller games that are open to the public on Friday nights.

"We have 'sit-and-go' tournaments that are very cheap to get into, which enables people to have a social night that is cheaper than going to a movie," says Corallo, whose husband is a Lodge member. "Each 'sit-and-go' costs $12 and lasts 75 minutes; the person with the most chips at the end is the winner."

While Corallo and her group of dealers are usually paid for their services and receive tips, they also deal cards for charitable poker tournaments and for Elks fund raisers such as the upcoming Limit H.O.R.S.E. tournament on April 19.

H.O.R.S.E. stands for the five games played in this mixed tournament: Hold 'Em, Omaha, Razz, Seven Card Stud and Stud Eight or better. There will be a $1,600 prize pool with five places paid for the 40 entrants, whose $60 entry fee includes dinner.

To sign up for the H.O.R.S.E. event or to book Judy Corallo and her dealers for a charitable function, contact Judy at 482-3175. For more information on the Downtown Poker Club, call 973-8601.