“Are you a card player?”
The cabbie had just picked me up at the Mirage. The sun was up, the card room was still full, and two drunk girls were slipping into the sunlight like a gator into the Everglades.
Am I a card player? I thought.
It was an obvious question. From the Wynn to sbo Mandalay Bay, the only thing going on besides the National Hall of Fame Dance Competition was the World Series of Poker. At least 10,000 of the people in town were either card players or relatives of one. Since I was going to the Rio, I had to either be a card player or the prodigal father of some Jon Benet Ramsey-esque tart in tight shorts and sequins. Just the other day I was walking behind a swinging, barely-covered ass with the words “Get Some” written across the cheeks. It was only after passing by that I realized the girl couldn’t have been more than 14.
“I’ve played poker before, but my real game is video poker,” the cabbie was saying as I took another look at the mountains on the edge of town. There is a desolate beauty to them that makes me feel happy and sad at the same time.
“I hit eleven royal flushes last year,” he said.
Am I a card player?
Despite the fact I’d been working 14-hours days, I’d still been playing more live poker than at any point in my life. As a narcotics officer from the Denver area said to me one night, “When you’re this far away from your family, you have to do something to pass the time.”
I’d become a fairly familiar face at the $10/$20 tables. The locals knew my name, the dealers had nicknames for me and asked me how my workday went, and I only had to raise my eyebrows at John the cocktail guy to get him to bring me my beverage of choice.My wins and losses were, if not well-documented in writing, sealed in my brain like a cobra and mongoose in a fish tank. There was the night I took 11 stacks of red off a single $10/$20 table. There was the night I played in the $225 last chance tournament and got my money in with JJ versus ATs and A6o and lost. A6, the big dog, took it down. And there were many other nights, as endorphin-pleasing and eye-sucking as you might imagine.
As the cabbie prattled on about video poker, I couldn’t help but smile a bit. During some dinner breaks, I’d go with Pauly to the hooker bar (so named because the hookers congregate there late at night to pick up horny tourists). One night, Pauly took a phone call and I absently slipped $20 in the jacks or better machine. By the time Pauly was off the phone, I’d hit quad aces and profited $180. On two consecutive liquid dinner breaks following that night, I hit quad deuces and quad nines. Pauly was agog. What he didn’t know was that I’d hit quad tens, jacks, and sevens at the All American Bar and Grill while waiting on my to-go breakfast orders on various nights.
There was a time many years ago when I was sitting at a Pai Gow poker table in the middle of the night with some friends. A pit boss told me he didn’t play many cards, but he played piano. I said I’d been playing guitar for about 20 years. He laughed and wiggled his fingers like he was tickling the ivories.
“Not piano piano,” he said. “You know, video poker.”
A person who plays video poker fast would understand. The strategies are so easy and inculcated that it’s possible to play the game, drive a car, date, marry, and divorce a woman, while still finding time to eat a steak sandwich and go to the bathroom.
But piano players aren’t card players. Fortunately, my liquid dinner indiscretions notwithstanding, I’m not a piano player.
But am I a card player?
Over the past few years, I’ve played tens of thousands of hands online. I’ve played in home games, hotel conference room games, hotel room games, bar games, and country club games. I’ve played in Atlantic City, France, Monte Carlo, Austria, and more times than I care to count in Las Vegas. My biggest tournament win (not including the $12,000 Party Poker Million seat that I didn’t end up using) was around $8000. My biggest cash game night was a profit of about $4000 in eight hours. My losses are what you’d expect when playing at levels that can win you that kind of money. They never come all at once. It’s a gradual slide that you fight off like a drunk friend who wants to go to Waffle House at 5am. That is, you get him to pass out two or three times, but you know before sunrise you’ll be eating some sort of scrapple on toast and wishing you were in jail.
Now, I’ve spent a grand total of three weeks at the World Series of Poker. I’ve seen and recorded the most brutal beats, the most fanstic plays, and the slings and arrows that go along with big-dollar tournament play. I’ve stood in awe in some of the name-pros and aghast at some of the others. Just tonight, I got caught in a literal sandwich between Phil Hellmuth and Howard Lederer. As they both walked into the tournament area, I was walking in the other direction. None of us gave any ground as we stepped in between two tables. Before I knew what was happening, I was staring into Hellmuth’s armpit while Lederer’s stomach pushed against my elbow.
All I could think is, I’m being sandwiched by my idol and the guy I’d most like to see audited by the IRS.
But idol worship is tenuous at the WSOP. I find that the people I disliked, I dislike even more. And the people I idolized…well, they just seem like everybody else now. It’s not much different than looking at the same mountains as you drive to work every day. They look amazing for your first month, but after that, they sort of fade into the background and you find yourself listening to talk radio more than looking out the window.
The rumor (apparently now confirmed by several sources, but none of mine) is that Gus Hansen is broke. I don’t know if it’s true. I’m not sure I care, but it’s the rumor of the week. He skipped the entire WSOP, showing up just a couple of days ago to walk the floor and leave.
I get the feeling that for a majority of tournament players, the fine line between being broke and being a hero is a hard one to walk. So many of the name-pros play nearly every event. Only a few make final tables. Even fewer make mutiple final tables or win a bracelet. I knew a guy in college (a guy I idolized for some time) who hit on anything that even smelled of femininity. He got rejected, sure. But he got laid more than anybody else I knew. I get the feeling tournament poker is much the same. Shoot ten times, score once.
There was a part of me a year or so ago that believed I wanted to be a fulltime poker pro. I never really admitted it out loud or believed it for very long. But there were those nights (usually after a major win or great session) that I thought I could do it.