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.
In the next episode: Hipster hopsters. Alexander Technique. The Wave of Mutilation.
Colson Whitehead’s new novel Zone One will be published in October by Doubleday. Follow him on twitter here: @colsonwhitehead.