I have a good poker face because I am half-dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze had helped my game ever since I started playing 20 years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and three-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It had not helped me human relationships-wise over the years, but surely I am not alone here — anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences had resulted in a near-expressionless mask could 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 didn’t mess with you on buses, and this day I was heading to training camp. 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. I had to get in shape.
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 I checked out the websites of local driving schools, which as a species embodied the most retrograde web design on the internet, real Galapagos stuff replete with frenetic logos and fonts they didn’t make any more, 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 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 before.
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 faces you’ve shopped at plenty of times, Duane Reade, Hudson News, the kiosks of big banks yet to fail. I could be anywhere, starting a journey to any place, 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, and an artisanal root cola, all for 10 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 chickenhawks? 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 are 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 I sat two rows up from the lav and 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. 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 — clapboard homes, broken chapels, purveyors of quick cash — that seemed washed up against the casinos like driftwood and plastic, and then we pulled into the Plex1 .
Growing up in the city, I never went to a lot of malls, so I didn’t have those psychological scars my Midwestern friends have, who cringed at the thought of all the adolescent afternoons spent mindlessly drifting across the buffed tile. I like the Plex when I can find it, those consumer arenas arranged by the Leisure Industrial Complex, whether 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, or a red-bricked pedestrian mall reclaimed from urban blight and dolled up to commemorate some location of inflated historical import. There is the multiplicity of diversion, sure, but more important is the idea that a sector of human endeavor was diligently trying to improve itself, and succeeding spectacularly. Consumer theorists, commercial architects, scientists of demography were working hard to make the Plex better, more efficient, more perfect, analyzing the traffic patterns and microscopic eye movements of shoppers, the implications of rest room and water fountain placement, and disseminating their innovations throughout the world 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 20 years knows that casinos are the highest exponent of Plex technology, high rollers in the Leisure Industrial Complex. The contemporary casino is more than a gambling destination, it is 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 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 is 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. This outpost of the Plex was the Tropicana, local franchise of the famous Vegas stand-by, where James Bond stayed 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 is 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 20 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 doesn’t wait for their bonus, it was free money. I jumped up and joined the apostates. I was vibrating with newly acquired poker knowledge, and couldn’t wait. I checked in, had some buffalo wings for fuel, and soon I was in the Tropicana Poker Room.
I found my degradation. You can raze the old buildings and erect magnificent corporate towers, hose down Port Authority, but you can’t change people. I was among gamblers.
I sat down at a 1-2 table with some 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), 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 did not 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, unknowable rules. 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 1326 possible starting combinations.
And then there was Robotron, squeezed in there, lean and wiry and hunkered down, a young man with sunglasses and ear buds, 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 before (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 a 18 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 sub-divs.) Real people, talking, breathing, it must be so weird to them. Their ear buds help keep em out, playing music, self-help manuals, “The Art of War” 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 60-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 starting 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. Instead of the ante you’ve heard of, only two people plop down an automatic bet without seeing their cards: the Big Blind and the Small Blind. Blind, because you’re in a dark mine probably about to step into the abyss. Depending on the stakes, the Big Blind is two dollars and the Small Blind is one dollar, or 50 cents and 25 cents, 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 two dollars or one dollar, 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 at night use this place as their bathroom, according to a parenting blog). If the rest of the players at the table, a maximum of 10, want to enter the hand, they have to match the Big Blind of two dollars or 50 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 one dollar to match the current bet, and then the Big Blind, who, 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. They can squeeze you like a vise. 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.” (This 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 flyboys have miscalculated again and dropped you smack in the enemy trenches. Everyone checks, bets, raises or gives up 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 Godzilla. 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. On a bad night you lose 20 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.
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! The stakes are intensified, but if you bust out, you can still go into your pocket.
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 crammed 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, just for morale’s sake. Big Mitch’s 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 — was disappearing. 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 I won 81 dollars. Chickenfeed, but enough to cover the entrance fee for tomorrow’s tournament.
I returned to my room. I was going to hit the books in the morning before the 11 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 carpet 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 36 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 100 bucks in a game last summer. “One hundred dollars!” She believed in me. (Here’s a tip for new parents: Start lowering those expectations early, it’s going to pay off later.)
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; the sundry gamers 12 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 refuge once a month, 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.
I threw myself into my training. It was nice to have a diversion from how I usually spent my days, which was basically me attempting to quantify, to the highest degree of accuracy, the true magnitude of my failures — their mass, volume, and specific gravity. It passed the time in the absence of hobbies. Sure, I worked on my nagging sense of incompleteness a lot, when I had a spare moment, but that was more of a calling than a hobby.
The World Series of Poker was my intro to the world of mano-a-mano competition. I’d never been much of an athlete. Perhaps if there had been a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d have taken 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.
I was fortunate to find my sensei in novelist Helen Ellis, who half-scoffed at my usual stakes with a raised eyebrow but nonetheless agreed to give me some crucial pointers. When asked at the poker table about her occupation, she says “housewife” for cover, but she’s published two novels (Eating the Cheshire Cat, The Turning) and has been on the professional poker circuit for the past few years. Last year, she had a nice run in the WSOP No Limit Hold ‘Em Six Handed event. “Sometimes you just run a table,” Helen told me over lunch one day, “and I was running every table I was at.” There’s a picture of her playing against poker superstars Phil Ivey and James Akenhead, whom she knocked out of the game. Which is pretty cool.
Helen started playing in casinos on her 21st birthday. Her father met her in Vegas. Around midnight he took her to the front of Caesar’s, with its soaring plaster temples and gigantic toga’d figures, den of Roman kitsch. Up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, the huge casinos beckoned. “Sit down and look around,” he said. “This is the Center of the Universe.” Now, father and daughter meet on the circuit, playing eight tournaments a year. Husband Lex comes, too. He plays a tight game, apparently.
Helen was the perfect teacher, hipping me to the right books (Harrington and 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 life in tourneyland (“Stay on the Ipanema side — the rooms are better”). Those first weeks, when I was trying to soup up my game, she told me about where to play in AC, and more important, kept me from freaking out at the enormity of the task ahead.
“I’m terrible at the final table when it’s heads up,” I complained to Helen. 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. When people get knocked out, the guys on the floor fill the seats with other players, and once the Main Event finally gets down 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 Gordon were giving me grief, I told her. “Phil Gordon’s always like, ‘I was at this table playing 8-6 off suit’ — ”
“Forget that. You’re too you to play that way. Play your game.”
I was too me. Precisely.
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. Five Dollar Colson: Referring, for once, not to my home-game buy-in, but what’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.
EXERCISE: Sunglasses. Like most people, I’d spent my whole life looking for a socially acceptable situation in which I could wear sunglasses indoors, and here it was. They made for good TV, most definitely, the sunglasses guys and their imposing, unreadable faces, the lenses reflecting back your own dumb face. Mirrored, wrap-around, robin’s egg tinted. Sunglass Hut did not stock what I required. I needed the exactly just-so pair, some sort of Vulcan smithy-god to forge them in the very bowels of the Earth, a set of glowing, molten intimidation shades in a scene drawn by Walt Simonson. Well, I tried, but despite my efforts I couldn’t bring myself to wear sunglasses during my practice runs. The social taboos were too strong, or my inner douchebag monitor set too high, I dunno. I’d have to make do with my naturally half-dead mug.
I was playing in AC tournaments and my game was improving. On to the second area of training, PHYSICAL:
The vessel of my body — this fragile sack of blood, “essence” (see below), and melancholy humors — had to get up to competition-grade performance. Throughout the ages, much has been written about the interrelatedness of the mind and the body. Suburban moms who lift Volkswagens off pinned toddlers, for example. I’d be a fool to ignore the holistic reality. In Vegas, I’d be lifting metaphorical Kias and Hyundais left and right.
Like writing, poker involved a lot of sitting on your ass, but that didn’t mean you weren’t burning fuel. “Lex and I lost five pounds!” Helen informed me, referring to their last trip. The Main Event at the World Series of Poker ran seven days, each one a 12-hour series of jungle skirmishes with predators who wanted to rip your bones out of your skin. You had to be vigilant. You grab a bite when you can, the caloric intake going to power your game, your all-important table image, the mask of your poker identity: alternately representing strength and weakness, riding herd over tells, manufacturing ersatz tells, placing bait for traps, stealing and thieving blinds. Picking up chips. Putting down chips. It adds up.
I was put in contact with Kim Albano, a licensed physical trainer and patient soul. In the business for more than a decade, she specialized in posture and core strengthening, Vinyasa yoga with a little Iyengar thrown in, Alexander Technique. I had been given yoga mats over the years as gifts, but the phrase “loose-fitting clothing” had always confounded me, conjuring visions of tunics or otherwise Jawa-type vestments, neither of which I owned. Opting for cargo shorts — whose multiple pockets I increasingly relied on to spare me the indignity of carrying a fanny-pack or man-bag — I met Kim at a space she sometimes used on Fourth Ave in Brooklyn. I described my assignment before we met, and she was amenable.
“I have to become a Living Poker Weapon in six weeks,” I said.
“You mentioned ‘Rocky-style’ in your e-mail,” she said.
“This might be a bit conceptual.”
Kim did my intake, quizzing me about my exercise history (mere vapor), ailments (psychosomatic in the main), and hydration regimen (“You have to keep drinking water”). Was I under stress? I had just finished a book, I explained, so I was less stressed than I had been. Any injuries she should be aware of? The only big thing was this formidable crick in my neck, which had only lately disappeared. My magnificent ergonomic chair, the steadfast galleon I had sailed through books and books, had finally sprung a leak. After 10 years, the webbing of the seat had given way, so I stuffed a throw pillow in there when I had to work, and I sat in there half-sunk, arms grotesquely angled, and over the weeks a stupendous crick took up residence around my left shoulder blade. The pain was exacerbated by my habit of crawling to the living room couch when I had insomnia. The 5 a.m. traffic reports on the bleary, early-bird news shows often returned me to sleep — in my aforementioned license-less state, the reports of blocked interstates and impenetrable bridges were a lulling white noise to me, abstractions stripped of meaning. I was sleeping on the couch so much it was as if I were married again. “But it’s mostly gone away,” I told Kim.
I described the average day at the tournament, the importance of keeping your shit together as you trudged through bad beats and dead cards, resisting the lure of going “on tilt” — a species of berserker rage that destroyed one’s gameplay. She taught me how to sit. She taught me how to breathe according to the basic principles of 19th century health guru F.M. Alexander, and reintroduced me to my neglected spine, which I had long treated as a kind of hat-rack for my sundry, shabby articles of self. We ran through elementary yoga poses — Cat, Cow, Downward Dog. I mentioned that we got 20 minute breaks every two hours — what could I do to stay loose and limber? She said, Cat, Cow, Downward Dog. I said, “I can’t do that in a casino.” My table image would suffer. We proceeded. I liked the sitting and the breathing, the glancing moments of proprioception.
“Bring it into you,” she said, “make it yours, and then you can bring it into your poker.” As I walked out into the glare and early summer heat of Fourth Avenue, I felt a peculiar sense of well-being, which I quickly banished by sheer force of will, as I didn’t want to ruin my streak. Assimilating this knowledge would take time, but I felt that soon I would be a lean, mean, sitting machine.
EXERCISE: Manage tells. Table image is the one-man show you tour through town after town. Every poker player has a shtick, Hal is Holbrook doing “Mark Twain” across Podunks. You have heard of the famous “tells” — the behavioral clues that put you on to someone’s hand, such as squeezing out armpit farts or crooning “Touch Me in the Morning” when you hit your gut-shot 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 new poker knowledge, I already had too much on my mind. 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 in Alien means I’m on a draw.
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 again.) 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 forego this segment of my training. You have to pick your battles.
EXERCISE: Purify the spirit. I had to improve my diet in Vegas, start eating a proper breakfast in order to make it through each day’s marathon. “Do you eat meat?” Helen asked. I did. “Good.” It was long time to the dinner break, and that’s when some players start drinking, and drinking led to errors. I could no longer ruin my body with noxious substances, poison my mind with various toxins. I was doing well with the cigarettes, had been off them for nine months, although it helped that the disappointment of not having a post-dinner cigarette, or a just-stepped-outside cigarette, or a just-woke-up cigarette was dwarfed by the newer, state-of-the-art disappointments the world threw my way. I was saved by scale. Why stop with cigarettes? I could renounce more things, like (1) cut back on my microbrews, and (2) most reality television. Get behind me, master brewers of Brooklyn, Portland, and Chapel Hill, you hipster hopsters and your new-fangled brands of incipient, yuppified alcoholism. My reality TV purge meant everything save the competitive weight-loss shows, whose contestants, I recognized, were on a parallel journey to my own. The World’s Biggest Loser: exactly so. My failures possessed a weight, I carried them around, and before poker I sought the proper instrument of their measure. These reality TV pilgrims had already learned how to calculate their weakness, for its substance possessed an actual mass determinable before a live TV audience. Those shows made me more teary than Pixar movies, the unalloyed pleasure these guys and gals displayed over their new mastery of self, the erasure of decades of daily, mounting mistakes. Just look at the pants they used to wear. This one guy lost 150 pounds and said, “I was carrying another man around.” They had found themselves: It had been hiding in their skins all this time, waiting. That better, biding self. I could do it. More fiber, for starters.
Two weeks before the Main Event, I met with Helen again. She’d already been out to the WSOP, which lasts for weeks and features dozens of tournaments. Omaha High Low, HORSE, Six Handed. I asked her how it was.
“It was Heaven. Heaven!” Pure joy in her voice at the thought of it. Although Helen cashed deep in the $1,500 No Limit event, she didn’t win enough to pay her way into the Big Game. Since she’d returned east, she’d avoided WSOP news. I tried to give her an update, what I gleaned from her Twitter list of players to follow, but I was pretty useless.
Helen gave me another poker seminar, and I scribbled bullet points in my marble notebook. She briefed me on some new moves she hadn’t seen before — people in Vegas were breaking out their next-level shit all over the place. I wrote it down, feeling like a jerk. I was being staked to play in the Main Event, and here I was picking the brain of someone who was so obviously in love with the game — the rushes, the science, the sheer dynamism of it — and she wasn’t going to be there. I was playing for Methy Mike and Big Mitch and the other home-game slobs, but of course I was also playing for Helen now. I recorded her wisdom and resolved to play according to the teachings of my sensei, and try not to fuck it up too much.
“Get into your spine,” Kim said. “Get into your body.” I was getting into my spine, I was getting into my body. Per instructions, I imagined a string that traveled through my head into my spinal column, and that the rest of my body dangled off it: The Marionette, they called it. “I want you to feel supported, and unsupported.” It was easy to relate to being a puppet, under the sway of some malevolent and capricious puppet master: This was already a close approximation of my relationship with my deity. In Kim’s studio — as the fan almost covered the noise from the playground across the street and the ambulance hustling by — I pictured myself floating through the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, past the rows and rows of the barking slots and the creatures who clawed their hands through big, white chum buckets of coins, deep breath in, past the crowd huddled around the craps table as they cheered on some lucky devil’s rush, deep breath out, past the cheapo blackjack tables and the high-stakes blackjack tables and the cordoned-off rooms of the super-high-rollers, which were always empty save for the eerily patient dealer, and into the Pavilion, the chamber as large as a football field where the tournament unfolded, the numbers and color codes hanging from the ceiling on wires, where my first seat of the tourney awaited my rebuilt posture. Shuffle up and deal.
“Did you get what you wanted out of it?” Kim asked. It was our last training session. Yes, I had. I could use this.
“I bet you have a good poker face,” she said. “You’re hard to read. Most people, you can tell if they’re having an easy time or if something is painful. With you, you can’t really tell —”
“My blank face —”
“It’s hard to tell.”
There it was again. For years and years, people had informed me I had a good poker face, when I told them I was going to play at a friend’s on Friday night, or ran into them on the subway while carrying my suitcase of monogrammed chips, which was a gift from a college buddy after I was a groomsman in his wedding: “I bet you have a good poker face.” They don’t know a set of trips from a royal flush, but they know this fact. What they’re really saying is, you are a soulless monster whose fright mask is incapable of capturing normal human expressions. You are a throwback to a Neanderthal state of uncomplicated emotions, or a harbinger of our cold, passionless future, but either way, I don’t know what’s going on in your head.
Perhaps I am projecting.
Nonetheless, we have now definitely waded into the waters of training area numero three: EXISTENTIAL. I can’t help it if I understand everything tends to ruin. Over our heads, Skylab is eternally falling down, I can see it all, the debris raining without cessation. I was a skinny guy, but I was morbidly obese with doom. By disposition, I was keyed into the entropic part of gambling, which says that eventually, you will lose it all. The house always wins. Even for the most talented players, the cards fail for weeks or months or years, the beats are the baddest of the bad, you are blinded out of existence. Remember how I mentioned the blinds? They escalate at intervals, and if you don’t keep ahead of them by doubling up your stack, they’ll eliminate you. They are a Wave of Mutilation. You survive one Wave of a big blind, then the half-size one of the small blind, diminished, and then the next Wave starts gathering force down-table.
I was in tune with decay, I had it down. What I needed to do was get in touch with decay’s opposing force, whatever that thing is that gets us out of bed each day and keeps us a few steps ahead of the Wave: the hope of some good cards next hand.
For the citizens of the Republic of Anhedonia, luck is merely the temporary state of outrunning your impending disasters. But sometimes my countrymen and I have to look beyond our native truths and pray. Even a temporary respite from the usual level of soul-snuffing drudgery is a blessing. Luck would have to do. You need skill in poker, but you also need the puppet master to be in a good mood every once in a while. I didn’t have much skill, but I’d prepared the best I could. I suppose I could have run simulations of previous World Series on the holodeck, but I didn’t have a holodeck. They haven’t even been invented yet. Luck would have to carry me where my training failed.
On the morning of Friday, July 8, I hopped a plane to Vegas to play in the Main Event. Like one of my beautiful losers, I would step on the scale before a live studio audience and we’d all see how much bad stuff I had shed.
Like my first sexual experience, my time at the World Series of Poker didn’t last long … is how I would have started this section if I’d been eliminated the first day. But I wasn’t. Suck it, Entropy. We have an appointment, my old friend, but not today.
I didn’t have illusions about being one of the November Nine. We live in an age in which sitcoms outnumber miracles, and perhaps that is what we deserve. Rounders and Matt Damon’s chin ignited the late-’90s romance of hold ‘em among the kids, but it was Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 World Series coup that cemented the narrative of The Rise of the Amateur. Internet gaming upended the rules: Moneymaker parleyed 39 bucks in an online satellite into a seat at the Big Game, and ended up winning the whole shebang, 2.5 million bucks, besting poker maestros and demi-maestros and side-stepping bad fortune. The “Moneymaker Effect” transformed the Main Event. The next year, attendance tripled to 2,500 hopefuls. The guys at home — Miller Lite wisping out of their pores and into the upholstery of their fave recliners, the latest arguments with the wife and the most recent workplace humiliations buzzing in their brains — said to themselves, I can do that. “I’m the best player in my weekly game, everyone says so.” The Moneymaker mythology was just another version of gambling’s core fantasy: I am different from those losers I see on the street every day, this time I will prove it has not been all for naught. I am a winner.
The amateurs were thumping the fabled cowboys these days, but I was an amateur’s amateur. I didn’t want to go out first, and I wanted to make it to Day 3 at least. Day 3 had the sheen of respectability. I would not bring shame upon my house — my friends, family, and poker game back home. To Coach. Day 3, then take it from there.
Since there were four starting days to the Main Event, the first player flamed out while I was still in my Brooklyn hermit shack. Twenty minutes into Day 1A, his KKs got smithereened by Aces. He stumbled out of the hall, ducking the media, this nameless, hapless schmuck, and into the neon desert-within-a-desert that is Las Vegas, where presumably he spent some money.
What else are you going to do but spend some money? Take the new City Center area, a virtual money sink, a highly evolved specimen of Super-Plex that seemed almost self-aware once you entered its nimbus, bristling with enchantments 24/7. “Wow,” I said, as the highway lifted and aimed us into its black, glass heart. The dark buildings of the complex surrounded us — residential towers, sleek hotels — curvilinear, sheer and grim. Jon was driving — my college roommate. He showed me around my first night in town. He was also the first person to take me to a casino, one of the AC Trumps, back in ’96. Now he was playing tour guide again. “This wasn’t here the last time I came,” I said.
“Yes, and look at it,” Jon said. “It is shit.” Despite its 9 billion-dollar price-tag and 1.5 million square feet of space, the City Center (“Capital of the New World”) had not turned out to be the flaneur-friendly wonderland promised in the brochures. “They said it would look like Central Park,” Jon said. “Look, those are the trees.” He gestured toward to a lonesome half-dozen slouching out of the cement. I didn’t see any street retail on our approach, no inviting boulevards, no place to wander except into the entrances of the casinos. But what casinos! They were the magnificent embodiment of scientifically derived Plex principles: gargantuan in scale, single-minded in execution. A pure expression of consumer will.
The nearby Cosmopolitan, for starters. Jon took me there, into this ebony monolith whose name was nailed in huge letters across the top floor, more fitting for a corporate headquarters than a hotel. I appreciated the honesty. Condos were supposed to make up the bulk of the building, but the recession wiped out those aspirations. Deutsche Bank took over, apartments became hotel rooms, and the first floor a hypermodern casino — in the Vegas war of gambling vs. places for people to live, the money wins out, I imagine. Windows were scarce, per standard casino style, but the mammoth footprint of the building sometimes created the illusion of a banquet room without walls. All you can eat — this was land of fabled buffets, after all — you walked on and on, never satiated. Trudging through the main floor of the Cosmo on a weekend night and you were one of thousands — tens of thousands? — of hungry souls. Addled. Prey to sundry appetites. What’s next? One of your party is sucked into an eddy of diversion over there and has to be rescued by texted coordinates: Let’s reconnoiter over by the pai gow or the chanteuse who’s just mounted the platform by the crystal stairs. Micro-entertainments pop up here and there like brief sun-showers, suddenly somebody’s singing on a tiny stage for a couple of old standards, and then they split.
The hotel’s nightclub was called Marquee, up on the terrace. It was quite splendid. I wanted to stay, I wanted to live there. I’d scoop the hairballs and condoms from the drains in the pool, whatever. But since the disco was grafted onto a residential structure, access came by way of drab fire stairwells, which at peak traffic were filled with wobbly bachelorettes on stilettos, Jager-mad groomsmen, and leather-skinned jet-setters creaking in crisp designer duds who passed each other up and down the stairs with a delirious urgency. A scene from the inferior American remake of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or lost footage from The Towering Inferno.
The City Center is to old Las Vegas what the 2011 World Series is to the inaugural series, back at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1970. Only 40 years ago, but let’s picture it in sepia, for kicks. It was seven players then, and there was no official prize money. The players voted on the winner, Johnny Moss, who received a silver cup. In 2011 there were 6,856 entrants, and the top 10 percent got paid off, with the champion paying taxes on $8,711,956 in winnings. Harrah’s Entertainment runs the thing now, and it’s big biz, with circuit events across the country all year long at outposts of Harrah’s vast empire, an ever-increasing cable presence, and T-shirts. The machine hummed, you could barely hear it. Look for sawdust on the floors, and you will not find it. The old days were gone, like the Dunes, the Sands, imploded by dynamite charges, blown away. In their places these beautiful monsters emerged from the rubble: the Bellagio, the Venetian. Monster places for monster people — like I said, I wanted to move in.
The past couple of years, the Rio had been the home of the WSOP. The Rio shared the slab-architecture of the new megacasinos, rejecting the weary kitsch of old Vegas — the miniature cityscape of New York New York, the Paris’ Eiffel Tower replica. So corny! But really, what could the Rio have been shaped like — a 20-story toucan? The lightly enforced Brazilian theme disappeared altogether once you got to the convention hall, where the World Series had been underway for five weeks with lower-stake Hold ‘em events, Seven Card Razz, and the like. The declivity of the Hall of Legends was festooned with huge banners featuring the blown-up faces of game greats — a grim-looking Erick Lindgren, Scotty Nguyen, last year’s champ Jonathan Duhamel — then it was into the rotunda, where you could buy snacks, beef jerky, and WSOP merch. Smack in the middle of the rotunda was a WSOP display, featuring a TV monitor that replayed last year’s Final Table on a loop day and night. When I went to register the morning of my start, at 6 (I hadn’t been sleeping well, I had been sleeping quite poorly), the announcer’s voice echoed in the empty halls. Nobody there at that hour. Everybody’d seen it already anyway.
The afternoon of my arrival, the hallways brimmed, the Pavilion and Amazon Rooms a-whirr. I stepped into the Pavilion. The first thing I registered — this was before the size of the room pummeled my brain — was the crickets. The chips clicked and clicked, thousands of players fiddled with their chips, stacking them, tossing them into the pot, scooping them up, dealers counted off All-ins, click click click. Cricket symphony. There were more than 200 tables, 10-seated, which meant they could shoehorn a lot of players in. It was Day 1B, and the Main Event was underway in the Green Section, the Black Section, etc., while in one corner players grinded through satellite games, still hoping to win a seat in the World Series. The buy-in was 10 grand, but pay 300-something bucks in a satellite, make it into the top 10 percent of the field, and you won a ticket to the Big Game. You could play as many as you liked, satellite after satellite, maybe you’d make it next time. Same principle as slot machines, just a lot slower.
The Amazon Room was smaller, around the corner past the vendors peddling poker primers and arcane table spectacles (“Hide Your Eyes”), the registration areas, and the Poker Kitchen, where you could grab a quick sub or a salad. The Amazon was where the ESPN cameras roosted. The network was providing unprecedented coverage this year, on the web and on cable, so the room was well-branded by the sports channel and the World Series’ main sponsor, Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. You got your Peppered Flavored Jerky, Teriyaki Flavored Jerky; it’s a convenient source of protein in an easy-seal pouch. TV cameras snipered down on the two Feature Tables, which were situated apart from the regular sections, and percolated under blue and crimson lights. On Day 1C Brad Garrett did his time at one. Brad and Ray Romano yukked it up while playing, their TV bond no act and still going strong these long years into undead syndication. We should be so lucky to have such good buddies in our corner.
There were celebrities. Jason Alexander, who had been staked by Poker Stars. Nelly, so I was told, and Shannon Elizabeth. The poker luminaries in their firmament, the guys who wrote the books and cranked out the instructional videos, recognizable from the poker TV shows you may have watched at home or endured in a hotel bar. They were being overthrown, these kings. Was this the Main Event or the Deadliest Game? Doyle Brunson, da Godfather, went out two hours into Day 1A. Greg Raymer and Jerry Yang, two former world champions, hit the rails, and Matt Affleck, too, what are you going to do? Michael “The Grinder” Mizrahi, whose antics livened last year’s TV coverage, was obliterated while crawling on his knees and elbows toward a straight draw. (His farewell Saving Private Ryan tweet to his three brothers, who also played: “Officially out of the Main Event!! Sour start to the day!! Good Lucky my brothers!! Sorry left you guys behind!!”) If they were going out, what chance a wretch like me? About 1,400 players atomized by the time I started play on Day 1D.
I railbirded for two days, watching, trying to get accustomed to the ebb and flow of the place, listening to the crickets.
Sunday at noon. My table draw was Yellow 163, Seat 9. Pavilion. When I returned half an hour before the start time, the room was mostly full, the players warily clocking their tables, approaching, backing off, like guests at reception waiting for the signal to dig into the canapés. No one wanted to be the first to go out, and no one even wanted to be the first to sit down.
The announcer bid us to join the dealers, who had been at their stations, bow-tied and patient. Terse greetings all around. “Hey.” “How’s it going?” Mostly 50-something white guys, with two youngsters in Seats 5 and 6. The young guys owned the game now — the past couple of winners have been under 30. Some of them probably even did yoga.
They played the “Star Spangled Banner.” I stood out of politeness. It was not often that one heard the national anthem of the Republic of Anhedonia at a sporting event. The so-called “lyrics” consisted mostly of grunts, half-muttered curses, and long, drawn-out sighs, depending on the particular sufferings you were cultivating that day. Still, it never failed to lift the spirit, however faintly, we agreed on this if nothing else.
You don’t want to see our flag, trust me.
Phil Hellmuth, superplayer, and “Playmate Holly Madison” started the tourney with, “Shuffle up and deal!” and the cricket orchestra started up. I wouldn’t have minded “Shuffle through your regrets and tremble!” but tradition is tradition.
The blinds were 50 and 100. One of the young players at my table, the Guy in the Teal Hoodie, started off energetically. He had the demeanor of a college alt-rock DJ or someone building cybernetic organisms in the garage, and took down pots with quiet efficiency. Was he one of the young players Matt had warned me about the day before? I met Matt Matros eight years ago when he was in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Since graduating, he’d supported himself on poker, writing during the day and gambling at night (“The Making of a Poker Player” details his trip to glory). Last year, he won the WSOP’s $1,500 Limit Hold ‘em bracelet, and the week before we had lunch, he’d won the Mixed Hold ‘em event. I asked him if he’d seen any “new moves” this year, the latest gizmos, which was very silly because I barely knew the old moves, whether we were talking Hold’em or the Cabbage Patch.
“These young players,” he said, “they’re four-betting with nothing. Five-betting.” He said young players the way WWII grunts used to say, Hun bastards. The Big Blind was considered the first bet, a raise on that was the second bet, and a reraise on top of that one was a three-bet. Pretty normal stuff before the flop, the first three communal cards. In his Little Books of Poker, Phil Gordon repeatedly warned, “Beware the Fourth Bet — it means Aces.” Lemme tell you, son, in my day, four-betting used to mean something. Nowadays, these young players are four-betting, five-betting helter-skelter, who knows what these crazy kids have in their hands, they could be raising with shit, rags, 7-2. The preflop four-bet was a relatively new weapon in the arsenal, but that didn’t mean I had to back down when I had decent cards. Matt told me to trust my instincts. “If you have a good read on someone, five-bet them. If they’re bluffing, they’ll fold.” OK! I told him I was going to play tight, try to make it to Day 3, not misplay my premium hands …
“Do you want to do that,” Matt asked, “Play it safe?” I was here to write an article, but was that all there was to it? “I think you’ll be most satisfied,” he said, “if at some point, you suddenly have a read on someone: ‘This guy doesn’t have anything,’ or ‘This guy has something.’ One way or another, you’re going to have a read, and you’re going to do something that you didn’t expect you were going to do before, right or wrong.” Something new in your game expressing itself. “Obviously, it’s better if you’re right, but even if you’re wrong, it can be really satisfying to just have a read, a feeling, and go with it. Your gut.”
I could play it safe, or I could really play. Matt was asking me, Why are you here? It was the Vegas question, namely — what the fuck are you doing in Vegas? As usual in this town, whether you gambled away the mortgage money, fucked a stranger, or went to see Carrot Top, you answered in your actions.
There were three empty seats. Brighton Beach eventually sat on my left. He was an intense, twentysomething dude with a strong cut-off-your-feet-and-mail-them-to-your fiancée vibe. Eventually Seat 8 showed up. The dealer looked at his ID and said, “Oh, shit!”
One thing you do not want to hear is a dealer say, “Oh, shit!” when a player joins your table. He was wearing a red World Poker Tour jacket with … was that his name embroidered on the left breast? This motherfucker was so bad, he had a goddamned monogrammed World Poker Tour jacket! Floor managers and players from other tables moseyed over to say hello. Fortunately, he was on my right, and if he went crazy with six-betting or nine-betting or who knew what, I could make a quick muck.
I had enough chips to withstand some hits, power in the forward deflectors. We started with 30k, 300 Big Blinds. Plenty of M. “It’s all about M,” Helen told me during our initial training session, and it was one of the first things I came to understood, slowly, the hard way, during my AC runs, the secret narrative as I passed through levels. M is how much life you have in you, how much you can take. To calculate M, you add the Big Blind, the Small Blind, and all the antes you have to pay into the pot each round, and the sum is how much it costs to play one orbit ’round the table. M, for Paul Magriel, who first articulated it, but also M for the Wave of Mutilation. Above 20M, 20 rounds, you can play your fancy-move poker. But once you dip below that, your spirit is draining away each round, and you have to start playing more aggressively, play a wider range of cards, swipe some blinds, so that you are not erased from existence. Existence, because this is life we’re talking about here, how much can you take before you break. Dear reader, I hope you’re operating at a big M most of the time, I really do. Things are easier that way. But then sometimes things go wrong — you lose your job, get some sort of health issue named after a foreigner, the kid won’t say why he doesn’t want you at the wedding, and the angry voices in your head are now using Auto-Tune. You take a tumble in a thousand ways, big and small: This the Wave of Mutilation, gobbling up your reality. Replay the hand — is there something you could have done differently to keep things the way they were, something you should have said to keep them from walking away? It doesn’t matter, the dealer’s shuffling again. You dwindle to 6 and 3 and 2M and you can’t pay the rent next month, nobody’s returning your e-mails. Things are desperate. You don’t know how you’re going to survive. And the truth is, you’re not going to. Next level, the Blinds will go up, and up, and up.
Seat 7 never showed, and was blinded away until a floor manager removed the remnants of the stack. What came up for him or her to blow the 10k entrance fee? I hoped they were tied up in a dungeon somewhere. Not a serial killer dungeon, but one of the tony thousand-bucks-an-hour variety you can find only in Vegas, and they were having a pleasant time being beaten.
Coach gave me a simple order for the first three levels: “Make it to dinner.” You can sort players into dependable categories. Tight is conservative. Loose plays a lot of hands. Loose-Aggressive plays a lot of hands, plays a lot of shit, but will bully you with betting. At the first table, I played something that might be called Tight-Incompetent. I folded out of turn, tried to bet 2.5x the BB, per the table custom, but misidentified the chips and put in less than 2x, which was a no-no. I made each mistake only once (for a change; see Dating Failures of, in my index for contrary indicators) but I’d marked myself as the weak player. At Yellow 163, I got my nicest run of cards, QQ, JJ, flopped an Ace-high flush, but there wasn’t a lot of action. I wasn’t down, but I wasn’t fattening my stack.
I heard the cries from the other tables as All-ins began, and people busted out. I saw my first right before the end of Level 1, when Brighton Beach, who was down to 10k, shoved. He was getting a massage. I’d seen someone on Helen’s poker feed say that hubris is the short stack ordering a massage. Did I mention the masseuses? There were teams of them, ladies in white polos hoisting their cushions, rubbing lotion into hairy necks. Brighton Beach shoved his stack into the pot, and a minute later he was out. I wondered if his rub-down would be prorated. Everybody shook their heads and checked out their stack. Going out this soon, what was up with that loser?
Level 1 ended. The line for the Men’s was a bit long, as you can imagine. The smokers beat it out to the patio — I hadn’t seen that many smokers in years. As I hustled back to my room, I Googled the dude in the World Poker Tour jacket. He was Matt Savage, proselytizer for the New Poker. I’d been following his Twitter feed for months — as a director of pro poker tournaments, he answered questions about rules and regulations. He wasn’t Godzilla, but I was still glad to be downwind from his betting. In my room, I wrote some notes, reviewed my tip sheets, and made it back in time for Level 2. Breathe in, breathe out.
Enough people had busted that the floor managers started breaking up tables, rerouting players on the outskirts of the room to the empty seats at the center. Day 1D was a contracting, dying star. We gathered our chips and dispersed into the void. I saw Savage every once in a while during the following levels. We waved. The next time I spoke to the Guy in the Teal Hoodie, it was at the end of Day 6. I said hi, weirdly eager and proud that one of the fellows from the first table was still around.
“I remember you,” he said, with a mellow drawl. “You were in Seat 9. You were a good player.”
Too kind. “How are you doing? Still in?”
“I’m chip leader,” he said. “I have 12.8 million.” His name was Ryan Lenaghan, an online player who had discovered he liked casino play. He finished in 18th place.
My second table was Black 63, seat 10. I had been invited to someone’s house for Thanksgiving and arrived with my sweet potato pie in the aftermath of a big argument. What happened here? There’s carnage everywhere. Two young guys would nurse 12k for the rest of night, sober play that was a reversal of whatever had decimated them. Yeah, something big went down before I got there. Daddy’s drinking again, Gabby got her nethers pierced. No one seemed to like the loud Aussie in Seat 4; he’d raked some pots and when he left for cigarette breaks, everybody made fun of him. He looked like the cow-faced droog from A Clockwork Orange, completing the effect with a weird hat his shag peeked out of. The table captain was named Marc Podell. He was a fellow New Yorker in his early 40s, and he made a steady accumulation for the rest of the day. He was getting cards — he had no problem showing us why the other guy should have folded — but he was also outplaying us. Half the time he was getting a massage (he knew the masseuse from Main Events past, they set up appointments by text), and the other half he was calling the raiser and showing the better hand. The Aussie was the other big stack at the table, and Marc tried to goad him into going on tilt. It worked.
“How many chips do you have?” I started hearing that a lot more, this locker room check: Who has the bigger dick? It was posturing, but also a serious consideration of how many chips this would cost you if it went south. I got more JJs and played them, a pair here and there. It was a tight table — again, no one wanted to go home on the first day. I never saw a four-bet, or five-bet. I was playing tight, too, and should have started running a bluff here and there now that I’d “established a solid image at the table,” as they say in the books, but I held back. Honestly, I wanted to play good cards well and not get all crazy. I made it to dinner, per Coach’s order. Helen’s other order? “Go to the seafood place. Get the swordfish.”
The line was too big, so I got some cruddy sandwich and ate at the sports book. I called Coach to debrief, told her about Matt Savage and the sleepy play at my first table.
“They’re calling that section, ‘Mellow Yellow,” Helen said, chuckling. She’d sworn off tournament news after her less-than satisfying WSOP visit weeks before. But now she was hunkered over her poker feed, reading players’ tweets from the tables, checking out the competition: She had a player in the game.
Her order for Levels 4 and 5 was simple. Get Bagged and Tagged — stagger to the end of the day, write my name on a plastic bag, and drop my chips inside for safekeeping until Day 2B. It almost seemed possible. This horror show ran seven days. Early on, you wanted to stay cool and keep out of expensive confrontations, but you also needed to feed the stack. “You can’t win it the first day,” Steven told me. But, he added, “You can’t fold your way into money.” You gotta play.
One of the players in my cheapo home game is Nathan, whose friend Chuck was in town to hang with Steven Garfinkle. A professor of Ancient History at Western Washington University, Steven called himself a “committed amateur,” as opposed to a pro, although plenty of pros wouldn’t mind a 10th-place finish in the World Series, which is how far he made it in 2007. His stay was being comped by the Aria, one of the new Cosmo-style dreadnaughts moored in the City Center complex. The Aria was more than 20 stories tall, a fortification dwarfing the old standbys of the Strip in the manner of the other upstarts. (“These young players,” says Circus Circus, “They do it differently.”) On the casino floor, tiny lights blinked in the walls, I walked on silvered floors and techno music summoned me to this or that pleasure zone around the next bend. A real Logan’s Run building — outside the walls, my world was ruined, the Library of Congress half-buried in sand.
Inside Aria, however, everything was swell, except for the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, which lent a Masque of the Red Death air to the proceedings. On the night of 1C, I tagged along for dinner at Jean Georges. Comped! I asked Steven what a good goal for the first day was.
A good day is tripling, he told me, but hitting the room’s average is OK, too. There comes a point in the event, Steven said, when “The Big Blind is someone who was here.” Day 5 started with a 10k Big Blind, the amount of a person’s buy-in. Ten thousand dollars to start off the hand, it represented a human soul who had looked at their table draw the first day and said, I feel lucky, just like you had. And then there is a point, he continued, “when the ante is someone who was here.” This was all that remained of a person, their buy-in, and the Final Table players rolled them in their hands and tossed them to the felt. Like gods. Helen had said that her World Series time was “Heaven,” and here it was: the big pot as afterlife, containing the spirits of the eliminated players.
Take, for example, the tall, thin man in Seat 2, who arrived at Black 63 from a broken table. He had long dark hair, and wire frames with light blue lenses. Throw in the black clothes, and if he declared that his job title was “Master of Illusions,” taught Doug Henning all he knew, I’d have believed him. He and Marc recognized each other from “around” — other tourneys in other cities. He was supertight, a clam’s clam, this older gentleman. I couldn’t really see him around the curve of the table, and he rarely played a hand, so I only paid attention to him when he mixed it up. Which he finally did a couple of hours after dinner break. He went for it — shoved all in before the flop. Marc called him. AA vs. KK. Marc had the AA. The man went poof, rabbit in a hat.
“That was sad,” I said. I don’t think “sad” is a poker term, but there it was. I’d barely spoken all day except to say, “Raise.” The Master of Illusion had been sitting so quietly for so long, mum, watching, waiting for precisely a hand like KK. KK — of course you’re going to go for it. And just like that, he was atomized, called up to the Big Stack in the Sky.
“I’ve seen him play before,” Marc said, grabbing the chips. “I knew he had something good.” But not good enough for Marc’s aces. He casually mentioned that this day’s haul might be larger than his starting day in 2008, when he cashed in 100th place.
Level 5 was over. We bagged our chips in Ziplocs, wrote our names on the plastic. It was 12:45 a.m. I was a lump of quivering human meat, but somehow I’d made it through Day 1 with 23k. Half the average stack. The next day, the blinds would escalate to 250 and 500, with 50 dollar antes. I whipped out the abacus: I was at 19M. On my way upstairs, I bought a pouch of Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. The easy-seal bag really did lock in freshness, this was no mere marketing ploy.
I’d be back for Day 2B, if my own, personal daily Wave of Mutilation didn’t wash me away first.
I woke up Tuesday with low M, emotion-wise. It wasn’t concerned about my short stack, as I was strangely optimistic that’d get a good run of cards on Day 2. Now that I’d finished a day of play, I’d come out swinging. No, I was been hit with a powerful case of the local affliction, the symptoms of which consisted of repeatedly mumbling, “What the fuck am I doing in Vegas?” until you worked yourself into a desperate froth. I think residents were immune, but tourists were particularly susceptible to this strain of existential Montezuma’s Revenge.
Helen was up and at ‘em on the East Coast. She direct messaged a pep talk:
Bagged and tagged! Goal! While you are sleeping this morning, I’ll research the field. Today’s goal: rest and recuperate. Great job.
You’ve outlasted 2,324 players — 3rd largest entry in live history. 1D is largest entry day ever. 4540 remain — on 2B there will be less.
Chip average looks to be 45K, but don’t let this worry you. 23k is nearly an M of 20x pot. You have enough to play and cripple others.
Great 2B table draw! 6 seat with no notable players and no monster stacks. Table low stack 14K. 4 seats shorter than you. Big: 50K. Avg: 25.
Day 2, we’ll talk about ways to double up and who to go after. You are in fine shape. You’re alive!
We talked on the phone in the afternoon, a debrief on the rest of Day 1. I was still depressed by The Master of Illusion’s anti-climatic exit. To play for so long, pay ten grand, wait for the perfect hand, and then have your KK pulverized by a meteor from of the deep cold of space: AA.
“You’re not going to see that hand again,” Helen told me. You saw that maybe once a tournament, and now I’d gotten it out of the way. She gave me homework, Dan Harrington, natch: Reread DH Vol 1 Pt 5 (betting) p.198-213, 275-286. Vol 2 (zones) 133-155. Get ready to say, ‘All in.’
Call her if I needed anything else. Hit the books (yeah, I’d brought them cross-country with me), get some food, maybe I’d feel better. At 2:34pm, Coach sent me a message: “Dan Harrington just busted. Moment of silence, please.”
Coach’s breakdown of the situation alleviated any remaining stress over my gameplay, and I was grateful. Helen was from Alabama, and her Southern accent and chipper delivery really sold it. But my Vegas melancholy deepened throughout my day off. I missed my kid. I was sick of the Rio’s food. Christ, “The All-American Grill” — the flavor profiles of foreign lands had never agreed with me. I wanted to exist one single day on this miserable planet without having the thought, “I should really have the Caesar’s Salad.” I could have called my college roommate Jon he’d tried to get in on a satellite but no go — to see if he wanted to hang, but I was embroiled in a full-on wallow.
The mere fact of Vegas, its necessity, was an indictment of our normal lives. If we needed this place — to transform into high-roller or a sexy swinger, to be someone else, a winner for once — then certainly the world beyond the desert was a small and mealy place indeed. We shuffled under florescent tubes in offices, steered the shopping carts through outlet malls and organic supermarkets while consulting a succession of moronic lists, and wearily collapsed on our beds at night with visions of the Big Score shimmering in our heads. There’s a leak in the attic again, the TV’s out of warranty, maybe we should get a tutor for Dylan, he’s a smart kid but doesn’t test well, and then there was Vegas. Vegas will heal us.
I didn’t want to be healed, but I knew there was something in the cards I needed. This was the assignment of a lifetime, right? It had never occurred to me that one day I’d play in the World Series of Poker. I was just a home game scrub. But I loved them, I loved cards. I always had. The martial snap of an expertly-shuffled deck, the sleek whisper of laminated paper jetting across the table. Crazy 8s and Spit and then Hearts in college. I was the Bruce Lee of Hearts, no joke, knew all the nerve clusters to paralyze your ass. I’d prowl around the dorm on becalmed afternoons, searching for Hearts players like the disheveled emissary of a ramshackle sect. Our holy text was composed of cut-up newsprint and down-market glossies, but we hit the streets anyway and hoped no one would notice. Everyone was busy studying or calling “their people” back home or whatever, except for me. Cards killed the hours. Then Bridge, and then Poker, the games that helped me unscramble the secret message: The next card, the next card is the one that will save me.
I slept poorly the night of 2A. The combined fields of Day 1A and Day 1C battled it out downstairs. I had played it safe the first day, stuck to the winners. I hadn’t gambled too much. Now I had to reconnect with that old faith, that when the next card turned over, I’d see my future there.
I thought I heard crickets.
There was some nice theater to the Ceremonial Unbagging of the Chips at the start of Day 2B. “Dealers, if a player is not present two minutes before start, remove their chips and place the bag on their seat.” I was at White 83, Seat 6, and, per Helen’s assessment, I was still swimming in a tide pool with the guppy luckless and jelly-organism amateurs. No big stacks. Steven Garfinkle had told me that one of the great wonders of poker was that a normal Joe could sit down at a tournament table next to one of their idols. Which was true, it was a beautiful thing, like finding yourself playing [a sport] with [a famous player]. (I stopped following sports once Ty Cobb retired). But I didn’t want to sit next to Jonathan Duhamel. Country Time was my speed. Country Time, on my right, was a sober, elderly gentleman in a brown sweater, and I did not think he meant me harm. I did a little Alexander to chill me out, breathe in, breathe out, and checked out the other stacks through my sunglasses.
Did I neglect to say I was wearing sunglasses? I hadn’t the nerve during my trial tourneys, as I felt like a douchebag, but the first time I stepped into the Pavilion I happened to be wearing them, and it felt good. I felt safe. They were nothing special, the ones I’d been wearing for years, but they’d filtered out some of my city’s more evil wavelengths many times. The visor in my suit of armor.
Perhaps it is also possible that I have not mentioned the rest of my battle gear. I wore a hoodie. A special hoodie. A few weeks before the Main Event, I set up a solicitation on one the social media sites:
If you’ve seen the tournament on ESPN, you know that all the real players wear the names of sponsors on their sweatshirts and caps and T-shirts.
I want to blend in, so I am now accepting sponsors. There are two tiers of sponsorship.
In the Premium “God’s Chosen” Sponsorship Level, I will wear your name, enterprise, slogan, or credo on my shirt for $11.25. There are three slots open.
In the Hoi Polloi Sponsorship Level, you can purchase one of 10 Commemorative Signature Bracelets. They will be green or orange in color, I haven’t decided which. On the outside, they will bear the slogan KEEP WINNING HANDS. This will “buck you up” when you need it, an imperative, a prayer, or simple statement of fact, depending. On the inner part of the bracelet, where no one can see, they will read STILL SAD INSIDE. This will remind you of the truth.
They will be sold for $4.95…
It has been pointed out that the cost of producing this merchandise will exceed the money raised. To which I say, I have never been good at math.
I got a few responses. I didn’t get my act together to order the bracelets before I left (they’ll get here eventually, don’t worry guys), but I got the duds. I went to a custom T-shirt joint in DUMBO and handed the designer the specs. I’d have to pay extra for a rush job. She double-checked my chicken-scratch, hoodie first.
“Anhedonia,” I said.
“What are those?”
“Those are lightning bolts,” I said.
She told me to pick out a color for the font on the T-shirt, something to accent the brown fabric. I didn’t want to clash. She made two suggestions. I picked one.
“That’s ‘Vegas Gold,'” she said. “Maybe it’ll be good luck!”
I wanted diverse sponsors: a person, a business, and a slogan for the back. So I put “WSOP 2011″ over the left breast in Space 1999 letters, and my pal Nathan Englander’s name on the right sleeve — he was in my home game and had been a stalwart ally during PokerQuest. The NYC bookstore McNally Jackson anchored the left sleeve. The bookstore’s twitter feed had offered up a slogan, something like “Crying On National TV Is My Tell,” but, uh, the name of the store was shorter so I went with that. The owner had given me some picture books for the kid one time, so it felt right. Finally, on the back I put, “My Other Hand Is Bullets,” in an old-timey Western font, which my friend Rob Spilman had suggested. I explained to the designer that “Bullets” was slang for a pair of pocket Aces. I didn’t want her to think I was going on a murder spree, or to brunch.
When I told Helen about the paraphernalia, she laughed but also suggested that maybe I hold off on wearing the TV shirt until I made it into the money. “It’s a bit snarky,” she declared. Players were going target me anyway, because they’d catch on to my inexperience (gee, how?), and because I “didn’t look like the average poker player,” i.e. a middle aged white guy. “Dreadlocks,” she said,” you don’t see that a lot.” No point in giving them another reason. Okay, in the money, sure. As it happened, the WSOP cracked down on logos this year, part of the fallout from the Fed’s assault on online poker sites. It reduced the sometimes absurd number of patches you saw on screen, which made the grizzled players look like they were sporting Office Space-type “flair.”
I was going to wear the sweatshirt, though, a snazzy red number with the name of my homeland on the front, and the aforementioned lightning bolts, lest anyone doubt where I was coming from.
Finally, I had my talisman. Our last day together, I asked the kid to give me a good luck charm. I was going to be gone three weeks all told, the longest we’d ever been apart, and I started missing her even before I left. I’d make up the time when I got back, we had years and years ahead of us, but how can you make up moments? I was standing out on the terrace outside the convention hall, baking in the merciless Vegas heat and trying to keep a steady signal on my cell when she told me, “I saw a rainbow, Daddy!” The ex-wife and the kid were in upstate New York, and I knew it had rained because folks were complaining about it on my twitter feed. Her first rainbow. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rainbow was one of the milestones. Unscrewing the training wheels, sure, but light refracted through water vapor? What she felt about it was the important thing. Light refracted through water vapor. Here I was dying in the desert. The kid. What else did I have but the kid?
That last day, I asked her to pick something out from her toys. “I’ll keep it on my table and it will give me good luck, and I’ll think of you whenever I look at it.” She deliberated, and chose a pink flip flop. It was an inch and a half long, made of soft foam, and dangled from a keychain. It just appeared one day, probably from the bowels of a birthday party goodie bag, there was all sorts of weird little crap in those things, nestled among the Smarties and renegade Now & Laters. “Can you write something on it?” I asked. “Like ‘good luck’?” She deliberated again, and wrote GO LUCK in a six-year-old’s penmanship on the sole of the flip flop. We let the ink dry.
A pink flip flop on a keychain. The first day I played, I kept it in my hoodie pocket. I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there. It was definitely not cowboy, it was the very anti-Brunson made physical. On Day 2B, I pushed the charm up against my 23K. There was invisible stuff tied to the ring besides the pink flip flop, too, all my psychic baggage on a string, limply rising to the ceiling of the Pavilion like a bouquet of faltering balloons. Alright, Luck, I’m waiting.
Coach wanted me to double up before dinner to 46K. Despite my prediction that I’d unleash my crazy-psycho betting style in Level 6, the only quirks I added to my play were a new protectiveness toward my blinds (Peck at my blinds, will you, crow? I’ll show you!) and a more receptive ear to the siren call of pot odds (It only costs a little more to see the flop…). Yes, Big Mitch, I know it’s kid’s stuff, but in my cheapo home game you didn’t consider these things because the stakes were so low. After the Main Event was over, I played some of the home-game variety that had been my steady. It was bananas. Like if you stuck ten squirrels in cardboard box, shook it up, and then threw in a deck of acorn-scented Bicycle cards. Raising 2x the blind — what exactly did you mean by that bet, it was fucking gibberish! Six people seeing the flop? You can’t all have Aces. I had become a whining Robotron, trapped with bona-fide humans.
At the World Series, of all places, I was finally comprehending the underlying principles I’d been studying, getting the barest glimpse of how they worked, their consequences and power. The deep magic. I had an inkling now of what Helen was saying when she said this place was Heaven, what her father meant when he told her Vegas was the Center of the Universe. I felt it.
Too bad it just ended up costing me chips. Nothing panned out. Someone called me when I had QQ, but other than that I didn’t scratch up anything during Level 6. In fact, I lost a bunch. I was down to 14K. I was dying. The blinds were about to shoot up to 300/600, with a 75 buck ante. The Wave of Mutilation was gathering force, and I was definitely drowning, not waving, as the poet put it. At the break, I sent a DM: 14.5k…Ten M. Okay, coach what do I do?
I received a short reply: Call me.
Out in the sun with the smokers, the 3G limped along. Everybody calling their buddies back home, their spouses, shrinks, giving updates. I couldn’t get a signal out. Twitter was dead. Given my low emotional bandwidth, I understood AT&T’s difficulties, but hell. Finally, a bunch of lazy-ass electrons eked through and I got a stream of DMs:
Shove time. But you have time to wait for a decent hand. I’ll run it down for you.
The next couple of DMs detailed starting combos I should go all-in with, pairs, face cards, how to play them in different positions around the table. Under the gun, middle, the button.
You are in all-in shove mode. This is easy. You have one decision and plenty of time to wait for a decent spot.
Doubling up is key, but stealing 2400 pots with all-in shoves is fine.
New goal: 25K by end of this round. Once you reach this, you can relax and play normal for a little while.
Double up time. One, two, three double-ups and you’re a contender. Go get ‘em.
I tried to keep it straight. Was that a pair of 7s in early position, or only if there’s no raiser? AJ when, whatzit, huh? But the Coach believed in me, I was going to do this. If I didn’t, I would cease to exist.
At the start of Level 7, I gathered myself. I recalled a steamy summer Brooklyn morning weeks ago, when my physical trainer Kim tried to straighten out the sad, gnarled bone-cloak I called my body. Get into your spine, she said.
Get into your spine.
Get Some Spine.
Patience, and position. I waited. I wasn’t the only one with water in his nose. Seat 9 had started out with a stack my size, and he mixed it up in Level 6. Now he was treading water and looking for his shot. He shoved his chips in — and the Wave of Mutilation took him under. Seat 3 was a young dude who’d been staying afloat by attacking blinds, some chips here, some chips there. He went all in, and was sucked down into the bleak fathoms. (You shouldn’t wear headphones when swimming, because you can’t hear it when someone yells, “Shark!). For my part, I got KQ off-suit early in the level…and didn’t go for it. It didn’t feel right, and surely a better hand was rising in the deck, about to bubble up from randomness and bail me out. Right?
It didn’t happen. Rags, rags, rags for an hour and a half. Instead of limiting my speech to the word “Raise,” now I said, “Can I have some change?” as I slid a 1000 chip to Seat 5. The Wave of Mutilation washed away my stack, chip by inevitable chip, and I kept calculating and recalculating my M. Was now the time to freak out, shove with anything? Was I being passive, or waiting for my shot? Down to 6K. I wasn’t feeling that well. Then I saw them: Pocket Aces. Rockets. The self-same Bullets on the T-shirt. I was going to take down this fucking pot. I went all in…and won the blinds and the antes, i.e. bupkis. Bobbed up to 8K, but the swells were about to get much worse.
The announcer informed us there were three more hands until break. The floor managers broke tables on the edges of the White section; they’d disperse my happy clan soon. I didn’t know if it was better to play with these guys, or a fresh table. Who knew what kind of behemoth stacks roamed out there in the depths, beyond my little tide pool. I was going to make a move before Level 7 ended, no matter what. The poker book advice can be hard to follow — the esoteric slang, the situations you have to experience first-hand in order to appreciate, the crappy writing. And then there was advice that made perfect sense, like: before the end of the night, before a break or adjournment for dinner, you can grab a pot because people are distracted and want to split. This made sense to me, more than “suited connectors on the button can be a strong play,” because it was sneaky, and I came from a long line of secretive, sneaky bastards. We slinked down the block to steal a cab downstream, left two teaspoons of juice in the carton and put it back in the fridge, and pretended that we didn’t use up all the hot water. Sneaky.
I had three chances. It was a Wave of Mutilation: Surf it, motherfucker. My first two cards were no go. White 83 fidgeted as it contemplated the break. Next hand, I think I almost pushed my chips in, but declined. I wasn’t feeling it. Players from other tables squeezed out into the hallway. One more chance: K and 8, off suit. Half my table looked at their hands and mucked and departed to have a smoke or take a piss. I pushed…and the new guy in Seat 3, he did nothing at all. He sat. He was the Big Blind this hand, and he was a Swiper, after Dora the Explorer’s klepto nemesis. He preyed on blinds, scavenging to survive. When Swiper joined our table, he had a big stack of green chips, the ante chips. “That’s how you know,” Coach had told me.
So Swiper’s BB was in the pot. What happens, you may ask, when the Swiper becomes the Swipee? Swiper scrutinized me and asked a question. I didn’t catch it, it was some poker nomenclature beyond my ken. I stared into the pot, then past the pot, through the felt, into the void. In general, I had realized, most of my table image was me pretending I was spending a typical afternoon in my crummy, divorced-guy apartment. Tick tock. Finally, he folded. Anti-climatic. It was some chips anyway. Up to 9.6K.
I DM’d Coach on the situation. You may be wondering what Helen was doing in between strategy sessions. She was thousands of miles away in her Upper East Side apartment, gathering intel on the game at her kitchen counter, and doing home projects. “I was watching my Twitter feed,” she told me later, “and making sure you were not tweeting. Then when the Levels started, I would run away. I was so nervous for you! I was listening to books on tape, scouring the floorboards. Cleaning the oven. Doing home projects.” She had made what she called her “M-sheet,” an index card listing how to bet at different, Danger-Zone Ms, the blind structure at each Level.” She kept the M-sheet in her pocket for quick consult during my breaks.
Under 8K, she wrote one word: Worry.
You’re ok, you’re ok. But you’ve got to double up and loosen even more. Here’s how:
Once again, she broke down the hands to play, and how.
Do it. Double up. Then double up again, damn it. #toughlove
I blipped out a message through AT&T’s “cellular network” and told her I hadn’t seen any of those hands, just Aces, so I was due.
Hell yes, you’re due. You are not going to bust out of Day 2. You are a shove machine.
You’ve outlasted 500 players (Mattasow, Dunst, Greenstein) for a reason. Patience. I predict 3 double-ups b/f dinner. RUSH dang it!
I want to see you double up and then shove all-in before you’ve had time to stack your chips. I see it. Rush! Then swordfish.
GOGOGO! I am glued to this computer rooting for you with the blind structure and Ms in my apron pocket.
There you have it. No more negative thinking, despite its central role in my day to day philosophy. I was a player, and I was in this game. I wasn’t depressed, I was curating despair. I wasn’t half-dead, but half-alive.
I reentered the Pavilion and waiting for the color-up to finish, when they take out all the 25 dollar chips and change them for 100s. Bye bye chump change. Bye bye chumps, too. I started humming that song from Ocean’s 11. I know most classical music from the pop vehicle that introduced me to it, hence “That orgy song from A Clockwork Orange” or “That one where Bugs Bunny victimized the opera singer.” The tune in question was “Clair de Lune,” a tender little number, and I did not mind humming it among the gamblers. If I whistled on the streets in New York, I could hum in the casinos of Las Vegas.
So, Debussy. “Moon shine.” It starts off slowly, and you lift with the current, this sort of warm levitating feeling. Then it picks up, cresting to victorious apex, but it’s a curious kind of victory, for even as it approaches fulfillment, each triumphant note is undercut by a sense of evanescence, a hint of loss that is contrary to the apparent trajectory of the song, and at the same time its true destination. The eventual collapse of the idea of escape is the real heart of the tune, even as we float joyfully on its evasions. It contained both failure and reward at the same time, and it was okay.
In Ocean’s 11, the movie stars assemble before the Bellagio Dancing Lights, the casino’s nightly extravaganza of synchronized fountain jets. For the whole flick, the movie stars have been handsome, they have been clever and rude, but now they are quiet. They cannot speak. This was the big one. It was the big job, the heist of a lifetime, and somehow they’d pulled it off. Everything before this was half-assed practice. Everything after will be disappointing postscript. The movie stars stand there looking at the dancing lights, among strangers, the tourists and the squares, the ones who’d never know that a miracle just happened. But these guys knew, they had touched it, even if seconds from now it would change from what they did into what happened, become a story they’d rarely share. They’d tell it years from now, because they felt safe with their companion, or because they were feeling down and couldn’t help themselves. The night is cool, the heart is sliding down into nostalgia, and they say, “Did I ever tell you about the time I played in the World Series of Poker?” The awful knowledge that you did what you set out to do, and you would never, ever top it. It was gone the instant you put your hands on it. It was gambling.
I was calm, for a shove machine. This was the round where I’d make my stand. I arranged my chips into a tiny fort. I turned the pink foam flip flop upside down so I could see what the kid wrote to me.
(Don’t tell me you didn’t realize this was a sports movie, the only one I’ll ever star in. Maybe you, too, because we’re in this together, you and I. But keep in mind it’s a 70s sports movie, and you know how those end.)
The blinds were 400/800 with a 100 buck ante. I was at 4M, the Wave of Mutilation rising five seats down. The dealer shuffled and…I got cards. Two hands into Level 8, I got AK, Big Slick. Now we could begin. I pretended to think about it, and I went all-in. Everyone folded except for Swiper. Perhaps he suspected I’d run a game on him that last round before break, made him fold something promising. Here was a duel, unfolding before the table broke, it was a harpoon fight on a disintegrating chunk of ice in the polar seas, I’d seen this on TV. I intended to gut him, and I did. I turned over my AK, he showed his K-whatever, and I bled him on the flop, and the turn and the river. I doubled-up to 19K. You bet all your chips, the other guy or gal matches you, and if you win, you get all that plus the blinds and antes: double up. “Swiper, no swiping,” as Dora says.
They were about to break the table. The floor manager had our table draws, and he’d distribute them after this next hand. Country Time went all-in. He’d done it a few times before, to mucks all around. This time, Seat 5 called him. I can’t remember what the flop was. All I know is that Country Time was out, and he drifted away.
The dealer was having some trouble sorting through Country Time’s stack. Seat 5 said, “I don’t know if he’s out.” Maybe Country Time had chips left.
“He’s still there,” someone said. Indeed Country Time was, well, taking his time in his departure. There are different types of players. Aggressive. Solid. But there was only one way to walk out of the room when you bust: Absent of dignity, full of shame.
“Should we get him?”
“Count it,” the floor manager said. The dealer moved the chips around.
“Does he have anything left?”
“He’s walking slowly.”
“We can catch up to him.”
We looked over. We looked back at the chips.
“How much does he have?”
“Should we get him?”
No one moved.
“Count it again,” the floor manager said.
“He’s walking pretty slowly.”
Country Time exited the Pavilion. He had a single chip left, $1000. One of the players asked what was going to happen to it. The floor manager said it would be placed at his seat at his new draw. He’d be swiftly blinded out. It was an unsettling image, the floor guy setting this anonymous chip on the next table and the chip just sitting there, being eroded into smaller chips, and evaporating. Never a face to put to the player formerly known as White 83, Seat 5. You know, Country Time.
The table broke. I liked them now, the gamblers. They were just people. They had intimidated, but no more. They were better players, dexterous in their manipulation of the underlying principles, they had poker faces they toiled over, but they were just dumb morons like I was, mules walking on their gravel. They put on too much cologne, or too little antiperspirant, uploaded stupid photos to Facebook, were riven by doubt and then fortified by an unexpected reversal, wiped ketchup from the corners of the mouths, these messy eaters. They were scared, like I was, of being wiped out, of losing all their chips in hexed confrontation. Mules like me. They carried tokens from home to remind them of what they had left behind, and placed these things next to their chips, and they prayed.
I joined Black 6, Seat 4. I didn’t say anything and got the same back. This was a real table, they were playing cards here. 100K stacks, whole edifices of thousand dollar chips like I’d only seen on the tube. Seat 2 was the table leader, decked out like the Unabomber with his hoodie cinched around his face, mirrored lenses repelling others’ eyes. I was the second-shortest stack — the worse-off guy looked queasy. But I’d double up again before dinner, per Coach. I felt giddy, like my skin had become so thin that only the tiniest membrane separated me from the outside, my inner self from the pure poker atmosphere I moved in. I’d pulled one heist, and I’d do it again
Two hands later, I looked down at a pair of 10s. Okay. Cool. The pot was 2100. I was in early position. Hands — the ones attached to my wrists, not card hands — please do not tremble or shake. I said, “All in.” I was starting to like the sound that. It was much better than, “Can I get some change?” Everybody folded except for Seat 2, Mr. Sinister, who called in a flash. Damn. We turned our hands over: he had a pair of 3s. What the hell was that about? But that’s how he got to be big stack: he played aggro, and from the glum faces around me, it was paying off.
Neither of us made a set. I won with my 10s, and Mr. Sinister said, “That’s been happening to me all day.”
Doubled up. I was at 40K, thereabouts, 19M. Out of the Danger Zone. Level 7 had harrowed me as I waited to shove my chips in. The first half hour of Level 8 had wrung me out, but it was time to get out of what Coach called “small stack mentality.” I no longer had to play like I was trying to escape the space station before it self-destructed, as the chirpy computer voice counted down my M. I wasn’t a fucking animal anymore
It was an hour and fifteen minutes until dinner. I could do that. Then I got a pair Aces.
On a rush. Cool. I wasn’t going to go all in, I thought, because I could play normal again. I bet 2200, the table standard for this level. I was going to make some chips. There were mucks, and then the guy in Seat 7 raised me 8000. I hadn’t seen his face yet. I saw his hands. I saw his chips. He had me matched. Should I go all in? I called his bet, and we saw the flop.
A Queen, an 8, and a 3. No straight, no flush. I was the first to act. He didn’t have pocket queens. I don’t know how I knew it, but I did. I bet 10K. He’s going to fold, I thought. Instead, he went all in.
I said, “Okay.”
“You’re all in?” The dealer asked. You had to say it.
He had KK. I showed my hand. The table groaned. “I didn’t put him on Aces,” Mr. Sinister said, with a touch of confusion in his voice.
“I thought maybe he had Ace-Queen,” someone else said. They were already consoling Seat 7, down at the other end of the table. “Damn, dude.”
The next card was a Jack. For a second, I thought, is he going to get a straight? I was being silly, that was impossible. Three double ups before dinner, just like Coach told me. I had it. He needed two cards to save him, the remaining kings. I was 94% favorite to win. But you know how 70s sports movies end.
He got his K. I was out.
“That’s a bad beat.”
“I didn’t think he had Aces,” Mr. Sinister repeated, like a fucking idiot. I was starting to think he wasn’t a poker maestro, just some guy who’d been getting some good cards, which happened from time to time.
Seat 7 was a portly twentysomething guy with a Australian accent. He came over and shook my hand. “You played that really well,” he said. “I didn’t think you had Aces.”
No, no one knew I had Aces. I could have gone all in before the flop, or after the flop. Then they would have known something was up. Not that he would have folded KK, but still. Betting aside, I think you and I know why they didn’t see Aces coming. Why I was unreadable, why they could only guess at my hand.
I have a good poker face because I am half-dead inside.
The World Series of Poker’s official count of the nations represented at this year’s Main Event was 98. The number had always been off by one. Now the figure was correct. I grabbed my hoodie, jabbed the pink flip flop in the pocket, and staggered out of the Pavilion. Absent of dignity, full of shame.
Like I said, after the heist, all that’s left is the disappointing postscript. Normal life. Helen was surprised that I was calling her in the middle of the Level. “It’s dinner?” I told her the whole thing, what I could remember. “He rivered you! On the river!” I reviewed the betting — was there something I should have done differently? “There was no way he was getting away from Kings.” Just as I wasn’t going to get away from Aces. “There was no way you weren’t going to get all your money in that pot.” I still think about it, of course. But everybody has hands like that. The failures that stick.
Husband Lex had just got home from work. Helen gave the run down. “I told him it was a good way to go out,” she told Lex. As in, better than being washed away by the Wave of Mutilation. Lex responded. “Lex just said, ‘That’s a terrible way to go out.'”
I carried out Helen’s last order. I finally got to the seafood place and ordered the swordfish. Buzio’s, it was called. The bartender asked how I was doing. I told him. “Frankly,” I said, “it was pretty exhausting.”
“Yeah, these guys come in here, they say ‘I just busted out.’ Then they go, ‘Thank God, it’s over.'”
Helen was right about the swordfish. It was pretty good. Piccata. Later that night she emailed me to say that the next day she was heading to the Borgata in Atlantic City “w/Lex to play the 100k guarantee tourney.” Before I left for Vegas, she’d told me that she was off gambling until September. After her disappointing visit in the early stages of the WSOP, she was taking a break. Being my coach, running scenarios, had put her back in the game. “When you busted out,” she said later, “I was horrified. But my first thought was, Good, now I can go to AC!” There’s a poker player for you.
As for me, it was time to go back to Anhedonia. In the airport I stopped at Hudson News and bought a souvenir mug, a refrigerator magnet shaped like a flip flop, and a bottle opener that said, “Win Lose or Draw.” I’m the sentimental type. I heard a song, they were playing it in the store, a slow piano tune. There was a TV screen on one wall above the T-shirts, and I saw they were running a loop of the Dancing Bellagio Lights, shot by a helicopter at night, and the music was “Clair de Lune.” Courtesy of the Las Vegas Board of Tourism, I imagine.
“Clair” was a cheap date, it turned out, the movie now part of the town’s mythology. I didn’t mind that my private notion had never been mine at all, but a popular romance. I couldn’t own it. What would Johnny Moss, the first champion of the World Series of Poker, think of how his game had changed over the decades, as it transformed from an intimate competition among buddy-rivals into an multi-million dollar international event, bigger than any single individual. If Johnny Moss walked into the Pavilion today and saw the thousands of players worrying their stacks, the tables upon tables of hopeful souls, heard the symphony of crickets, I’d think he’d say, Deal me in. It’s not mine, but it’s cards.
“Clair de Lune” in a Hudson News franchise was nice exit music from Vegas. It made me feel, how do I put this, good.
I learned a lot of things during my long, bizarre trip. About myself, and the ways of the world. One, do not hope for change, or the possibility of transcending your everyday existence, because you will fail. Two, if people put their faith in you, you will let them down. And three, everything is a disaster. In short, nothing I hadn’t known since childhood, but sometimes you can forget these things when engulfed by a rogue swell of optimism, which happens, if infrequently.
There was a fourth item, but I’ll save it for the kid, for when she’s older.
If I forget again, there’s always next year, right? What the heck, I’ll play the circuit, win some tournaments and come back. Palm Beach. New Orleans. Tunica. Never heard of Tunica, and maybe that’s a good thing. Return to Vegas. Make it to Day 3 this time, make it into the money, it will all work out. Maybe I’ll win, and they’ll play the national anthem of the Republic of Anhedonia in the Pavilion. I’ll stand on the stage in my hoodie, which is now decked out in rhinestones and flapping Vegas Gold fringes, place my hand over my heart (it would take some time to find it) and the speakers in the great hall will broadcast my homeland’s song, loud and clear so that everyone can hear it: “NYUH-GUH-UH! UH-GUUHH! NYUH-UGH UGH OH GOD NO NOT AGAIN SSSIIIGGGHHH…”
Try again. It was a very Bad News Bears thing to say. Scrappy. Inspiring.
Actually, fuck it.