Saturday, August 31, 2013

Johan The Giant & The State Fair...

The Minnesota State Fair is in full swing. It’s huge. Some say the biggest in the country. It lasts for 10 days and attracts a crowd equal to the entire population of the state. As a youngster, I faithfully attended with my family. The animal barns and livestock exhibits, the church-sponsored eateries, the tom-thumb doughnut joint, the women’s building (because my mother insisted) where the it-slices-it-dices guy made it look sooo easy. The Grandstand show. And the best - the Midway, run by Royal American Shows. Rides to make you puke, carnie barkers to fleece you and, my favorite, the 10-in 1 tent - the sideshow. ”She walks she talks she crawls on her belly like a reptile. Step right up – one thin dime, one tenth of a dollar. One thin dime won’t make you – one thin dime won’t break you.” The freak show, now gone forever. And one of the attractions at the freak show was Johan The Viking Giant. He would come over to my uncle’s house of an afternoon when the fair was in town, jabber in Icelandic with my uncles, my mother and the sisters-in-law. And eat. Eat Icelandic fare prepared by my aunt Gulla. Pictures were taken; my father (6’4”) standing under his outstretched arm, my brothers and our cousins, scattered around his shins, grinning. He was sweet and gentle and bright. And very lonely – so my mother said. It was a living. Below is Johan, standing in front of a classic 10-in-1, somewhere in America. One thin dime, one tenth of a dollar…

As a high school sophomore I got a job (thanks to my Uncle Val, the State Treasurer) working at the State Fair. Me, and about twenty others swept out the grandstand, once in the afternoon after the auto races (Offenhouser and Allison Racing Conversions) 800 HP open topped single seat race cars, rolling on a dirt track. Buzz Barton was the man to beat. They made a lot of noise – and kicked up a lot of dirt. Which I helped sweep up. A process repeated again at 10:00 PM after the Grandstand show. Between the afternoon races and the evening show, we were free to roam the fair. And when you’re 16, where do you go but to the Midway. Action and more action. Royal American Shows was the attraction provider and they rolled in on their own rail cars, parked in a siding specially built for the fair. Car after car. Pullmans where they lived during the run, huge animal transport cars with bars on the open windows for the animals they carried.

The Midway was a carny’s dream. Rubes as far as the eye could see. And they made a fortune. “Ring a cane, the cane’s ya win’s that’s cane ya carry away…” “Penny toss, hit the plate and the prize is yours…”  The penny had to stay on the glass plate. The barker made it stay with each toss. Easy. Try it sometime. Veritable fortunes were spent trying to make that penny stay on the plate. My personal favorite, as mentioned, was the 10 in 1 – ten attractions under one roof. The freak show, as it was referred to. There was Johan the Giant, The Snake Girl (some kind of skin condition), the sword swallower, the world’s smallest man, the girl contortionist, who was put in box where swords were then passed through. Top and side. But before the swords were inserted, she removed her bra (out of sight in her box, handed up to the pitchman). “We do this for safety reasons…” After the sword stuff, customers were charged fifty cents each to “come up and see how she survived.” Farm boys mobbed the steps. I went up once. Her right arm, modestly draped across her bare breasts, her body contorted around the blades. She looked bored to death.

Next to the 10 in 1 was, depending on the year, either the Club Lido or Leon Clarkson’s Harlem In Havana. The girlie show. The announcer stood out front, mic held tight to his lips, dyed black hair slicked back, dressed in a soiled red velvet jacket with ruffled shirt. He promised the crowd that what they would see on the inside would astound them. It was suggested that ‘gentlemen only’ attend and there was an inference that deals had been made to expose more than what was legal, or maybe it was just for this show and this show only. So, step right up. Every 15 minutes, the barker would bring out one of the girls. “Folks say hello to Carmen, be nice, she’s come all the way from Havana…” Carmen would twirl a couple of times, and then, facing the throng, legs set far apart, she’s touch her palms to the stage floor. The barker, standing behind her, assured the crowd that the view he was enjoying was available only on the inside. I used stand and watch as long as my coworkers would tolerate. The pitch and cadence of the delivery, the absolute transparent hustle, the smarm. I loved every second (no wonder I became an agent…). Dusk would settle, and it was time to back to the brooms.

After the grandstand show, the real work began. We’d start at either end of the top rows, two crews, and sweep to the center - and then send the accumulation tumbling down the center aisle. Repeat. And repeat. The crew, most of whom had been doing this for many Fairs past, was a mixed bag. I was about the youngest and was enjoying a real stretch from my cocooned existence as a middleclass white boy. There was Whitey the Pollock. Big, mean and silent. One of the old timers cautioned me early on to leave Whitey alone. “He don’t talk much and he sure don’t like to be talked to…steer clear if you value your teeth.” Okay. There was Sparky, toothless, who lived in what was left of Minneapolis’ skidrow (at that time undergoing a merciless destruction in the name of urban renewal). Watching him with a broom in his hands was almost ballet. “You workin’ too hard, boy! It’s in the wrists…see?” There were fathers and sons, who would take their vacations to work the fair for $9.25 an hour. The comfort of the south Minneapolis that I enjoyed was not theirs to be had. Sixteen years old and rubbing shoulders with life – looking back, I should have been embarrassed. At the time, I was just fascinated.

 We’d finish at about 2:00 AM. Weary, I’d walk back to my car parked just outside the grounds, on the other side of the Royal American trains. Passing cars, the girls from Harlem In Havana or Club Lido would be out, working the late night stragglers. “Hey sugar… Sonnyboy, you lookin’ for a little fun?” I was callow, virginal, and scared stiff. Head down, I walked. Quickly. “Ain’t no one thin dime, honey. But you gonna git your money’s worth.”

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Poker Story…“Unbuckle your belt - and look for trouble…” - Zorba, The Greek

This piece was written some 10 years ago – when the bloom was just starting to emerge on the rose that would be the poker craze. In late 2002, I was something like player # 1500 at Absolute Poker, one of the first online poker purveyors. In those early days we played for fun, not money, and I formed friendships during that time that I maintain to the present. The heyday of online poker is gone – sundered by various Attorneys General, greed and, in some cases, outright thievery. I wrote this story primarily because I think it’s a good tale. But there is also an underlying premise - that most people, when confronting an "opportunity" such as described in the story, would opt out, run away or avoid. But those who don’t, might, just might, stand to enrich their lives through the experience.

It’s my hope that, at the end of the piece, as the taxi pulls away from The Horseshoe Casino, the reader might see, perhaps, some possibilities in his own life - possibilities wherein he may be able to shake hands with his own courageous self.

It was May 8th 2003 and I was in Las Vegas on business. The World Series of Poker was due to start the following week at Binion’s Horseshoe, a wreck of a casino sitting in the middle of seedy, cheesy, downtown Vegas.  Like a shoe scuffed beyond repair, Binions makes no pretence to being anything but what it is. A gambling joint. You wanna gamble? Come on in, sit down – and we don’t care how much or how little you’ve got in your pocket. Walking in the front door, one dollar craps tables beckon, $.05 slots, even penny slots. If you literally had but one cent to your name, you could gamble it at Binions. A grind joint if there ever was one. But in the back and to the right, sat Mecca. The Poker Room.

The poker room, I found, was the stone opposite of the real estate that preceded it. Though still seedy, still threadbare, it had an aura to it. It was Serious. It was intimidating. It was huge. It was packed. The PA crackled constantly with table and seat announcements. The stacks of hundred dollar bills sitting in front of players often rose to a height of 4 inches or more. The action was everywhere and the room had a low, throbbing hum. The sound of money, bluff, luck and skill, all whirling together, tumbling, around and around. I was standing at the center of the universe of high stakes, professional poker. How I got to this place is the story of an adventure - an adventure that began with a decision to show up.


The chips felt heavy, greasy almost. They sat in front of me in imperfect piles, mostly white $1 and a few red $5. A large "B" was inscribed in the center of each. I was sitting in the Poker Room of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino wondering how I got there and when my palms would start to dry. For the first time in my life I was playing poker at a professional table - and not for nickels, dimes and quarters. The game was Texas Hold Em, the Cadillac of poker games, according to Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson. His was a name that I had never heard in my life until a few short weeks before but he had become someone who now commanded in me both respect and awe.

Texas Hold 'Em is a deceptively simple. In a $4-$8 game, before cards are dealt, two Blinds are bet, the player to the immediate left of the dealer posts a $2 bet (Small Blind) and the player to his left posts a $4 dollar bet (Big Blind). Called Blinds, because they are, literally, blind bets, as no cards have been dealt. Each player, usually numbering nine at any given table, is then dealt two cards, face down (the Pocket cards). A round of betting is begun by the player sitting directly to the left of the Big Blind. He must either call or raise the amount of the Big Blind, or fold, and so on around the table. This betting round is followed by the Flop, where three communal cards are laid in the center of the table. More betting, and a fourth communal card, the Turn or Fourth Street, is laid next to the Flop. Betting, again. And then the River or Fifth Street, the final communal card, is laid on the table. The player with the best five card poker hand is the winner. Simple.

"You'll either do it or you won't." said the voice in the cell phone as I paced outside the Bellagio Poker Room. "Just remember, without fear, there’s no courage." It was my friend Billy in Minneapolis whom I had called for support as the terror of sitting at a table sucked the resolve from me like a Shop Vac. "There’re guys named 'Slim’ sitting here," I said to him. "I mean, why not just walk into Yankee Stadium with a bat and ask if anyone wants to take a little practice?" There was a long silence. "Listen, you can do this...I know it, it's just you who's unsure." Uh huh… “Man, it’s your life, but if you want an adventure, you gotta fuckin’ show up…”

The endless electronic symphony of slots sang in the background. A timeless florescence bathed the scene in front of me.

I walked in.

"Yes sir?" The guy behind the podium, ten feet inside the entrance, wore a hopeful smile. I stood as close to him as I could. This was going to a private conversation. "Uh, yes, uh..." The hopeful smile hung in. "I've, uh, I've played. I've played before...and I won't embarrass anyone…" He nodded, the smile started to show some slight signs of strain. "But, uh, I, uh…" The smile brightened, "But you've never played in a Real Game before..." The guy was a psychic. "Yes. Right, that's right."

"So, what kind of games do we have here?" I said, trying so hard to be cool, nonchalant.

"They vary. Range from the $4 -$8 to $80-$160 - or we could arrange something more, if you're interested."

"Ah, I think the $4-$8 would be just fine"

He nodded like he understood.

"So, how much should, I , uh..." The smile vanished and a look sympathetic conspiracy took its place. "I'd do $100," he said. "You know, 'til you get a sense of the game and start to feel comfortable."


I gave him my name and went to the cashier.

For twenty minutes, I sat with the chip tray cradled uncomfortably in my lap. No one else sitting there, WAITING, was holding chips. It felt like Prom Night and I was the high school Junior, sitting in his date's living room, corsage box in his lap. I perspired. My hands got damper by the minute. I seriously considered taking a walk. name was boomed over the loudspeaker.

I raised my hand. Yeah, that's me, over here. The guy with the corsage...

"Table 23, seat 8."

My fists were clammy (soaked, really). Clenched tight, like my jaw and my stomach. I sat in a low chair, the back reclined a bit, but it was not, ah...comfortable. Jammed, as it were, next to the player on my left, who occupied the last seat at the table. Looking straight ahead, the felt stretched a full 10 or so feet. At the other end sat players 1-4...equally jammed. They seemed miles away, a world unto their own. I watched cards fly around the table. For 20 minutes, I called and folded, called and folded. I think I got to the Turn once or twice. Never to the River. The seat to my right was open and had been since I sat down. A small yellow Reserved chip sat on the felt in front of the empty chair. Another round, and I called to the flop. The dealer lightly pounded his hand on the table twice, dealt a card from the deck and buried it to the side. Then he drew three more and  lay them face down in front of him and slowly turned them over in the center of the table. My Pocket unsuited 8K drew a Qh, 8c. 6s. A pair of 8’s. Whoopee…another fold in my future. What was I doing here? What was I thinking? They were all SO much better, SO much more comfortable and SO SO much more confident than I.

Compounding this feeling of Lilputianism were the gaffs. The breaches in etiquette. The betrayals of ineptitude.

It began with the chips themselves. They were unwieldy. They wouldn't stack, they were difficult to count. I had no physical sense of them, no comfort in their use, no "feel", no tactile appreciation. When a bet came to me, I had to laboriously c-o-u-n-t each chip. At one point, a woman (young, attractive, of course...) sitting at the other end of the table began to make snoring noises as I tried to call a bet. Beam me the fuck outta here!! When it came time to post a Blind, I never seemed to be able to get the stack far enough out on the table to satisfy the dealer (or the other players). "Sir, again, please move the Blind further out from your stack..."

Maybe, maybe, I could get the hang. Maybe I could be cool. If I just paid attention, I could...

Then my heart truly sank. A Chinese gent, about 30 or so, wearing a yellow satin Final Table jacket sat down in the empty seat to my right. He flipped the yellow Reserved button and a red $5 chip to the dealer. Smiling, the dealer said, “Thanks, Tommy”.  I couldn’t see the name of the card room on the satin but I could see Gardena, CA on the sleeve. A poker Mecca on the West Coast. And, of course, the dealer knew him by name.

Two more uneventful hands rolled out. Tommy was getting more animated with each card. A small pot went to a gray beard sitting in 6th position to my right. He added it to a respectable stack in front of him. The cards flew for the next hand and I turned a suited A2 h. Grey beard was the first to bet and called the big blind. $4. Suddenly Tommy rose in his chair. “Oh, we gotta get dis pot up!!!” he shouted. “Raise, raise!!” and threw $8 into the middle of the table, making it $12 to me. I looked at my suited A2 again (sure tell of a novice…or a bluff), and I called.

Then the feeding frenzy began. The woman to my left, sitting in 9th position, said Raise, shoving $16 on to the felt. To the left of the dealer sat a young couple in positions 1 & 2. The guy in 1 called, his companion, the snorer, raised. Tommy was almost out of his seat, and his mind, yelling encouragement. Three folded, everyone called to the graybeard. He raised, as did Tommy. It was $32 to me. Novice fool that I was, I called. So did everyone else. The flop came 8d, 10h, 7s. A rainbow. And a possible straight. The betting began again. And it was a virtual repeat of the first round. Tommy grew more and more vocal. Chips flew. It came to me at $28 and I called (see ‘novice fool’ above).

The dealer tapped the table twice, buried a card and rolled a 5h for the Turn. I was one heart from a “nut” flush, Ace high. Again the betting resumed. As the chips flew, a crowd started to gather around the table. “Look at the size of that pot!” It mounded in front of the dealer. A huge stack of white and red. Finally, the pot was called and the dealer played the River, Fifth Street, the final card. He buried a card and then flipped the 6h. A straight, for sure. And the Nuts for me. A made hand – I couldn’t lose.

I pounded raises. Tommy mucked his hand in disgust. The final call was $32, with 5 players in the pot. The stack of chips rose a full five inches at its center. Three straights were laid at the other end of the table and eyes turned to me. I looked at my Pocket and put the duce on top. I flipped the duce and waited two beats. Then I laid the Ace. The collective intake of breath was clearly audible. And the dealer, with three separate movements, using both his arms, shoved the stack in front of me. Close to $600. The biggest poker hand of my life.

Take that, you snoring bitch!!

Six weeks prior, I had never heard of Texas Hold Em or of any of the denizens of a world that was unfolding before me. Positively Fifth Street, a book by Jim McManus, had awoken me to it and made me hungry for what it had to offer. And what it had to offer 

had little to do with money but a lot to do with mastery. The more I learned, the more pure the process appeared. The goal of the game was simple – beat your opponent, show no mercy.  Unequivocal, sharply focused. It was business, not personal. It combined equal parts of skill, bravado and luck. And the luck part could be tempered by rigorous attention a few basic rules, combined with a fine understanding of mathematics, Game Theory and maybe theoretical calculus….  

With NO math background (I was mercifully passed with a grade of "D" out of 10th grade Geometry), I knew I had to concentrate on the rules. I bought the bible of the game, Super System by Doyle Brunson. His chapter on No Limit Hold Em is considered the classic discourse on the subject and is delivered in plain English.  Emphatic, idiosyncratic, a style that seems to characterize both the game and many of those who play it. Brunson takes a no-bullshit approach. It’s simple, like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. You’re on the bus, or you’re off the bus. After the flop, you either raise or you fold. The object is to win. Win as quickly, and as much, as possible. Rules are rules. Know them. Use them. And win. All it takes is experience...lots and lots of experience.

And then it becomes like breathing. Or so they say.

But, in order to be able to reach that level, you have to get a "sense of the game" and the only way to do that is to play. And play. And play. "The guys with the experience get the money - and the guys with the money, get experience." That was Fred Meyer, Ohio poker player, veteran of the Internet. "That's what my Daddy used to say...." Fred and I would meet later that night at Binions, in the Super Satellite, where he would give me his card. Ace 13, a huge spade, and his name. No phone, no address.

I sat at the Bellagio table a respectable hour and a half. No more big pots, but I got up and walked with a lot more than I brought in. Looking back on the experience with a bit more knowledge and playing time under my belt, I realize that there was a ton of luck in catching that heart on the River. What I was doing is called chasing – and chasing is, for the most part, a no-no. Chase at your own peril. As someone said, husbands get caught, dogs get run over and poker players…go broke.

And, want to talk about perils? There is always the Bad Beat, the caprice of luck, of the distain or favor of the Poker Gods, depending which side you‘re on. A Bad Beat is when the impossible card falls on the River and turns a threadbare piece of shit into a veritable magic carpet, the stone winning hand. And it is, as you will often hear, “a part of the game.” 

Standing in the garden at the rear of the casino, I flipped open the phone and called Billy. The air was heavy with the scent of exotic flora. A bride and groom posed in front of the reflecting pool, actual sunlight shone through the glass roof.

“How did you get my number…?”

B, are you ready for this one? I ran the past couple of hours down for Billy.

“You can’t stop now – you gotta finish this.”


“Binions,” he said. “You gotta go to Binions. And take notes, lots and lots of notes. Got it?”

Uh huh…

At 7:30 that evening I walked through one of the forty-some doors facing the vast carport that is the main entrance to the MGM Grand. Ten lanes wide, separated by islands manned by valets and covered by a sprawling neon filled roof, it is an impressive sight. Money, money, money. I handed a whole dollar to the starter and got in a cab. Frank J. Caputto’s picture looked at me from the front seat dashboard. “The Horseshoe, Frank” I said.

“Call me Frankie…the Horseshoe, no problem.”

Frankie was a big guy and had the presence of a fixer - someone who could find me anything I wanted. All I had to do was ask. By the time we arrived at the Horseshoe, I had been treated to a variety of Vegas After Dark stories, asked if there was anything I “needed” and offered a business card with his cell number on it. The card read, “Just call Frankie” and the number. Pregnant with possibilities.

I stood in the flickering dazzle that bathed the front of the Horseshoe. The Frontier was across the street and the Golden Nugget kitty-corner. Noticing nothing, seeing everything, a giant cowboy statue towered over the sparkle and the grime, ever smiling. The strip and Las Vegas Blvd sat exactly one light year from where I was standing. There was nothing prosperous or posh or pretty about the place. No liveried valets, no luggage carts. These were gambling joints, not junket or convention destinations. Walking into the Horseshoe, the “senior” cocktail waitresses were the first thing I noticed. Hard and leathered and all business. Not the dewy fawns of LVB.

“Excuse me, ma’am”, Miss would have been an insult.

“What can I gittcha..?”

“The poker room?”

Inside, the poker room was raucous – a sea of money and men in hats. Baseball hats, Stetsons, fedoras. And stacks and stacks of $100 bills and piles of chips. Ringing some of the tables were the rails – areas where you could stand and watch. A game of high stakes stud was going on in an alcove against one wall. I leaned on the rail and watched the money fly. Suddenly, a player whose back was to me raised his hand, motioning toward a floor manager standing nearby. “Jesus, Louie!” he shouted. Suddenly Louie was standing in front of me. 

“You gotta move…he don’t like nobody behind him.” Okay, fine. No problem.

Louie escorted me to ‘neutral ground’.

“So, Louie,” I asked, “who are theses guys?”

“Well, that’s Eskimo Bob, and that guy is Frank Ellis, comes from Montana, and…” He stopped, a look of exasperation creeping on to his face. “Who are they? They’re high stakes, professional poker players, that’s who they are!”  He turned and walked back to his station.

The PA rolled with a constant litany of playing opportunities. “$10 & $20 Hold Em, two seats, table 34.” The voice, disembodied, seemed to come from everywhere. “World Series satellite tables, $50 buy in, closing now.” If I could find the voice, I could get all my questions answered. I wandered and wandered. Taking in the whir and the buzz and the movement. Sniffing the wind, I wiffed the sweet, certain scents of luck, the fetid ooze of desperation, all mixing with the enticing mixture of bourbon whiskey, cigarettes and cheap perfume.

Finally, I found the voice. “Where are the satellite tables?’

“Over there, past that podium” the voice said. “See Marge, she’ll fix ya up.”

I wondered over and asked a waitress where Marge was. Pointing, “She the one in the white coat.”

Marge, wearing an off-white jacket and black slacks looked to be in her mid 50’s. A blonde, with short hair and a busy, no bullshit air about her, she was in charge of filling the satellite tables that fed the Super Satellite upstairs. After the Super Sat, the next stop was a seat in the World Series of Poker, a seat worth $10,000. The satellite system was the backdoor in to the mansion.

“Marge?” I asked.

“Hi, honey, you wanna be one of my guys…?” She nodded toward a picture of two late- middle-age men hanging on a nearby wall. The sign above it read something like, “Satellite Winners Get Big Game Seats.” She positively clucked with proprietary-ness.

“Sure do, Marge.”

“The last two players at any table get moved upstairs to the Super Sat.” And if you were one of five left standing at the end of the Super, you got a seat in the WSOP.

I was escorted to a table with two seats left. I gave Marge a $50 bill and sat down. A runner brought a stack of $1000 in chips, all clearly marked “of no value”. Once those chips were gone, so were you.  

The nerves returned but not as intensely as the Bellagio experience. The gaffs continued. The dork-like chip fumbling, the constant, “what’s it to me…?” on the betting rounds. “Please move your chios FORWARD, sir..”

Two players busted out in quick succession. I was dealt a pair of tens. KK appeared on the flop and the guy in 8 went allin. I called with about $800, all I had left. No help on the Turn or the River. My opponent rolled over a pair of queens (Sigfried and Roy, as they’re known…).

Busted. Done. Out. Gone. It felt, for some reason, embarrassed. Well, maybe that’s too strong. Chagrinned would be more like it. Try it sometime and see if you agree.

The gent to my right turned and said, “There’s a $50 a table closing right behind us, if you’re interested.”

I was there in a shot.

Seated in 5th position, to my left, in 6th, sat an enormous mound of a guy. Almost an axe handle across, he would have taken up two seats on any mode of public transport. Hold Em tables are by no means commodious. Everyone sits cheek-by-jowl. And at this table, we almost needed a shoehorn.

“Hi,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Fred. Fred Meyers.”

Pleased to meet’cha, Fred…

A pretty blonde, wearing a well filled out black sweater, sat at position 9 at the end of the table to my left. Icy. Next to her was the Asian dealer, who appeared to be new on the job, tentative, a bit unsure. A brother under the skin. Next to him sat a guy wearing a Stetson, tinted glasses and sporting the whitest dentures I’ve seen in a while. But when he looked at you and smiled, it was chilling. The eyes shone dead, like a reptile and his expression telegraphed an invitation to come closer, closer.

To my right in 4 sat a guy with no hat, no shades, just a pleasant smile and a welcoming attitude. His name was Dave and I could sense Mentor from a mile. I told him that “this was my first time”, (virtually). As play progressed, he offered various tips, like count out separate stacks of four chips (the standard betting multiple at this table) and put them in front of your stack. That way, you wouldn’t have to fumble and fritter.

The lucky horseshoe was firmly up my ass and I was up over $1000.  Not a bad position to be in. The bigger the stack, the more power. You could ‘allin’ a lesser opponent and still not be in jeopardy of busting. It also conveyed a more subtle power – the knowledge that you “had them” when called. Bluffing, therefore, became a potent weapon.  

I always made a point of showing “good cards” when someone folded on a bet I made. I wanted them to see the winning cards. When, a couple of hands later, I might re-raised on the flop, while holding nothing, I could reasonably expect that they would fold. More often than not, I was right.

The button (literally a hockey puck-sized piece of white porcelain) moved clockwise around the table. Its position indicated who was “dealer” and therefore last to bet – and now it sat in front of the Stetson. The small blind sat with my friend and mentor to my right, and the big blind was mine, newly risen to $100.

I posted $100.

Stetson smiled, that white, white, smile and said, “I bet you play on the Internet, don’t you?” He was obviously complementing me on my high level of play and I brightly answered, “Yes!”

“I figured…” his eyes narrowing, “ ’cause on the Internet they post the fuckin’ blind for you! Get it out on the table and don’t confuse the dealer. Okay?”


That prick.

And then I thought, “I’m going to take all of your money…”

Three hands later, I was dealt an unsuited A2. I called to the flop, as did 5 of the 6 players remaining. No one raised. No enthusiasm. The flop fell, 5 3 4, rainbow. I had the straight. Judging by the round of unanimous calls, no one seemed to have any cards worth a bet.

When drawing strong cards early and facing a weak table, the strategy is to “slow play” the hand, that is, to draw in as many players as possible by not coming on with a strong bet. I checked. Fred in 6 did the same as did the rest of the table. Nobody had a hand worth a shit.

A single J fell on the Turn and I bet. The rest of the table limped in with calls. Then the bet came to Mr. Snake Eyes in the Stetson. Those eyes narrowed, and he raised. I put him on a J 8 or 9. And I knew I had him.

I called, two other players did likewise. Both Big Fred and mentor Dave folded. It was Snake Eyes, me, some guy sitting in 8 wearing shades, and the blonde.

The River fell with a 2nd J and the bet was checked to Snake. He had it all figured. He could buy this pot with his set of 3 J’s – no one had raised him – he had the table beat. The betting told the whole story. At best, he was looking at a pair as competition, at worst a set, but he had the over-cards. And if you’re going to buy the pot, he thought, why not do it with some style and power…

“Allin” he said, flashing those teeth.

“I call.” and pushed my entire stack into the felt. Shades and the blonde folded. Snake was surprised...but confident. He grinned...he beamed.

Normally, it is considered very bad form, abusive even, to be slow in responding to a laydown. Tell them what you have quickly, before anyone lays hands on any chips. An ethic of the game. But this time, I couldn’t resist.

Having been called, Snake, teeth flashing, rolled the suited J 8 to reveal his set of trips. I looked down at my cards, started to shake my head. I could see his hands moving for the chips. Beat. I flipped the A2 on the table.

“Straight to the five," I said. "You lose.”

If he had a gun, I would have been dead. The look was almost enough to do me in. He left the table. Fred had a big smile on his face. So did Dave.

“Nice one,” Fred grinned.

Man, it was fine.

Play continued and we were winnowed to three. Me, Fred and Shades, down in 8. We were all more or less equal with Fred holding an edge of about $300.

Cards in the air - and my Pocket read AA. Oh boy...!

After a call and raise and are-raise and call, we got to the Flop. In the center of the table, the dealer laid down K, K, K.

Holy Screaming Moses...Aces full of kings, a boat, the Full House. Only two hands beat it - four of a kind or a Royal Straight Flush. Both of these hands are rare and precious - the RSF is a lotto win. The button sat with Shades and the bet was to me. "Allin," I said.

Fred turned and looked at me. Hard and unforgiving. This guy was a poker player ("You might be a nice guy, I might even like you, but I'm gonna beat your ass."). I quite understood.

"Allin," Fred said.

Shades, being no fool, promptly folded. He was a winner either way. He'd be one of the last two standing. He was smiling.

I rolled the aces and Fred turned a pair of 4s. He looked at me, no emotion. He said, "good game," again, and waited for the inevitable. I was picturing myself upstairs...sitting with some big dogs, and just maybe grabbing that seat. Man, what a day it had been...

The dealer burned one card and rolled a 4, placing it next to the K K K . And then another card was buried - and a 4 was laid on the table. K K K 4 4.

Fred had four of a kind.  Bad, Bad, Bad Beat….

Fred whooped so that you could hear it to the street. He had four 4s and he was going upstairs. 

We all shook hands. "I'm going up too, just to look around," I said.

Upstairs, the room was large with tables spread everywhere. Bleachers sat in one corner, not far from a group of tables, maybe 3 or 4, where a tournament was in progress. I think someone said it was an Omaha High Low tournament, one of the prelims of the WSOP. Prize money was $150,000 to the winner, so I was told. Jerry Holmstrom was on the mic. The "Johnny Addie" of the poker room, I thought. "Genial Johnny Addie," as Don Dunphey used to introduce him was the ring announcer at Madison Square Garden.  Dunphey hosted The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, A/K/A the Friday Night Fights, a must-see when I was growing up. Look Sharp – Be Sharp, the Gillette mantra, was lost on Jerry. He wore an ill fitting sport coat and cheap slacks. His protruding ass pushed the vent of his sport coat open, revealing a seat so reflectively shinny that you damn near see your face.

Tables were filled with either buy-in's (folks who had paid $250 or more for the privilege) or the lucky few who had survived the rigors of the action downstairs. Fred was assigned to a table not far from the rail and I perched to watch him play. As he was settling in, I looked around the room. Maybe 150 players, hunched around cramped Hold 'em tables. And then, in the middle of the room, I made direct eye contact with The Snake. There he sat. A buy-in. He was not happy to see me.

Play began at Fred's table and Jerry Holmstrom continued his running commentary, moving players from table to table, as the Satellite wound its way to conclusion. It would take hours.

Scanning the room, I was looking over the heads of some 40 players when there was a tap on my arm. It was Fred.

"Busted first."

I thought he would have been spouting profanities or looking glum, dejected, rejected. But, no, not at all.

"Hey, it's the game.." he said. 

Nodding toward the Tournament in progress, he said," there's Phil Helmuth...". A giant. (Winnings as of August 1, 2003, $677,170). Phil 'The Brat' Helmuth, the youngest player ever to win the WSOP. There he sat, wearing his UltimateBet hat ("where virtually everybody plays")  - worn backwards - and matching black UltimateBet jacket. Guess he owns a piece of, a site that is turning into one of the largest on the Internet. We watched in silence. I thought about McManus’s description of the final table. TJ Cloutier, (2003 winnings to date, $528,240) Jerry Appleman, and the ultimate winner, Chris "Jesus" Furgesson. (2003 winnings to date, $359,545) Six feet three inches, full beard, cowboy hat, shades. He won one point two million dollars. Thank you very much.

McManus described Chris as a PhD in Physics with a heavy concentration in Game Theory and who came from a family of academics. He also liked to swing dance, he and his wife and, according to McManus, wore "dancing slippers." And he was a killer poker player.

Fred nudged me, nodding toward a figure who had just stood up form a table. Done. Busted. "That's Howard Lederer...". Another name, a heavyweight, I had encountered in the pages of Jim's book (me and Jim, we were on a first name basis by now).

Fred told me about his 'Daddy' who ran a backroom game in Cincinnati where Fred grew up. "The guys with the experience get the money, and the guys with the money get the experience." We both stood, looking at three table's full of experience - and money.  They were all there. The heaviest of the heavies in professional tournament poker. Holy Smoke, It Ain't No Joke...Like the still in Lord Buckley's God's Own Drunk, there it was, just like the map said...the center of the poker universe.

Unknown to anyone, all this was about to change. The universe would shift on the following Friday when a new WSOP champion would be crowned. For the first time, a man who had never, that’s right, never, played in a live tournament, would win $2.5 million. He is Mr. Chris Moneymaker. His experience? The Internet. And now and ever after, things would be different.

Fred Meyers, Ace 13, plays on the Internet. And the Internet is changing the face of poker, both professionally and otherwise.  The "leather-assed road gamblers", guys who served years playing hand after hand in back rooms of roadhouses across the American west (liquor in the front, poker in the rear), and who dominated the game for decades, are pretty much done.  In their stead is a new class of player who, thanks to the Net, can play more hands in a month than the leather-asses played in a year - or more. In addition, there are computer programs that allow practice at varying skill levels combined with the ability to "project" strategies out over millions of hands. Nothing ever like it in the world. Ever. Doc Holiday would have killed and killed to lay hands on such a thing.

"Gonna raise ya, Wyatt...".

Another figure rose from the tables. He was tall, wearing a full beard. Shades. And a cowboy hat. It was Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. And he was walking toward me.

"Excuse me," I said as he walked past. He stopped. He really had no choice, I was directly in his path. I introduced myself. He smiled, shaking my hand. "I wouldn't have know you if I fell over you in the street a few weeks ago. I just finished Jim McManus’s book and began playing about a month ago."

Still shaking my hand - smiling, friendly, open, he said, "Well, that's great man...good luck." And he was out the door.

Sensory, informational and emotional overload. That was me. Things began to whirl, tilt. "The center cannot hold....mere anarchy is loosed..." In 16 hours I had gone from a virginal student to, well, a guy with a little experience. And had covered a lot of ground…seemed a bit, like a dream.

I pulled Frankie's card from my pocket and punched the numbers into my cell.

"This is Frankie, what's up...?"

"Hi...Frankie," breathing was a problem. I had to get back to my room. This was all just, so much.

"Ah, Frankie, you picked me up at the MGM and brought me the Horseshoe, remember?"

"Yeah, sure, I remember , what's goin' on?"

"Ah, need to get back to the MGM, when could you be here?"

"In fifteen."

"Great, I'll be out front."

I said my good-byes to Fred. Marge had appeared in the Super Sat room, clucking over “her guys”.   I thanked her for her cordiality. Tipped a waitress (just on general principle) whose surprise and "Thank You!!" warmed me to the knees. And headed down to the street.

In front of the Horseshoe, the neon was blaring. The giant Cowboy's unseeing but watchful eyes regarded me. He stood in silent vigil.  A few minutes passed.  A half moon, riding high above the glass overlay covering the intersection, refracted in blues and pale yellows. Suddenly, a cab made a powerful U-turn in the middle of the street and lurched to a stop at the curb. The rear bumper rising, settling. It was Frankie.

I opened the door and slid into the backseat.