'Graveyard Games' makes lively debut in Bay Area

About 100 people gather at Colma cemetery for "Last Call Poker," an alternate-reality game meant to drum up excitement for a forthcoming video game western. Photos: 'All in' for 'Graveyard Games'

COLMA, Calif.--It's Saturday afternoon and I'm standing in the middle of one of the largest cemeteries in this town chock full of almost nothing but cemeteries.

I'm one of at about 100 people gathered here for the first-ever "Graveyard Games," one piece in the very large, very complex puzzle that is "Last Call Poker."

"Last Call Poker" is an alternate-reality game (ARG) meant to drum up excitement for Activision's forthcoming video game western, "Gun."

It revolves around the fictional story of the late Lionel "Lucky" Brown, who decreed that upon his death some of his fortune would be used for poker-based "wakes" at various American cemeteries.

Thousands of people have been playing "Last Call Poker" online, in most cases oblivious or unconcerned about its corporate sponsor. It has spread through word-of-mouth and through the main online ARG community, Unfiction.

Other alternate-reality games--which involve large numbers of people solving puzzles both via the Web and through real-world clue hunts--have included "I Love Bees," a promotion for the video game, "Halo 2," and "The Beast," which promoted the film, "AI: Artificial Intelligence."

But we weren't talking about "The Gun" on Saturday. All we cared about was winning chips and hopefully, the poker tournament. And a strange brand of poker it was.

It was called "Tombstone Hold 'Em," a variation of Texas Hold 'Em first played in World War II, or so we were led to believe, by soldiers like Brown stuck for long, boring hours in European cemeteries.

Players' hands comprise tombstone-shaped cards: those with rounded tops are hearts; with pointed tops, spades; with flat tops, diamonds; and with statues on top, clubs.

Face values depend on the number of people buried at a plot: Stones with two people are jacks; with three, queens; and with four or more, kings. If a single person is buried, the card's number is based on the last digit of the year the person died. "So a gal who died in 1898? She's an 8," explained the game's instructions. "A kid who died in 1951? He's an ace."

We began at precisely 2 p.m. We formed teams of two and played several teams per table, in our case a small stone bench. Each of us had been given 10 chips and many had found more scattered throughout the cemetery before the game. I spent a fruitless half hour sprinting through countless rows of graves for extra chips, but they'd been stripped clean even before the official 1:30 p.m. beginning of the event.

Note to self: In free-form games like this, ignore the stated rules. They're for suckers.

Anyway, my partner and I quickly formed a strategy. On each hand, we'd run to a section of the cemetery where he'd scouted out the location of specific "cards." But we soon found that his section was too far from the bench, as each hand lasted only three minutes. Thus, we kept running out of time to find the right cards to make winning hands.

The one time we did have the best cards--an ace-high straight we made by locating tombstones equating to an ace and

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