Либрусек (книги fb2)
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death
The Noble Hustle is Pulitzer finalist Colson Whitehead’s hilarious memoir of his search for meaning at high stakes poker tables, which the author describes as “Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins.”
On one level, The Noble Hustle is a familiar species of participatory journalism-a longtime neighborhood poker player, Whitehead was given a $10,000 stake and an assignment from the online online magazine Grantland to see how far he could get in the World Series of Poker. But since it stems from the astonishing mind of Colson Whitehead (MacArthur Award-endorsed!), the book is a brilliant, hilarious, weirdly profound, and ultimately moving portrayal of-yes, it sounds overblown and ridiculous, but really! — the human condition.
After weeks of preparation that included repeated bus trips to glamorous Atlantic City, and hiring a personal trainer to toughen him up for sitting at twelve hours a stretch, the author journeyed to the gaudy wonderland that is Las Vegas — the world’s greatest “Leisure Industrial Complex” — to try his luck in the multi-million dollar tournament. Hobbled by his mediocre playing skills and a lifelong condition known as “anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure) Whitehead did not — spoiler alert! — win tens of millions of dollars. But he did chronicle his progress, both literal and existential, in this unbelievably funny, uncannily accurate social satire whose main target is the author himself.
Whether you’ve been playing cards your whole life, or have never picked up a hand, you’re sure to agree that this book contains some of the best writing about beef jerky ever put to paper.
Colson Whitehead The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death
I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships — wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.
This thing draped over my skull and fastened by muscle is also a not-too-bad public-transportation face, a kind of wretched camouflage, which would come in handy on my trip to Atlantic City. Flash this mug and people don’t mess with you on buses, and this day I was heading to training camp. I had six weeks to get in shape. I was being staked to play in the World Series of Poker for a magazine, and my regular game was a five-dollar buy-in where catching up with friends took precedence over pulverizing your opponents.
There was no question about taking a bus. I’m of that subset of native New Yorkers who can’t drive. Every spring, I made noises about getting my license and checked out the websites of local driving schools, which as a species embodied the most retrograde web design on the internet, real Galápagos stuff, replete with frenetic logos and fonts they don’t make anymore, the HTML flourishes of the previous century. How could I give my money to a business with so incompetent a portal? My wife and I owned a car, and she drove us everywhere, which came to be a hassle. I used to joke that I was afraid of getting my license — that I was at a point in my life that the first time I got behind the wheel, I’d just keep driving. The first couple of times I made this joke, people laughed. Then maybe my delivery began to falter, there was a change in tone, and they’d look around nervously, peek over my shoulder for another person to talk to. My wife had the car now. We got divorced four days prior.
I’d been looking forward to a descent into some primo degradation to start my trip, a little atmosphere to match my mood, but of course the Port Authority was cleaned up now, like the rest of the city. In the daytime, anyway. Across the street, the shining New York Times tower watched over the entryway, a beacon of truth and justice and Renzo Piano, and inside the terminal corridors the stores were scrubbed nightly, well-buffed, the reassuring and familiar places you’ve shopped at plenty. Duane Reade, Hudson News, the kiosks of big banks yet to fail. I could be anywhere, starting a journey to anyplace, a new life or a funeral.
I rushed to make the 3:30 bus and thought I’d have to gulp down a hot dog from a street vendor — fearing a grim return of said frank hours later at the table — but had time to pick up an albacore tuna sandwich with dill, capers, and lemon mayo on marbled rye, plus an artisanal root cola, all for ten bucks across the street at Dean and DeLuca. Estimated Probability of Degradation: down 35 percent.
I waited to board and saw I didn’t need a public-transportation face. The other passengers queued up for AC were exfoliated and fit, heading down for Memorial Day fun, not the disreputable lot of Port Authority legend. Their weekend bags gave no indication that they contained their owners’ sole possessions. Where have all the molesters gone, the weenie wagglers and chicken hawks? Whither the diddlers? The only shabby element I registered was the signage at the Greyhound and Peter Pan counters, still showcasing the dependable logos remembered from the bad trips of yore. Returning from a botched assignation or misguided attempt to reconnect with an old friend. Rumbling and put-putting to a scary relative’s house in bleak winter as you peered out into the gray mush through green, trapezoid windows. Greyhounds were raised in deplorable puppy mills and drugged up for the racetrack, I think I read somewhere, and Peter Pan used to enter kids’ bedrooms and entice them, so perhaps there is a core aspect to the bus industry that defies rebranding.
The bus was state of the art, like it had wi-fi, and even though I sat two rows up from the lav I did not smell it. It was two and a half hours to AC, plenty of time for me to graze on my inadequacies. Poker eminence Doyle Brunson called Hold’em “the Cadillac of poker,” and I was only qualified to steer a Segway. In one of the fiction-writing manuals, it says that there are only two stories: a hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. I don’t know. This being life, and not literature, we’ll have to make do with this: A middle-aged man, already bowing and half broken under his psychic burdens, decides to take on the stress of being one of the most unqualified players in the history of the Big Game. A hapless loser goes on a journey, a strange man comes to gamble.
According to the two crew cuts in the row in front of me, the weekly pool party at their casino was killer, but I wasn’t going to make it over there. I hit my poker book, cramming. “Big raises make big pots.” “Before you enter a pot, think about who the likely flop bettor will be.” The highway bored through miles of Jersey’s old growth, as if the forests had been mowed down specifically for passage to our destination, a tunnel to the Land of Atrocious Odds, and then we broke off the expressway and the big gambling houses burst up, looming over the gray water. We passed the one- and two-story buildings of downtown Atlantic City — clapboard homes, broken chapels, purveyors of quick cash — that seemed washed up against the casinos like driftwood and soda bottles. Then we pulled into the Leisure Industrial Complex.
Growing up in the city, I never went to a lot of malls, so I didn’t have the psychological scars of my Midwestern friends, who cringed at the thought of all the adolescent afternoons spent mindlessly drifting across the buffed tile. I like the Leisure Industrial Complex when I can find it, those meticulously arranged consumer arenas. I don’t care if it’s a suburban galleria sucking the human plankton into itself from the exit ramps or a metro-area monolith stuffed with escalators to convey the herd to the multiple price-pointed retail outlets, food court stalls, and movie screens.
Gimme a red-brick pedestrian mall reclaimed from urban blight and dolled up to commemorate some location of inflated historical import — I love those guys. There is the multiplicity of diversion, sure, but more important is that a sector of human endeavor is diligently trying to improve itself and succeeding spectacularly. Consumer theorists, commercial architects, scientists of demography are working hard to make the LIC better, more efficient, more perfect. They analyze the traffic patterns and microscopic eye movements of shoppers, the implications of rest room and water fountain placement, and disseminate their innovations for the universal good. Even if we fail ourselves in a thousand ways every day, we can depend on this one grace in our lives. We are in good hands.
Anyone who’s gambled in the past twenty years knows that casinos are high rollers in the LIC. The contemporary casino is more than a gambling destination; it’s a multifarious pleasure enclosure intended to satisfy every member of the family unit. Reimagined as resorts, there’s moderate-stakes blackjack for Dad, a sea-salt spa scrub for Mom, the cortex-agitating arcade for the youngsters — or the Men’s Mani-Pedi Suite for Dad, Pai Gau Poker for Mom, and Highly Supervised Kidz Camp for the little ones (once you sign the liability waiver).
A mall with living rooms. The concept of such a thing, to eat, drink, and play, and then dream inside its walls. No windows, for what sight could be more inspiring than your true self laid bare, with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations. Stroll past the high-end shops with accented names, recognizable theme restaurants owned by TV chefs, indoor Big Tops, man-made wave pools, and find nourishment for any desire zipping through your brain. If there’s a gap in perimeter through which an unfulfilled wish might escape, it will be plugged by your next trip.
They even have bus depots. Some casinos are equipped with snap-on bus depots, an optional component for the base model. Like the Tropicana. Today’s outpost of the LIC was the Tropicana, local franchise of the famous Vegas standby, where James Bond busted heads in Diamonds Are Forever. Methinks he did not arrive on Greyhound. You might escape if the bus didn’t pull directly into the building itself, so the depot was a worthy investment. Some of the passengers stood and funneled to the door, causing a scandal. “Where is he going?” “They’re not waiting for their bonus?” Meaning the twenty-dollar voucher they give you to play upstairs — it’s worked out between Greyhound and the casino (they really want you to stay). For what kind of inhuman monster didn’t wait for their bonus — it’s free money.
I jumped up and joined the apostates. I was vibrating with newly acquired poker knowledge and couldn’t wait. The smell of ancient cigarette smoke and the mellow undertones of men’s room disinfectant were an intoxicant. I checked in, chucked in some buffalo wings for fuel, and soon I was in the Tropicana Poker Room.
I found my degradation. You can rubble the old Times Square and erect magnificent corporate towers, hose down Port Authority and clean under its fingernails, but you can’t change people. I was among gamblers.
I sat down at a $1/$2 table with types I would encounter with some frequency during my training. Like Big Mitch. Big Mitch is a potbellied endomorph in fabric-softened khaki shorts and polo shirt, a middle-aged white guy here with his wife, who was off dropping chips on the roulette felt according to her patented system. Fully equipped with a mortgage, a decent job, and disposable income. The segments of his thick metal watchband chick-chicked on his hairy wrist each time he entered the pot. Your average home player. What Big Mitch wants the most, apart from coming home to see that young Kaitlyn hasn’t had a party and wrecked the house while they were away (she’s really been acting out lately, but Pat says all girls go through that stage), is to brag to his home-game buddies and certain guys at the office of how much he won tonight, with a breakdown of a Really Big Hand or two. He will be less vocal about his failures, as we all are.
Next to two Big Mitches was a Methy Mike, a harrowed man who had been tested in untold skirmishes, of which the poker table was only one. If Methy Mike had been hitched, the lady had packed her bags long ago, and if they had spawned, their parenting goals probably ended with making sure their kid didn’t get a tattoo on her face, and they did not always succeed. Often locals, Methy Mikes are on a first-name basis with the bosses and dealers and cocktail waitresses, and you can count on hearing a little catching up. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” “I’ve been … had some stuff come up.” So I see. Iggy Pop takes a look at these guys and says, “Wow, he’s really let himself go.”
They are weathered by the sun, by their lifestyles, which you can only guess at, the underlying narrative of their decay, and resemble unfortunates who have been dragged on chains from the back of a beat-up van and left to desiccate in the desert, like one of the down-and-outers in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Undone by their hardwired inclinations and undying dream of a new start. “Can you help a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” Luck — they believe in luck, its patterns, its unknowable rules. They will, seeing pocket Jacks demolish some weekend punter, tell the table, “Let me tell you a sad story about a pair a Jacks.” A sad story for every hand, every one of the 1,326 possible starting combinations.
And then there was Robotron, wedged in there, lean and wiry and hunkered down, a young man with sunglasses and earbuds, his hoodie cinched tight around his face like a school shooter or a bathroom loiterer. Weaned on internet play, Robotron is only here tonight because the Feds shut down all the U.S. online poker sites a month ago. Black Friday, something about money laundering. Here with the humans. Otherwise the Robotrons would be back in their childhood rooms, eight pixelated tables open on the screen; he can play eight games at once, zip zip. It’s not so hard once you retrain those pathways in the brain, cramming decades of poker experience into eighteen months. Why leave the house at all, between the poker sites and the porn sites? What are other people for, but for robbing or fucking? (The goddamned Feds, breeding a new generation of libertarians in the subdivs.) Real people, talking, breathing, it must be so weird to them. Their earbuds help keep ’em out, playing music, self-help manuals, If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? as read by Edward James Olmos, or the latest invasion plans transmitted from their home planet.
There was one woman at the table, a quiet sixty-something lady with bright red hair, the follicles of which it was perhaps possible to count. Five percent of commercially available hair dyes actually match a color that occurs in nature. Hers was not one of them. I liked her.
I will now take a moment to explain Hold’em to the lay reader, I don’t mind. In my home games, I often assumed the mantle of the Explainer, laying out the rules for the newbies — the indulging girlfriend, the language poet in town for the weekend, and, maddeningly, people I had played with dozens of times before. I wrote the hand rankings on a little piece of paper for them to keep by their chips, reminded them it’s “one or two or none from your hand, and three or four or five from the board.” I stopped being so amenable once my kid started talking because I was explaining shit all the time now. “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” “Daddy, how do fish swim?” “Daddy, where shall I keep my secret fears of the world, and tend to them like my private garden?” Nowadays my poker neophytes are on their own.
You start with two cards. You know what an ante is, my friend, even if you have never played a single hand of poker. Gotta pay to play, that’s the American way, sweet pea, whether it’s parking meters or X-ray specs. In Hold’em, only two people plop down an automatic bet without seeing their cards: the Small Blind and the Big Blind. Blind, because you’re in a dark mine probably about to step into the abyss. Depending on the stakes, the Small Blind is one dollar and the Big Blind is two dollars (or twenty-five cents and fifty cents, thirty dollars and sixty dollars, whatever). This way there are always two people invested in the hand, to different degrees. They’re in, and maybe they’re protective of their opening contribution, will feel moved to defend their one dollar or two dollars, the way a parent on a playground might steer their progeny away from that weird kid who’s been eating nuggets from the sandbox (feral cats use this place as their bathroom at night, according to a parenting blog).
If the rest of the players at the table, a maximum of ten, want to enter the hand, they have to match (or call) the Big Blind of two dollars or fifty cents or whatever, or raise it, or fold. And so on for the others ringed around the table, until it comes back to the Small Blind, who has to bring up his initial forced bet to match whatever the current bet is. Finally, the Big Blind, who, also having bet without seeing her cards, can match or raise, because they want to protect their little tyke, or because they got a monster hand, you never know. Two dollars is two dollars, we live in a capitalist society.
Everything begins and ends with these two cards. You are the ant: They squeeze you like the fingers of a mean kid. You have to learn which combos are worth engaging and which are not. For example: For three years I was cursed with sitting down in the exact wrong seat at group dinners. Wholly and inescapably hexed. Adjacent to a blowhard lush, between two narcissistic twerps, face-to-face with the mime. You look at what you’ve been dealt and think, This will end badly, and check out of the convo and endure until next time. Or maybe you make the best of a bad situation and play the affability game, go for it, but your optimism is only rarely rewarded. The lush starts talking about “immigrants,” the narcissists discuss that new boutique colonic joint, the mime won’t shut up. Once in a while, though, you have a pretty swell time with that unpromising start, and it is these improbable nights that feed the gambling delusion. “If it worked once, I can make it happen again.” (The dinner analogy makes the most sense to misanthropes, I reckon.)
Then comes the Flop: three communal cards in the middle of the table. Sharing with strangers — we’ve moved from capitalism to communism. Flop, like you’ve parachuted into the war zone and landed in a strategic position, or the champs at air command have miscalculated again and dropped you smack in the enemy trenches. Everyone checks, bets, raises, or folds according to their present coordinates. Checking is ducking from artillery, like if I lie low maybe I won’t get hit and my lot will improve. Taking a second to see what’s going on.
Then comes the next communal card, the Turn, as in: Turn the corner to see the next obstacle fate has thrown in your path, three goddamned tourists walking shoulder to shoulder so you can’t progress, or a block party hosted by Everyone You Owe E-mail To. You have improved, or not. Finally we get to the last card, the River, and fortune’s drifts and eddies have borne you to a safe harbor, or you suddenly discover that pirates crept aboard a few rounds ago and you’re about to be robbed: Hold’em.
About Limit and No Limit: I have good card sense, I’m a pretty good player in my five-dollar buy-in game, in the way that a lot of people are good in low-stakes games. The size of the bets is capped, “limited,” so people hang around to the River waiting for a miracle, and why not, you can always buy in for another few bucks. Let’s say when you’re playing cheap at Mike’s on Saturday night, the maximum bet might be one buck — there will be no handing over the keys to the Prius. On a bad night you lose forty dollars, cheaper than the date nights you regularly schedule in the hope of “keeping things fresh,” cheaper than tromping off to one of the crappy 3-D movies, what with the price of popcorn going through the roof. Over five hours, you got your money’s worth. At the $1/$2 chump game I was playing at the Trop, the Small Blind was one dollar and the Big Blind was two dollars.
In No Limit, that’s where you get the ladies and gentlemen dropping their genitals on the table, declaring “All in!” You can bet your whole stash, it’s crazy. Exciting! Thrill of Gambling! That’s what they were playing one table over from me. Fewer Methy Mikes there, and no ladies, crimson hair or no. No Limit is what the boys play these days. The stakes are intensified, but if you bust out, you can still buy back in. In a home game, you can sometimes reach into your pocket and throw a dollar in, if the hand has gotten interesting and you want to keep playing. In a casino, you can only throw in the chips you already have in front of you. That’s the cap on your All In. But if you bust out, you can pad over to the ATM machine, pay a strip-club-worthy service charge, and get a new stack of chips.
In a tournament, if you go All In and lose, you’re out.
Tonight was a warm-up. Tomorrow I was playing in my first casino tournament. Ever since I’d taken this assignment, I’d been playing poorly, trying to apply the half-digested poker knowledge I’d gulleted down from books, crashing and burning. If I couldn’t maintain a decent level of play in a home game, how could I face the Big Boys in Vegas?
I hadn’t slept in weeks. I had to make something happen tonight, even at this crappy $1/$2 table, just for morale’s sake. The $1/$2 limit is the crummiest card game available in the modern casino. If it were street retail, it’d be a combo KFC — Taco Bell — Donate Blood Here. You can make a little money playing top hands, but you’ll rarely bluff everyone out because staying in until the Magical River is not expensive. In Vegas, I’d be playing with people who didn’t bother with these crap stakes.
Next to me, Big Mitch shuffled the top two chips of his disappearing stack. The money could have been so many things. A new propane tank for the grill, or an anniversary dinner with Pat at that new fusion place. Methy Mike ordered another Jack and Coke and tipped the waitress with a dollar chip and a “Thanks, darling.” Robotron could see right through our meat and straight into our poker souls, groaning as he announced, “I have to fold to your Ace-Queen.” (The goddamned Feds!) The Lady with the Crimson Hair fondled her chips, and I played tight and won eighty-one dollars. Chicken feed, but enough to cover the entrance fee for tomorrow’s tournament.
I toasted my success in A Dam Good Sports Bar upstairs in The Quarter, the casino’s dining concourse, meant to evoke Havana. The home of the original Trop, back in the day. It would do. The table next to me ordered 40s of Bud Light, which arrived on ice in buckets. Is that how they celebrated in Cuba’s gambling heyday? They toasted the night’s festivities, just a few sips away.
I had been here before, in American cities of a certain size, a bunch of gnawed wing bones before me. Drinking beer alone among flat-screens and dead eyes. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, because in the end, whatever goes down, whatever you get up to, your triumphs and transgressions, nobody actually understands what it means except for you. What did it mean to you in your secret heart to win that money or lose that money, to hold that person. To see them walk away. It is unshareable. No one to narc on you to the folks back home: The only narc here is you.
Because I was in AC, Vegas’s little cousin, the stakes — the highs and lows — were smaller scale. I wanted to tell someone, I won eighty-one bucks. But who cared about eighty-one bucks? Who’d care that I had just started a journey that would take me from my crappy New York apartment, a.k.a. the Our Lady of Perpetual Groaning, and out into the American desert, where I’d be bullied, bluffed, and tested by the best poker players in the world. As it often did when I thought about chicken wings and entropy, my mind turned to Emerson. “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Now that was one stone-cold motherfucker who was not afraid to deliver the truth: After the torments of the journey, you have been well-prepared for the agonies of the destination.
The table next to me ordered another bucket of 40s. They had their expedition, and I had mine.
I returned to my room. I was going to hit the books again before the 11:00 a.m. starting time. My bed was impossibly stiff, as if all the years of bad luck in this place, the busted hopes and evaporated rent money, had been turned into cement, cut into slabs, and then wheeled down the carpeted hallways into the rooms. We slept atop our sarcophagi. I realized I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, some real hobo shit. My ex-wife and the kid were upstate, engaged in holiday-weekend goodness. Here I was acting as if I had nobody. One of the overlooked benefits of joint custody is that you’re going to go max thirty-six hours until someone discovers your decomposing body. “Anyone seen him? He was supposed to pick her up after school.”
I had people. I flashed to how happy my daughter was when I told her I won a hundred bucks in a game last summer. I’d driven down to AC with two pals, on the Manboob Express, and brought back one uncashed dollar chip to give her as a souvenir. “One hundred dollars!” Here’s a tip for new parents: Start lowering those expectations early, it’s going to pay off later. She believed in me. I was her dad.
I was lucky.
I was gonna play in the Big Game and give it my best shot. It was not the National Series of Poker, it was the World Series of Poker, and I would represent my country, the Republic of Anhedonia. We have no borders, but the population teems. No one has deigned to write down our history, but we are an ancient land, founded during the original disappointments, when the first person met another person. I would do it for my countrymen, the shut-ins, the doom-struck, the morbid of temperament, for all those who walk through life with poker faces 24/7 because they never learned any other way. For the gamblers of every socioeconomic station, working class, middle class, upper class, broke-ass; for the sundry gamers twelve stories below, tossing chips into the darkness; for the internet wraiths maniacally clicking before their LCDs in ill-lit warrens in Akron, Boise, and Bhopal, who should really get out more; for all the amateurs who need this game as a sacred haven once a month, who seek the sanctuary of Draw and Stud, where there are never any wild cards and you can count on a good hand every once in a while. For Big Mitch and Methy Mike, Robotron and the Lady with the Crimson Hair, the ones who would kill to go to Vegas and will never make it there, my people all of them. Did I sound disdainful of them before? It was recognition you heard. I contain multitudes, most of them flawed.
Plus, I’ve always wanted to wear sunglasses indoors.
In the spring of 2011, I received an e-mail from the editor of a new magazine. He asked if I wanted to write something about sports.
No, I said. I didn’t follow sports. Sure, now and then I mixed it up in a Who Had the Most Withholding Father contest with chums, but that’s as far as it went for me competitive sports — wise. More important, I was catching my breath after pulling out of a long skid. I had recently finished writing a novel about a city overrun by the living dead, and the plunge into autobiography had left me depleted. I’d barely gone out in months, devoting myself to meeting a moronic deadline I’d imposed in a spasm of optimism. Dating was a distraction, even the frequent-buyer card at my local coffee place was too much of a commitment. Now that I was done with the book, I was starting to feel human again. I wanted to rejoin society, do whatever it is that normal people do when they get together. Drink hormone-free, humanely slaughtered beer. Eat micro-chickens. Compare sadnesses, things of that sort.
The editor had heard that I liked poker — what if they sent me to cover the World Series of Poker?
No, I said. I did indeed like poker, and although there was no way he could know it, was very fond of Las Vegas. But ten days in the desert, in the middle of July? I chap easily. And again, I wanted to give myself a break. In the past year I had devoted myself to the novel and to figuring out the rules of solo parenthood. If I wasn’t writing, I was hitting the “Activities for Kids” sites in search of stuff for the kid and I to do on the weekends. It was a hard job, tracing a safe route through the minefield of face-painting, peanut-free caroling, and assorted pony bullshit that would get us safely to dinnertime and the organic hot dogs. A trip to Las Vegas would cut into our summer hang, which I’d come to idealize. It’s complicated, raising a kid who is half Anhedonian. There’s always the question of assimilation in this country: How much of your native culture do you keep, and how much do you give up? I wanted her to respect both sides of her heritage, so in the summer I’d teach her how to be a carefree American. We’d sip plus-size colas, watch TV on sunny days, be the lazy assholes the Founders intended.
Then the editor of the magazine asked, What if we staked you to play in the World Series and you wrote about that?
I had no choice. The only problem was that I had no casino tournament experience.
I’d been playing penny poker since college. College kids counting out chips into even stacks, opening a case of brew, busting out real-man cigars — these were the sacred props of manhood, and we were chronically low on proof. A couple of years later, in the ’90s, I had a weekly game. Inconceivable now: getting half a dozen people in the same room every Sunday night. We put in our measly five bucks. There was always someone who’d mined their couch or plundered their jar of laundry quarters, the twenty-something version of hocking your engagement ring.
We talked a lot about who we wanted to be, because we weren’t those people yet, and reinforcing one another’s delusions took the edge off. You humor my bat-shit novel idea, and I’ll nod thoughtfully at your insipid screenplay treatment, or plan for the paradigm-shifting CD-ROM game. Like I said, it was the ’90s. Dealer’s choice: Everyone got their turn to pick the game and expound upon the next harebrained scheme that would make us artists. The home game is always a refuge from the world. That ’90s game was an escape from our unrealized ambitions. We were true gamblers, laundry money or no, because we were sure that if we pulled it off, everything would be different. We were so busy bucking each other up that we barely noticed when someone introduced Hold’em into our mix of Seven Card Stud, Five Card Draw, and Anaconda.
A couple of years after that game trailed off, we started a Brooklyn writers game. A cliché, yes: more props. Monthly, ’cause who had the time now that we were actually writing books instead of just talking about it. The stakes stayed the same, though — five bucks, because we were writers. The game still a refuge, this time from the truth we’d discovered about fulfilling your dreams. We had done it, and we were still the same people. Nothing had changed.
There was a brief period, during my ’90s game, when I wanted to learn more about poker. I was sick of hanging around doomed hands like a dope, waiting to fill in my straight, hoping that the final down card in Seven Card Stud would paint in my flush. Slow learner that I am, I’d just outgrown pining over women who weren’t interested in me, and whenever I looked at a busted hand, it gave me a familiar pathetic feeling. Gamblers and the lovesick want to bend reality. But it’s never going to happen. If you woke the hell up, you’d understand that and stop chasing.
It occurred to me that I should research how often big hands popped up. Full houses and trips and what have you. Not the “odds” of them appearing, as that sounded too much like arithmetic. Just a loose idea of how often nice cards appeared in my hand. So on Sunday afternoons while the hangover matinee played on the TV, I squatted on the floor and dealt out Seven Card Stud for myself and three ghost players. I’d play my game, fill in the dummy hands, and see who’d win.
Did my yearnings pay off — did that Jack appear when I needed it, that scrawny pair bulk up into trips? Well. It wasn’t very scientific. Anybody who retained a little high-school math could arrive at the real odds more efficiently. And a couple of rounds for a couple of hours on a couple of Sundays was nothing compared to the weekend crash courses possible during the heyday of online play, when you’d hunker for hours, you got your mouse in one hand and a sporkful of kale salad in the other. But in my little way, I got an intuitive instruction on different hands. At the very least, I stopped chasing straights as much, and that, coupled with my poker mask, paid for some cab rides home Sunday night.
Most poker books include glossaries of poker terms and a list of hand rankings, regardless of the ability level of their target audience. That cardplayer optimism about the Big Score, the one that will Change It All, channeled into crossover dreams, even though nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about. In this chapter I’ll stop to define some poker lingo here and there, and will now commence with the requisite breakdown of hand rankings, even though I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.
For those who have never played, there are plenty of mnemonic devices for remembering the hand rankings, which is really a list of reverse frequency. Some of the tricks—“High pair in your holster, break out the prairie oysters!” and “Full House sends you All-In! Too bad we haven’t invented penicillin!”—date to the early frontier days of the game and haven’t aged well. It’s important to find the rhetorical system that works for you.
In explaining the game to a contemporary American audience, one should employ analogies appropriate to the culture. To start, when judging a five-card hand of random crap, the highest card determines its value. No trips, no straights, nothing but, say, a Jack or a King. You got zip. By an American standard of success you’ve totally botched it. Your worldly possessions — what you’ve been dealt — are nothing more than a cracked snow globe, a ball of twine, an unwrapped candy cane, the electronic keycard to a job you got fired from six years ago, and a thimble. In a showdown with the Lady with the Crimson Hair, she turns over the same first four items, but instead of a thimble, she has a signed head shot of Ben Vereen. You both have terrible hands, but in a war of who has the better crap, the Lady wins for possessing the highest value item: the Ben Vereen commemorative.
Whoever has the better stuff wins. Sound familiar, American lackeys of late-stage capitalism? After highest card comes one pair. You have one Queen, but your opponent has two Queens. Who wins? Imagine the Queens are gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. DVD players for the kids, butt warmers, GPS voiced by Helen Mirren. Your family has one SUV, but Big Mitch next door has two of them. Who wins? Exactly. That’s the virtue of culturally appropriate mnemonics.
Next comes two pair. You have one pair of thermal socks. Ready to throw down with Old Man Winter, “To Build a Fire”—style. Robotron over there has one pair of Miles Davis CDs and one pair of coupons for free Jazzercise lessons. He wins: two pair beats having one pair. Now let’s say you also have a pair of Golden Girls box sets, so that you both have two pair. The highest value pair determines who wins. In this case, Miles Davis takes it for Robotron. In a face-off between your possibly lifesaving footwear, plus the entire run of a series about the twilight years of four feisty gals, and your opponent’s late-period Miles and cardio-heavy Jazzercise, he has the nuts.
Three of a kind, or trips, is best illustrated by a quote from the inspiring story of a young immigrant’s pursuit of the American dream, Oliver Stone’s Scarface (1983): “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the women.” I know it’s a universal quote, speaking to all walks of life, as I’ve heard suburban white guys cite it without irony. Money, power, women: That’s three Aces in your hand right there. Certainly beats what you’re usually holding in your hand, boys.
As an Anhedonian, those analogies don’t speak to me. What do I see when I’m dealt a straight—five cards in a series, like 5-6-7-8-9, not all of the same suit? To my tribe, that’s five misfortunes in a row, but not the same brand of misfortune. Let’s say one afternoon, one after the other in sequence, you: forget the name of someone you’ve met several times; e-mail an important document late; require an emergency root canal; overcook the risotto; and pick an argument with your partner because you blame them for everything that happened today. That’s five misfortunes, but a mix of social, professional, and health-related misfortunes. They are “differently suited.”
A flush would be five misfortunes of the same kind, or suit. Social, for example. You forget the name of someone you’ve met several times, pick a fight with a loved one, disrespect a member of the service industry, accidentally cuss during the kid’s playdate, and fart loudly during the toast at your cousin’s wedding. Fan out these things before you, arrange them by type: They are all in the same family of social disaster, the same suit. Let’s say five spades, because you’re always digging yourself into a hole.
With a full house, we’re back to Western measures. A full house is empire-building, conspicuous consumption: a pair and three of a kind. And four of a kind, say four Aces? First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women, then you get a really great deal on a time-share.
The highest ranked hand in poker is the straight flush. It’s the least likely hand you’ll be dealt, rare as a true catastrophe. Like, five health-related disasters, one after the other. That’s being stabbed by a hobo with a penknife, an infected hangnail, ashy elbows, tummy trouble from “three-times washed” greens only washed twice, topped off by double stigmata. A real straight flush of bodily complaint. A sign from above.
HOLLYWOODING: Using all your years of deceiving others to put on a show at the table. Ever said, “Cute baby,” about some newborn who’d found a portal between their Hell Dimension and our world? You may have a career in poker.
Playing dummy hands on the living-room floor. But who among us has not played out demented scenes on a dirty carpet? That was basically my entire twenties in a nutshell. Sure, I lived one block up from crack houses, black plastic bags twisting on the bare branches outside, but my pastime acquainted me with some of the hidden physics of the game. I’d have to go beyond my mad-scientist experiments now that I was going to Vegas. I was soft.
I ordered books, the website’s previous customers serving up recs via algorithm. No Limit Hold ’em: Theory and Practice by David Sklansky and Ed Miller, and the morbidly titled Kill Phil: The Fast Track to Success in No-Limit Hold ’Em Poker Tournaments and Kill Everyone: Advanced Strategies for No-Limit Hold ’Em Poker Tournaments and Sit-n-Go’s. Didn’t get too far into the Kill books, but I admired the authors for their ambition, after they’d set their sights too low with the first volume.
I’d flipped through Sklansky’s famous The Theory of Poker some fifteen years earlier. Sklansky was one of poker’s philosopher-kings, and wrote the first book on Hold’em in 1976. Smiling in his author photo, with his receding hairline, trimmed beard, and oversize specs, here was the face of a player who knew the holy probabilities, the math teacher come at last to explain the numbers. Sklansky’s prose was cool, exact. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.
Not that it would have helped in my ’90s home game that much — our trash, wild-card games spoiled any aspirations of rigor. Poring through this new, Big-Boy Sklansky years later, I felt invigorated underlining phrases such as “Winning the battle of mistakes means making sure that your opponents make frequent and more costly mistakes than you do.” The Battle of Mistakes. It sounded like commentary on life in the big city, where sometimes good fortune is just having fewer messed-up things happening to you.
My friend Nathan hosted a one-off game, twenty whole bucks to buy in. Figured I’d employ my new expertise, even if it was only a few chapters’ worth. I was pretty high on my assignment. It’d be like one of those pieces where someone does a thing for a year and then writes about it, like cook a classic Julia Child recipe every day, or follow the Bible to the letter, or re-create Ted Bundy’s notorious spree with “special noogies” in lieu of murder and whatnot. But instead of one year, it would be two months, because of time constraints and my short attention span on account of the internet. Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia. Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins. Energized for Nathan’s game, I’d bust out some crazy Sklansky-Fu on these knuckleheads.
It was the most money I’d ever lost in a home game. The gathering was civilized enough. We shared a profession, all writers of one sort or another, five men and three women. More poets than usual (one), perhaps the circus was in town. Home games, you generally play with your own kind. Every night, all over the country, CPAs were playing with CPAs, firemen with firemen. You’ve been driven to the sanctuary of the card table by the same forces. It helps if you have something in common, and this night we warmed our hands by the fires of our undying grievance and anxiety.
The spread was top notch. Sliced meat that came from European pigs that seemed to have succulent body parts American pigs didn’t. We ordered fancy pizzas and Middle Eastern food, drank small-batch bourbon and local vodka fermented from stuff pulled from the Gowanus Canal or something, it was hard to read the label. Good to see everybody. We talked apartments (one bedroom or two), kids (one child or two), work travel to boondoggle festivals in exotic lands, teaching gigs in Podunk college towns. The music was niche indie: Everyone kept asking “Who’s this,” “Who’s this,” and then the creator of the playlist expounded. And hand after hand, I lost.
The pleasant tableau described above is what a home game is all about. It’s not what a casino game is about. That night I played as if those guys knew what I meant by wagering 2.5 times the Big Blind here, betting half the pot on the Turn there. Sklansky, Sklansky, I tried, brother. But what use is my semi-bluff when my nonfiction-writing friend blindly threw chips into the pot, more intent on sharing his story of how his eczema was “really flaring up.” His doctors wrote a scrip for a new topical steroid, what the heck, he’ll try anything at this point. Sklansky, Sklansky, tell me: How can “The Hammer of Future Betting” pierce the armor plate of “Level with me, guys. How old is ‘too old’ for breast-feeding?” I was being outwitted by allergies. “You wouldn’t think it, but there are some not-bad gluten-free beers on the market. It’s my turn? Sure, I’ll throw in two bucks. See, instead of using hops …” If no one’s paying attention to my new, hot-rod playing strategy, does it even exist?
No. I bought in for another twenty, and then another.
They weren’t going to drop, these romantics. In love with the final card, the River. They will stay in to see the River, for it will save them, always, plug the holes in the straight, gussy a pair of 5s into trips, reverse the evening’s bad luck. The River will wash away their sins, of which they have many: holding on to cards that are real long shots to improve (I’d never do that); ignoring ominous developments on the board and textbook-strong betting from across the table (i.e., from me); and ruining the night of a pal who is stressed out about going to the World Series of Poker and could use a break (me again). My twenty-five-year-old self would’ve been broken by the losses. A hundred and forty bucks was everything back then. It was beer, cable, and cigarettes. Hope.
That’s why serious poker players deride low-stakes limit games as No Fold’em Hold’em, like cineastes sneering at the latest Texas Chainsaw retread. This is not art but a massacre of all that is holy. The common folk, they like their cheap entertainment, play for social currency more than cold hard cash. Tomorrow it’s back to filing the quarterly reports, that conference with Kaitlyn’s teacher about her absences, getting the boiler checked out. But tonight you are free. You dragged your sorry ass out to forget your daily disasters. Why let an obvious flush muck your hand when the River is going to abracadabra your two pair into a full house? It’s fifty cents, it’s four more bucks, whatever, to see that last card. Just wanna have some brews and try out that new joke you heard at work, not conform to some Sklanskian ideal of the Game.
Yes, it was everybody else’s fault. Not mine for letting these fools draw out on me, for making it cheap to call my bets, for not changing gears to adjust to a loose game. For not realizing the simple fact that a money game is not a tournament. It was like writing short stories and thinking it was the same thing as writing a novel. That night I started sleeping more poorly than usual.
YHS: “Your hand sucks,” from online play. You post the breakdown of a hand to get advice from the community, but your cards are so bad the situation is a no-brainer. “YHS, moron,” is the response that pops up in the chat box. If that’s too hard to remember, think of it as “Your High School.” Surely you’ve not forgotten that particular awfulness.
Memorial Day Weekend. Six weeks until the start of the Main Event.
Saturday morning, the Tropicana Poker Room was a whisper. The players were still bent over their late breakfasts, chewing over last night’s losses and delivering surething declarations of today’s successes. One last, shallow interaction with non-poker-playing companions before everyone diverged to their chosen gambling arena.
In those other quicksand places — beeping and blinking slot sinks, blackjack maws, and overpriced buffets — the casino makes its daily bread. The poker room is a loss leader. That precious square footage eats up room that could be used for any number of more devious money-sucking machines. The house takes a rake, a tiny percentage of each pot, but that’s it. Caesars, the Trump Taj Mahal, and all the other casinos sticking up out of the boardwalk like rotten teeth, they host a couple of tournaments a day. Morning, afternoon, evening, recouping the operating expenses (electricity, staff, the inhibition-lowering mist dispersed into the ventilation system) from rooms, meals. The various acts of larceny perpetrated upon the poker players’ companions.
For my part, I was not enthused about reading a poker how-to while queued for the omelet station of the buffet. Might as well get caught highlighting Beyond First Base: Advanced Booby Tips of the Pros on the way to the prom. I grabbed a grande coffee and performed some lastminute cramming in my room. I was only a third of the way through my tournament primer. It would have to do.
While today was my first casino tournament, I’d played in half a dozen homegrown ones over the years. Once at a bachelor party. At a pal’s house once or twice someone had suggested an impromptu tournament, everyone bought in. Unaccustomed to the new pace, folks busted out quickly and pouted on the sidelines, so we gave everybody their money back and started playing Omaha again. One time a friend of a friend organized an eighty-man tournament. He cleared out the desks in his office — some sort of internet boondoggle or design studio — to make room for rented chairs and tables. It was all guys, a real sausage party when we lined up for our table draws, sweating testosterone, trying to figure out who in the room was a chump or a ringer. Was this the set of a gang bang? Gang-bang shoots probably have beer and pizza, too.
I usually ended up placing in the top tier in these scrabbly events, despite my ignorance of tournament physics. The half-dead thing. Today the Trop would show me the real deal beyond those earlier ramshackle affairs. Before the Feds’ crackdown, I would have been practicing on the internet, on PokerStars or Full Tilt, Robotroning through tournament after tournament. Online poker was like one of those “learning helmets” in sci-fi movies, where you plop it in your head and download the knowledge of a dead civilization in, like, five minutes. I had to do it the old-fashioned way, with my pants on.
A few money games chugged along around the tournament tables, which sat like lonely atolls, empty save for their tiny columns of chips. The floor manager chatted with a dealer. I asked him how many people usually signed up for a weekend tourney. He surveyed the quiet room. “Depends.” He directed me to the Cage, where the cashiers transacted through barred windows, safe as bodega guys dealing cigarettes and Similac through Plexiglas boxes.
The tournaments I sampled in AC that spring ranged from fifty to a hundred and fifty bucks. Not bad for a couple of hours’ escape from one’s troubles, plus free booze. The Tropicana morning game cost sixty-two bucks. Fifty went to the prize money, and twelve went to the house. I saw where the twelve bucks was going: to pay for plastic name tags for the dealers and “flesh”-colored hose for the post-nubile cocktail waitresses, who slipped between the tables offering “BAVERGES.” It was unclear whether BAVERGES was a question or a command.
Depends was right: only eighteen people signed up that morning. Of course I’d picked a bum game for my first outing; most of my later training missions would have fifty or sixty entrants. There were ten seats at each table, your draw noted on the registration card. I was the first arrival, counting down to my seat number clockwise from the dealer.
I murmured Starting Hands to myself, the hierarchy of the two cards you are dealt before the flop: JJ can get you into trouble, play 88 in middle position, mess with suited connectors if I was feeling fancy in late position. Despite my trepidation, I wanted to be tested, wanted adversaries unshackled from the gladiator pit beneath the Poker Room — grim Moors, dour Phoenicians, battle-scarred Russell Crowes. Instead I was joined by big-mouth Big Mitches down for the Memorial Day weekend with the missus, a single Robotron initiating search-and-destroy subroutines behind his glasses, and two Methy Mikes, both with a felonious air and a desiccated mien, probably killing time until the cockfight.
For our sixty-two dollars, we received $10K in chips, motley colored. In a tournament there’s no correlation between the money you give the Cage dwellers and the number of chips you get, which are really just arbitrarily designated pieces of germ-covered plastic. Every poker room had worked out their turnover rate, of how many starting chips will get the players out in time for the next tournament and make room for the night players. In the World Series of Poker, I’d receive a neat stack of $30K in chips for the $10,000 entrance fee the magazine was ponying up for me. Eventually I’d have to wrap my head around that ludicrous jump in magnitude, but today just playing a whole tournament was enough.
POKER GODS: Those entities who watch over your poker existence, engineering deep cashes, bad beats, poor position, crappy players to fleece. An eccentric pantheon, to be sure. Among them, Barda the Two-Faced, who reminds you about that morning meeting, but then fills the gutshot straight in your hand, whereupon you keep losing for another two hours. Don of a Thousand Brain Farts sprinkles magic dust in your eyes so that you bet a flush that is really, really not there. And Tim Old Spice, who is probably responsible for much of the “God is dead” talk the last two centuries. He’s in charge of making sure the mouth breather next to you is wearing deodorant. Bit of a slacker.
And so it began! With luck I’d get in a few hours of play. In contrast to a tournament, a money table possesses an unpredictable life-span, like a fad diet or a good mood. After collecting a critical mass of waiting-list hopefuls, the floor manager gives the signal, and then the cash game waxes and wanes as players join, split for the sports book or mani appointment or face time with the wife, lose their roll, or somehow muster the willpower to quit while they’re ahead. Late night, when the cards get hazy, the sensible head back to the room, and drunks sit down with pros who have gotten out of bed at 3:00 a.m. so they can feast on these boozy losers. Weekly runs at a $30/$60 table can subsidize Little Gary’s orthodontia. Then the table dies, and the process starts again. It’s a dry riverbed in the desert, quickened by a sudden cloudburst into brief life before the heat decimates it again.
In a tournament, you play to the last man or woman sitting. Here’s how it works:
We get our starter stacks, and then the clock begins. I’d never noticed the TV screens on my previous casino visits, but here they were, on tripods, mounted to the wall, counting down tournament time and stats: six minutes to the next increase in blinds, one hour to the next rest break, here’s how many players still survive. Because every twenty minutes or so, the blinds (the initial forced bets) increase. At the start, the Big and Small Blinds were $25 and $25. After twenty minutes, the dealer or floor guy announced the increase, and they became $25 and $50, then $50 and $100, and so on.
After a couple of levels we got a ten-minute rest break. The tables cleared and Big Mitch hightailed it to the bathroom for a meditation over the urinal abyss. (Why did Kaitlyn have to call our weekend getaway “CialisFest”? Makes me feel kind of low.) The Methy Mikes split to the boardwalk for sunlight and a smoke. The mercury bobbed in the eighties, the first hot weekend after a mean winter and tepid spring.
I declined. On breaks I parked myself at a one-armed bandit. Out of sight of the Poker Room, scanning my poker tips. “Play the cards they have,” my notes said, “not the cards you want them to have.” Don’t get all starry-eyed and ignore what the cards are saying just because you like the flop. “Are Ace-Jack suited really worth risking your tournament life???” Underlined, starred in the margin, circled in unignorable loops. I don’t know how “STAY SEXY” snuck in there, but I nodded thoughtfully.
After the break, I measured my stack against the rest of the table: Well, that guy over there is fairly crippled, I’m not the worst here. Then steeled myself for the next round of meat-grinder levels. My notebook had one voice, encouraging and handing out sticker-stars of achievement like a second-grade teacher, but my stack spoke in a different register: “You better step up, son.” The chips, the chips wouldn’t shut up, a One Ring hectoring my hunched Gollum self.
“Whoever invented poker was bright,” the saying goes, “but whoever invented chips was genius.” Uncouple cash money from its conventional associations, and people gamble more freely. Sure, green cash is already a metaphor, but the real pain of seeing actual money disappear into a lost pot is not. No longer milk, meat, and rent, the plastic tokens are tiny slivers chipped off an abstraction, an index of two things: Time and Power.
Obviously, the more chips you have, the longer you can play. But a tournament has more hyperinflation than a CIA-toppled banana republic. As in real life, chips don’t buy as much as they used to as time goes by. The blinds are escalating every level—$300 and $600, $500 and $1,000 blinds, $3,000 and $6,000. Your stack becomes more worthless every hand. The more chips you accumulate, the more Time you have left. At the final WSOP table in 2010, the chip leader had $65 million in chips. What is that in Time? Empires rise and fall in that interval. That’s glacier time, Ice Age time, knuckle-dragger into Neanderthal time.
And Power. That tower of chips you’ve made, looming over the rim of the table, is the physical manifestation of how much you can bully. A monument to your prowess, or the Poker Gods’ blessing this day. Big stacks eat little stacks like M&M’s. The other saps have arranged their stacks into houses of straw and sticks, and even the brick ones will not stand at your re-raise huffing and puffing. What threat is that little stack’s All In to someone who’d gathered a thousand times as many chips? I’d always marveled at the gravity-defying properties of those gigantic stacks. Aren’t they afraid of knocking them over? My anxiety-palsied hands would send them flying through space. But the first step to handling chip castles is accumulating a bunch of chips, hence my lack of practice.
So: Gather a big stack and people won’t want to tangle with your King Kong self. On the Simian Scale, I was more Bubbles the chimp, break-dancing for cigarette and gin money before Michael Jackson rescued him from the streets. Hanging on, overcautious. An early misstep set me brooding. I was Big Blind, with a 9 and a 7, differently suited. Crap, but my forced ante dragged me into the flop — where a pair of 7s gave me trips. Cool. But this young madman in middle position called with 8–7 offsuit (Why was he in? Why, why?) and took the pot with a full house. I lost half my stack. Shut me up for a while.
As it turned out, one aspect of my personality would help me in my odyssey: I was a bider. Temperamentally suited to hold out for good cards, well accustomed to waiting. We Anhedonians have adapted to long periods between good news. Our national animal is the hope camel. We have no national bird. All the birds are dead.
Hyper-aggressive play — taking any two starting hands and rigging some MacGyver-type hand-winning apparatus out of them — was beyond me this early in my training. But in a tournament, you can go hours without decent opening cards. Even an aggressive player only plays four hands out of ten. Everyone, from these weekend plodders in the Trop Poker Room to the seasoned players I’d play with in Las Vegas, had to learn to suffer a rough table, a short stack, some weird hex your next-door neighbor put on you for playing polka music too loud. You bide. Pray. Try to keep cool. Eventually the cards will come. The biding, spider part of me thrived in tournaments.
But biding only gets you so far in poker. Just partway through my strategy manual, and I was already becoming aware of different phases in the game. In the coming weeks, I’d watch the tournaments disintegrate. Forty-eight, thirty-two, sixteen players left. A stickler will shout “Hank! You gonna break this table?” and Hank the floor manager takes a gander. We get chip racks, rack ’em up, and move to our new station. The tables broke and we hopped to the next one as if scampering across splintering ice floes. A broken table exiled opponents to the other side of the room, and then another returned them. Or didn’t. They prospered in that new land, or withered, and the story of their table journey merged with mine to create this afternoon’s epic. When tables drop to five or six players, the manager reassigns players to maintain distribution, because the game changes depending on how many people are seated. Like, flopping a high pair isn’t that great when you’re ten-handed — there are too many people who might have better cards. But it ain’t bad against six players, and heads up against one player, it’s awesome.
At the Final Table, there’s nothing left to break. Last man standing.
WORST DAY OF THE YEAR: The day you bust out of the World Series of Poker.
I made it to my tournament’s Final Table with a minuscule stack. Not that “Final Table” meant much when there were only two tables to begin with. The Methy Mikes were reunited, sweeping their long stringy hair out of their faces between hands. They’d taken damage, too. Also present: two fellows who didn’t fit the demographic of my first table. One was a young Middle Eastern man in his early twenties, dressed in stylish, slim-cut clothes, who mixed it up affably, knocking down hands. He was no Robotron, or if he had been at one time, he’d gotten some back-alley doctor to remove his implants. His girlfriend dragged over a chair and sat behind him sipping a cocktail. She didn’t mind waiting, and ignored the guy on her boyfriend’s right who kept hitting on her. When the Lothario busted out, they chuckled.
The other castaway was an elderly white man who bent over his chips, squinting through a magnifying attachment that barnacled on his thick specs like a jeweler’s loupe. He pondered before acting, as if reviewing a lifetime of hands and confrontations, or fighting off a nap. Sometimes you have to accept a casino trip for what it really is: an opportunity to see old people. There were a lot of old people in poker rooms, genially buying in for a couple of hands before the Early Bird Special. I prefer to believe they were gambling with discretionary funds, enjoying their twilight years after a lifetime of careful saving, and not pissing away their Social Security. If I were an octogenarian looking for love, I’d hit the casinos, no question. The dating pool is quite deep.
The atmosphere at the Final Table was different. Never fast-moving, today’s game decelerated even more. Previously aggressive opponents tempered their play. Something was going on, but I couldn’t see it. I’d leave the Tropicana with clues, courtesy of the Methy Mikes. They’d complained all day, first about the paltry turnout (“I bet Caesars is hopping”), and then about how long the game was taking. Only eighteen people, but we dragged on. Maybe the slow levels were cutting into their cockfight prep time, Hercules always requiring a good menthol rub before a bout.
“Waiting for him to push,” said one, sourly.
He kept at it. After a few hands, I realized he was talking about me. The dismissive gesture in my direction tipped me off. I hadn’t been glared at with such hate by two people since couples therapy. Unfortunately, I had no idea what “pushing” meant.
The next day I’d google it: going All In. But why did he care that I wasn’t shoving? Because I had no choice at that point. The Big Blind was $3,000, and I had $9,000. I could survive three rounds. But wait — the Small Blind was $1,500, so I didn’t even have that long ($1,500 + $3,000 means it cost $4,500 to play one round, or half my stack of $9,000). Not enough to slow-play or wait for a premium hand. To value bet, not that I knew what value betting was. All I could do was push my cards into the middle and hope that the Hungry Hippos had worse cards. Pushin’. I should have started pushing levels ago, before I got into this deplorable situation. Methy Mike was trying to wrap things up, and there I was sitting like a chump, waiting for a bus that wasn’t going to come.
I wanted to say, “Look, I’m on a journey here,” but that had never worked except that one time in T.G.I. Friday’s and all it got me was a half-off coupon for jalapeño poppers. Methy, I wasn’t happy with my paltry chips, either. I was shocked that I’d survived this far. Tremor in my hands whenever I reached for my stack. I petted the notebook in my pocket for comfort, as if I could absorb my instructions through fabric. Which might appear onanistic to the other players and throw them off their game.
So it felt good when I pushed, ignorance aside, and took my critic out with a flush. Cock-a-doodle-doo, motherfucker. I think it was a flush. My notes say, “gamey tooth, itchy eyeballs, heart palpitations, necrotic finger, incipient flatulence.” Five of the same suit.
From there I ran hot, nice cards emboldening me. Last-chancers were swallowed by behemoths. Ill-advised All Ins staggered away, sometimes saying goodbye and sometimes without a word, to hit the bar, to shower before the night out and salvage something from the last few hours of the trip. I had a scheme to disable a Robotron by asking him to calculate pi to the last digit, but he busted before I had a chance. I assembled a nice stack and came in third place. Up $175. The old white guy was second. The last few levels, he’d taken a shine to me, asking me to describe the board when the cards showed up fuzzy in his magnifying lenses. First place was the young dandy, who was now free to rest up before nighttime bottle service with his girlfriend at The Pool over at Harrah’s, or the Borgata’s MIXX. We were an unlikely Mod Squad, case cracked. I celebrated with some dumplings at P. F. Chang’s and caught a bus home.
God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but sometimes he plays just the tip. My win was beginner’s luck, that freaking bane of poker players everywhere. You welcome some newbie who thinks it “might be fun” to play, what larks, and they take down pot after pot. It’s a friendly game, or else you’d beat them senseless. I imagine it’s like when you toss a one-legged duck into a palenque (Mexican cockfighting arena) and the duck somehow pecks the shit out of all comers. Throws off the natural order.
A certain stinginess with myself, the biding thing, meant I had natural facility with drawn-out contests. There were nameless forces at work in a tourney, however, invisible energies I was just beginning to understand. I wasn’t good at asking for help. We go solo, my kinfolk and I, taking each day as an IKEA bookcase we build alone, sans instructions. The leftover pieces? We gobble them down, and sometimes it’s the only thing we eat all day.
But I was heading out into the desert, and I couldn’t do it alone.
The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest. I attacked my training on three fronts:
MENTAL: Obviously, I had to improve my game. Like all wretches suddenly called up to the Big Time, I needed a Burgess Meredith, but good. One who wouldn’t scoff at the five-dollar buy-in of my usual game.
… Although in the end it was my monthly game that led me to my sensei. After stewing for weeks, I came out to my gang about my Vegas trip. They were excited for me, which expanded the field of my anxiety. It was one thing to bring shame upon myself. That was my occupation. But to let down the crew? Sending an emissary to the World Series was a hallowed home-game tradition. In Anchorage, St. Louis, and Boogie-down Boca, tribes of home players stuffed money in the kitty all year to subsidize a member’s entry to the Main Event. The rest maybe flying out for moral support, lap dances, a stint or two in the poker room between railing. My own crew wasn’t coming out west, but I’d have to account for myself on return.
Hannah, a recent addition to our writers game, told me about a friend who’d played in the WSOP. Maybe she was worth talking to?
And so, Coach. I met Helen Ellis in a restaurant off Union Square. We shook hands by the hostess station. Underneath her bob of black hair, Helen’s mischievous eyes sized me up as if I were a new addition to a cash game. Marking off boxes in a mental Rube/Not Rube quiz. Air of Vulnerability: Check. Whiff of Flop Sweat: Check.
The Alabama in her voice was strong. She’d made no effort to shed her Southern accent during her time in the city. I respected that, as I’d worked hard over the years to flatten my Anhedonian accent, which one linguist memorably described as “like a flock of geese getting beaten by tire irons.”
At cards, when asked what she does for a living, Helen says, “Housewife.” Like me, she had her mask. I had my half-dead mug, behind which … well, not much was going on, really. Dust Bunny Dance Party. But Helen’s hid her poker kung fu, and her deception was a collaboration. In a male-dominated game, where female players often affect an Annie Oakley tomboy thing to fit in, the housewife-player was an unlikely sight. “I get ma’amed a lot.” The dudes flirted and condescended, and then this prim creature in a black sweater and pearls walloped them. “A lot of people don’t think women will bluff,” Helen said. She was bluffing the moment she walked into the room.
Helen started playing in casinos on her twenty-first birthday. Her father met her in Vegas. At midnight he took her to the front of Caesars, with its soaring plaster temples and gargantuan toga’d figures, den of Roman kitsch. Up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, the huge casinos beckoned. “Sit down and look around,” Papa Ellis instructed. “This is the Center of the Universe.” Helen started playing in the Mississippi casinos close to her home in Tuscaloosa, and when we met she was hitting eight tournaments a year. Biloxi, AC. When it worked out, father and daughter met on the circuit. Husband Lex came, too. He plays a solid game, she said.
Later, I’d see her maintain an imperturbable poker face at the table, but that day Helen couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when I divulged my usual stakes. She agreed to give me some crucial pointers. As we waited for our food, I told her about my Tropicana trip, my poker history. Started to say something about “the biding part of me” and its usefulness in tournaments, as “The Biding” was shaping up to be a new favorite in my personal mythology, edging out old standbys like “All This Misery Is Fuel” and “I Think I Would Have Made a Fine Astronaut, Probably.”
She was not impressed with my chump idea of the poker trenches. Why would she care about my penny-ante bull? She’d been to the WSOP, for chrissake.
“Sometimes you just run a table,” Helen told me, recounting last year’s trip, “and I was running every table I was at.” She still savored her nice streak in the WSOP Six Handed No-Limit Hold’em event, one of the run-up matches. The World Series of Poker culminates in the Main Event, but in the six weeks leading up to that big megillah, it is what its name implies, a gauntlet of dozens of matches that embody the ever-changing contemporary poker scene. No-Limit Draw Lowball, H.O.R.S.E., Seven Card Razz. Great players are multidisciplinary, but everyone has the little dances they like, their rumbas and funky chickens.
Apart from the money and whatever emotional fulfillment they project onto winning, the various childhood hurts and core sadnesses they briefly silence through victory, the big poker stars are angling for Player of the Year points. POY points quantify how well you do in the various WSOP events, accounting for the size of each field and the amount of the buy-in. Before the Main Event starts, Helen said, you “see players playing, like, two or three hands at once.” Events are running all the time, so if you make it to Day 2 of one match and want to enter Day 1 of another, you gotta do some light jogging between ballrooms, mucking in $2,500 Eight-Game Mix so you can catch the next hand of $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em Shootout down the hall.
Helen said she liked “Six Handed.” I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I nodded and chewed. In 2010 Helen made it through the first day of the $5,000 Six Handed No-Limit. When she got her draw for Day 2, the Powers that Be seated her at a Feature Table with the big guns. Feature as in TV cameras. They played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Helen looked for her seat. “Where is Table 116? There’s 114, there’s 118, where is it? Oh, it’s the Feature Table up on the platform with all the press, all the lights, and all that shit.”
Husband Lex snapped a picture of her playing against poker superstars Phil Ivey and James Akenhead. Ivey was one of the few big-time African American pros — actually, the only one I could name. For years now, I’d rooted for him on TV, whenever he popped up on the poker shows my DVR scooped from the deep a.m. darkness. Cool and inscrutable, he was our black heavyweight, our Leon Sphinx. Hadn’t heard of Akenhead. Turned out he was a British player, a young gun who’d made it to the Final Table in 2009. He came in ninth place, and pocketed a million dollars for his exertions.
“It’s, as they call it, the Table of Death.” She survived the cameras. She knocked Akenhead out of the game, and once Ivey busted, too, they broke the table. Show over. The next time Helen was in Vegas, she passed Akenhead in the hallways of the Rio. “It’s like if you had dinner with Obama. You would remember him, but he might not remember you.”
Helen came in forty-second place, winning twelve grand. It was her first pilgrimage to the World Series after stepping up her presence on the professional poker circuit the last few years. Poker and housewifery aside, she was also a writer. She left Tuscaloosa to come to New York to study fiction writing at NYU. I picked up her second book, The Turning, thinking it might provide insight into her poker persona. It’s about a teenage girl in NYC who discovers she has the power to turn into a cat, indeed belongs to a larger, secret community of people who can turn into cats. There was a gesture toward the poker subculture in that premise, and some riffing on transformation into one’s true self, the inner becoming the outer. Your daytime life is one reality, and at night, at a poker table, say, you become someone else. Someone with claws.
“I’ve been playing since I was twenty-one,” she said. “And I still have to gather my courage to go and sit down and be there. I like it because you can be anyone you want to be. I can be extremely aggressive. I can be very brave. I can behave in a way that I don’t normally behave. Other than writing, it’s the only place where I can lose time.”
There’s more poker in her first book, Eating the Cheshire Cat. It follows three young Southern girls who are also in the midst of violent transformation, this time into brutal adulthood. One climactic scene occurs at a poker play-off held at a sorority reunion. The middle-aged former Delta Delta Deltas are all set up for a nice afternoon of Seven Card Stud, unaware that Nicole Hicks, a next-generation Tri Delt, has penciled in her psychotic break for that afternoon. Her butcher knife comes down and “Within a split second, Mrs. Hicks lost her daughter, her nerve, and two-thirds of her right index finger … The blood pooled and lifted the Queen of Spades from the table. It slid to the edge, then fell, face first, splat on the beige, velvet-soft, steam-cleaned carpet.”
As in most of the poker tales that overwhelmed me during my training, there was a lesson there, but it would take some time for me to decipher it. For now, I went with: You better listen to Coach.
Helen was the perfect teacher, hipping me to the right books (Dan Harrington and Phil Gordon), dispensing the Poker Truths so that they finally penetrated my brain (“This is your mantra: Patience and Position”), and sharing basic tips about daily survival in Las Vegas’s Rio Hotel, home to the WSOP since 2005. “Stay on the Ipanema side — the rooms are better.” Following an afternoon at the tables, I was supposed to hit the seafood joint just outside the corridor to the convention hall. “Make a reservation,” she instructed, in the same tone she used for “Watch out for A-x in middle position.”
Those first weeks, when I was trying to supe up my game, she told me about where to play in AC. “The Borgata and Caesars. Yes, the Taj is in Rounders, but it is a dump.” More important, she kept me from freaking out at the enormity of the task ahead. “You should play some Sit-n-Go’s while you’re in Atlantic City. You can’t win a tournament if you can’t win a Sit-n-Go.” I nodded. I pretended to know what a Sit-n-Go was, mustering the same facial expression I used when someone said, “We ended up having a good time” or “Then we fell in love.” I mentioned the Robotrons, who saw the flop with anything, pocket lint and paper clips. “I love these young players,” she laughed. “Give ’em enough rope. Call their craziness when you have a monster.”
She’d teach me things. About poker. About life. It’d be like one of those racial harmony movies I never go to see, like The Blind Side, where a Southern white lady instructs a weirdo black guy in how to use a fork. Broken barriers. Montage sequences. Golden Globes. But instead of forking up food, I’d be forking up poker knowledge. The way I understood it, from trailers and Oscar telecast montages, the black person teaches the white person something in return. I had no idea what that would be.
EXERCISE: Get a Poker Handle. The Old Masters of poker, they had truly awe-inspiring nicknames: Amarillo Slim, Sailor Roberts, Pippi Longstocking. So I got to brainstorming.
The Slouch: I slouched. Rocket Racer: after the Spider-Man nemesis/ally from the ’70s, a black guy on a rocket-powered skateboard. It was a multivalent moniker, alluding to my melanin count, my transportation issues, and “rocket” was slang for pocket Aces. “A pair of Aces, you better get ready to race if you want to take the pot from me,” he informed the empty room. Five-Dollar Colson: referring, for once, not to my home-game buy-in but to what I’d charge for most acts if I ever started hooking. I sell myself short a lot. Finally, I went with the Unsubscribe Kid. I liked the implied negation of things other humans might enjoy. Now all I had to do was get someone to ask me what my poker nickname was.
Pity the poor pilgrim who gets on a Greyhound bus and hears “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” come over the speakers. You are the Midnight Cowboy, extricating yourself painfully from your past, or you are Ratso Rizzo, expiring in the back row, wheezing and unsaved. But I found my seat, settled in with the day trippers, day workers, and hollow-eyed freaks, and got into the new rhythm of my days. “I can’t see their faces / only the shadows of their eyes.”
It went like this: I’d drop off the kid at school, hop on the subway to the Port Authority, and catch a bus to AC. Then I’d gamble gamble gamble, catch a midnight bus back to the city, sleep all day, and pick up the kid from school the next afternoon. I’d make dinner, put her to bed, read Harrington, take her to school, and start over again.
Over the years, my half-dead face had kept drop-off patter to a minimum, but occasionally I’d share a few words with the other parents on the way into the Lower School.
“Can’t believe the school year’s almost over.”
“They grow up so fast.”
“Off to work?”
“Actually, I’m going to Atlantic City to gamble.”
Was there a corresponding decrease in playdates? Sorry, little one. Flushed down to the social sub-sewers with Disgraced Embezzler Dad and Grifter Mom. They were scarce now, those two, at the First-Grade Parents Pot Luck, so I couldn’t even swap exile anecdotes with them.
I ran around AC. The all-you-can-eat buffet was central to the American Gambling Experience, allowing you to block your arteries while unstopping your bank account. I applied a philosophy of generous sampling to my casino tours, zipping across downtown in taxis to try the shrimp cocktail at the Borgata, the prime rib that is Caesars, saving a corner on my plate for the pigs in a blanket that characterized the Showboat.
I never lasted long at the Borgata, the biggest and swankiest joint in town, constructed according to prevailing Vegas theories of the megacasino. Leisure Industrial Complex all the way. Just as the cozy old casinos of Frank and Dean were razed to make room for colossal gambling pleasure domes, so was AC being reconfigured for the current needs of the LIC. You can only cram so many buildings on the boardwalk. How are you going to fit that Euro-style spa, TV chefs’ small-plate eateries, the vast dance-floor killing fields demanded by international hero-DJs? Hence the twin, shimmering gold towers of the Borgata. Located in the marina area, explaining the establishment’s name, which is Esperanto for “built on a swamp.”
Coach was right. The ’Gata had the most popular poker room in town, having assumed the mantle from the Trump Taj. The Taj was the home of Hold’em during the late-’90s surge in the game’s popularity. The final showdown in the Matt Damon poker vehicle Rounders propped up its reputation for a time. Nowadays, online poker forums warned of muggings, shady clientele, and shadier doings. Which wouldn’t happen at the Borgata — one whiff of the bewitching aromas from Bobby Flay’s grill, and even the most larcenous soul is scared straight by the tang of nouveau Tex-Mex flavor profiles.
On a typical Borgata jaunt, I entered a late-morning tournament, got bounced by noon, and then did a divining-rod thing with my phone to find a signal so I could figure out where to hit next. I’d hear Coach’s voice whenever I did this: “Keep that in your pocket.” People slouch at the tables, earbudded, listening to whatever, a hundredsong loop of various covers of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” from Liza Minnelli’s New Wave — inflected version to Lou Reed’s unreleased, oddly affecting acoustic demo. No distractions, she said. It took a lot of willpower. I feel about my phone the way horror-movie ventriloquists feel about their dummies: It’s smarter than me, better than me, and I will kill anyone who comes between us.
I only conferred with my little buddy between levels, checking advice on poker sites: when do you throw out a probe bet, how much do you bet on the button? I subscribed to the Poker Atlas’s Twitter feed, which had the city’s tourney schedule on constant scroll. Tackle the 1:00 p.m. Bally’s $55 tourney, Harrah’s 1:15 p.m. start for $100, or Caesars’ 1:15 p.m. dealio, also a hundred bucks? I didn’t have intel on which poker rooms were dead or barely twitching. Sometimes there weren’t enough players for a game, and I’d hike it back to the marina for a mid-afternoon shift at Harrah’s. Sometimes something big was going down, like the World Poker Tour, and there’d be no one to deal because all the dealers were moonlighting across town. These miscalculations cut into my shrinking practice time, already too tight. Where to next, where to next?
EXERCISE: Manage tells. Table image is the one-man show you tour through town after town. Every poker player has a shtick, is Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain Tonight! across Podunks. You have heard of the famous “tells”—the behavioral clues that put you onto someone’s hand, such as squeezing out armpit farts or crooning “Touch Me in the Morning” when they hit their gutshot straight. I didn’t have time to become a master reader of tells, between keeping track of inflection points, calculating rough pot odds, and riffling through my mental catalogue of new poker knowledge. But I could manage my own tells, come up with some fake ones to psyche people out. If I shared them here, you’d know my secrets, but here’s a freebie: Reenacting the chest-buster scene from Alien means I’m on a draw.
There was one establishment in AC that always had a game going. It was never recommended by players I met. Indeed they invariably guffawed at the mention. But the mighty Showboat was always there for me, like a dependable neighborhood bodega. It had what I needed.
My first Showboat experience came after I’d been turned away from a totally dead Caesars card room, which I’d rushed to after getting the boot from a Borgata tourney. The Caesars floor guy told me there weren’t going to be enough players. I came down to AC for this? My flop days were adding up, and when I did play, I busted early. I got into a taxi to the bus station … and almost made it there before I told the cabbie to turn around. Time to try the Showboat.
If the Borgata served up the contemporary luxury-resort experience, the Showboat specialized in the more particular fetish of nostalgia. The name harkened to the glorious heyday of riverboat gambling, you know, with those steam-powered boats with the big paddlewheels, where ladies with parasols promenaded on deck and men pulled out their watch fobs to see if they had time for “a little game of chance.” Pioneers of the casino captive-audience thing. I gather proximity to water was too tempting for despondent gamblers, which led to the rise of the landlocked, more suicide-proof gambling house. The cheap stakes of nickel slots en route to the exit can talk a body off the ledge.
From this antebellum home square, the Showboat hopscotched in and out of decades. The ’50s-themed Johnny Rockets burger joint reminded boomers of sock hops, roller-skating waitstaff, the first backseat gropings. The House of Blues served up rootsy sentimentality, reminiscences of swell nights in blues franchises in New Orleans, Houston, San Diego. (Remember those two sloppy German matrons? Too bad we had to get up early the next day for the ConAgra convention.) Yes, Big Mitch, there was a time before second mortgages and leaky roofs and Kaitlyn crashing the car for the second time. The piped-in Nirvana and Pixies — now officially oldies bands — welcomed middle-aged, Gen-X lumps like me. The sights and sounds of bygone days told us that anything was still possible, the way the snap of a dealer cutting cards and the maddening chimes of loose slots assured us we could be winners. That sure, gambling sound of promise.
The Showboat Poker Room was compact but busy, and I’d usually last a few hours among the sad-sack tourists and young, sharp-eyed local talent.
BAVERGES! the cocktail waitresses called.
HARRINGTON! I responded.
His head hovered on the covers of volumes I, II, III like a rheumy-eyed Oz. Eyes peering beneath a green Red Sox cap, observing, judging, as if to ask, “What, actually, are you rooting for on the flop?” and “Why don’t you make a standard continuation bet of about half the pot, and see what happens?” Do you have enough outs? Are you discouraging action pre-flop?
Who was this Hold’em sage, this Hoyle-bred Socrates? His name was Dan Harrington and in the early part of the twenty-first century, he published his ridiculously influential, multivolume Harrington on Hold ’em: Expert Strategy for No-Limit Tournaments. Every discipline has its master texts. Harrington’s books are to boom-era poker players what Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is to mealy-mouthed I-bankers (“All warfare is based on deception”), as essential as Speak, Butter is to artisanal emulsion-makers (“To churn is to live”).
Harrington was almost sixty years old when he wrote the first volume. He’d won two WSOP bracelets, cashed millions of dollars, and made it to Main Event Final Table two years in a row, the first player to do so. And possibly the last — the game was undergoing a fundamental shift. Chris Moneymaker’s legendary win in the 2003 Main Event had summoned the amateurs to Vegas, transforming the game in the manner that trimming fat from muscle meat and curing it in the sun turns animal flesh into delicious jerky. Online sites like PokerStars and Ultimate Bet were virtual poker universities, matriculating thousands. The new kids needed passwords to authorize bank transfers, and they needed textbooks. Harrington on Hold ’em codified conventional wisdom, elucidated the inner-circle concepts, and helped create a common tournament slang of squeeze plays, inflection points, and M.
Coach gave me Harrington homework, and I made slow but incremental progress through his strategies for satellites, internet tourneys, and brick-and-mortar showdowns. His words yielded new interpretations over time, like a really neat poem or a divorce settlement. I keyed into the rhythms of the game, the phases within phases. There is an early, middle, and late temperament to each tournament, and inside that, an early, middle, and late temperament to each hand. Harrington hipped innocents like me to the late-stage tourney mind-set and late-hand strategies, giving names to that which I understood only on a subconscious level.
Like: Why had play tightened up, slowed down in that first Tropicana tournament? Because even in that shorthanded game, we had approached the Great Membrane of the Bubble. The top 10 percent of players inside the Bubble get a share of the winnings. Everyone wants in after playing for so long, so they get conservative. No one wants to be the “Bubble Boy,” the last schnook who gets close and walks away with nothing. Methy Mike had wanted me, and my hanging-by-my-fingertips stack, to hurry and vamoose so the endgame could start.
Usually the prose in poker books is as ugly and utilitarian as their layouts. The Harringtons, while not skimping on the lingo, were furnished with an easy-going inclusive voice. And plenty of work problems. He dropped a bunch of science, then slowed things with study hands that he broke down step by step. “Do you fold, call, or raise?” “What now?” “You should limp into this pot with 3 callers ahead of you in this scenario,” he’d instruct — and then go on to describe what happens if you ignored his advice. The annotated blunders were especially helpful. I discovered that whenever I bet horrendously or busted out, it was because I’d strayed from his teachings. I was the very dumbshit he described!
But like I said, everyone had read the same book. You knew what they were up to and vice versa. After Doyle Brunson self-published his massive poker bible, Super System, in 1978, he lamented giving away his secrets. In the old days, “The top players would let the inferior players round up the money; then they would beat them. The hometown champions would break their local games, then come out [to Vegas] and be broken by us.” Then they read Brunson’s book of spells and started to beat the pros. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t write that book.”
As the Main Event neared, I binge-watched a bunch of WSOP games from that spring. There was Harrington, pushing away from the table, busted, given a Viking funeral from the on-air commentators. The kids resumed play without him. They had their diplomas.
And they were making new discoveries.
EXERCISE: Preserve my “essence.” Like heavyweights who refrain from sexual activity prior to a big bout in order to channel and convert that energy into violence, I, too, would safeguard my “essence.” The mind-body harmony thing. Then it was brought to my attention that preserving one’s “essence” meant no self-abuse. Once again, I had failed myself without even knowing it. Just as I had made a judgment call that I didn’t have time to become a maestro in playing suited connectors in middle position, I’d have to forgo this segment of my regimen. Stamp this part of my training REVISED.
The dealer tossed the cards around the table. Was there something I was supposed to remember? Right: Patience and Position. I had the first P down, what with the biding, etc., and over the years my day job had strengthened my natural talent in that area. In novel-writing, biding is everything. How will I drag my mutilated body over the finish line, hundreds of pages later? You practice a slow parceling out of self to survive the swamp of self-doubt, to tolerate the juvenile delinquent sentences who keep acting out. Waiting years for a scofflaw eleven-word sentence to shape up into an upstanding ten-word sentence: This is the essence of Patience.
And what did Coach mean by Position? You are at a poker table. Social dynamics and probabilities change according to how many people you are up against and where you’re sitting. Why was Helen’s Six Handed game different, why did Heads-Up require its own branch of study? Seriously, there are Heads-Up experts — they have their own NBC-TV show and armbands.
Well, imagine you are alone in a room. The lights are down low, you’ve got some scented candles going. Soothing New Age tunes, nothing too druid-chanty, seep out of the hi-fi to gently massage your cerebral cortex. Feel good? Are you the best, most special person in the room right now? Yes. That’s the gift of being alone.
Then a bozo in a CAT Diesel Power cap barges in. What’s the chance that you are the best, most special person in the room now? Fifty-fifty. If you both were dealt two cards, those would be your odds of holding the winning hand.
Now imagine ten people are in the room. It’s cramped. You’re elbow to elbow, aerosolized dandruff floats in the air, and the candle’s lavender scent is complicated by BO tones, with a tuna sandwich finish. What are the chances you’re the best, most special person in the room? If you were handed cards, you might expect to be crowned one time out of ten.
People, as ever, are the problem. The more people there are, the tougher you have it. Just by sitting next to you, they fuck you up, as if life were nothing more than a bus ride to hell (which it is). But what if you moved to another seat? Changed position? Your seat is everything. It can give you room to relax, to contemplate your next move. Or it might instigate your unraveling.
Sometimes you act first. Sometimes last. If you have a small pair and you’re under the gun, as they say, how do you know what to bet? Nine intruders are going to act after you, and your big raise might be a mistake. It’d be so nice to wait and see what they were going to do, to kick back and enjoy the scenery before committing. The lady in late position has that luxury of time and space. If four crazies jump in, raising and re-raising and bebop-ping all over the place, she can politely fold and watch the carnage.
Different hands are more or less playable depending on whether you’re the first, middle, or late to act. You’ll always play a pair of Aces, but when you’re sitting in late position with deuces while Mothra and Godzilla are stomping Tokyo? Hide in the subway tunnels with the other terrified citizens and wait for the sounds of carnage to stop. Pick your fights like you pick your nose: with complete awareness of where you are.
Why was Six Handed different, and why did Helen like it? If you ask me, it’s because I’m only competing with five people to be the best, most special person in the room. The more learned among us would say that Six Handed is a different beast because there’s more action. Mercenaries like war because they like to scrap it up, and they get paid. More hands per hour at a smaller table, the orbits spinning and spinning, and weaker holdings, like one pair or two pair, become more playable due to less competition. Heads-Up, even more so. Pure combat.
“I’m terrible at the Final Table when it’s Heads-Up,” I complained to Coach at the end of our first meeting. Dealing one-on-one with another person, in primal communication, it fed my psychological defects. My shrink thought this was a suitable line of inquiry, and perhaps we’d get to it once we dealt with all that other crap.
“You won’t be playing Heads-Up,” Helen said. In the WSOP, like all tournaments, when people get knocked out the guys on the floor fill the seats with other players, but once the Main Event is reduced to nine guys, they adjourn until November. To maximize TV ratings. In the unlikely event al-Qaeda gunned down everyone in the tournament except for me and a Robotron, I’d have plenty of time to learn about proper Heads-Up play.
The study problems in Phil Gordon’s books gave me grief, I told her. “Phil Gordon’s always like, ‘I was at this table playing 8–6 offsuit’—”
“Forget that. You’re too you to play that way. Play your game.”
I was too me. Precisely.