Poker Faces

Looking for a painless way to lose your shirt? Head down to the Canterbury Card Club, where bad luck comes in spades, some lucky schmo is always raking in all the chips, and even if you win the house takes its cut.

It's early on a Friday evening at the Canterbury Card Club in Shakopee, and the room--no larger than a basketball court and just a few yards from the 15-year-old horse track--is an intimidating tangle of people, tables, and television sets. You meander around the edges of the white-walled room, past the beefy security guard checking IDs at the entrance, past the machines that charge $2 for a cash withdrawal or $9.99 for a $100 advance on your credit card. Since there are no clocks and only a handful of windows looking out toward the racetrack, time seems to stand still. The bright white lights never dim, the pay phones are tucked away near the bathrooms, the air is always unnaturally cool.

You count 53 televisions in all, hung horizontally around the room. Some of the screens show horse races taking place on Canterbury's dirt track. Others silently broadcast SportsCenter or Hardball or a race at the Meadowlands, Churchill Downs, or a track in the Australian outback.

You buy a cup of strong, black coffee and try to get the lay of the land. There is none of the whiz-bang freneticism of a casino. No slot machines that buzz, zing, and flash. No cheesy piped-in music. The 30-some dealers make amiable small talk, players quietly commiserate. Occasionally someone will gloat or slam a hand down on the table. And every few minutes a voice calls out "player checks on seven" or "shuffling the burn on ten." But mostly, especially considering that the room is packed with nearly 500 gamblers, there is calm. The only constant is the clatter of plastic poker chips shuffled through fingers, flicked across felt, endlessly stacked and restacked in uniform columns or asymmetrical, Jenga-like towers.

David Kern

There are 31 forest-green gaming tables in the room. Players sit around them with their heads bowed, eyes fixed on the cards before them. Their cigarette smoke curls in the air as its whisked into a high-power ventilation system. They caress various lucky totems--rabbits' feet, glass stars, gold crosses--and drink bottomless cups of coffee and Mountain Dew. In this room, staying awake is more important than getting a buzz on. The hardest beverage being consumed at many tables is a Coors Cutter. Occasionally players will rush to the bathroom or get up to bet on a horse race, but mostly they sit and play Texas Hold 'Em, 7-Card Stud, or Omaha poker.

It's a peculiar Minnesota mosaic: anemic, chain-smoking women who never say a word; Ray-Ban-wearing suburban teens who have seen Rounders one too many times; twentysomething hipsters with bad haircuts; and jowly men who wear sweat suits and require a second cushion on their chairs.

Stocky floor men in dark suits loom over the tables like secret-service agents. The referees of poker, they settle disputes over how a card was dealt or a bet was placed. Dealers in maroon shirts--looking like castaways from the starship Enterprise--rotate from table to table every half-hour, the only sure-fire marker that there is a minute hand moving somewhere. Runners in bright-yellow tuxedo shirts dart back and forth with clear plastic racks of blue, green, red, yellow, and black poker chips. At the bottom rung of the card room hierarchy are the ashtray changers. They schlep through the room in untucked T-shirts, faces cast permanently downward.

Near the back of the card club there is a doorless entryway to what is known as the California Room. There are ten smaller tables in this room reserved for faster-paced games: Pai Gow Poker, Super 9, and Minnesota 21, a slight variation of blackjack. Alcohol is a common accessory in this high-octane environment; as is high-volume bravado. But you have come to play serious cards, so you make your way to "the board"; a white, wipe-away waiting list in the main room. It's Friday night and the board is black with names. You tell the smiling woman that you want to play $2-$4 Texas Hold 'Em. You are 13th on the list.

Soon enough your name crackles over the P.A. You take a seat at table 31, place five $20 bills on the felt, and the dealer cocks his head upward. "Player checks on 31!" he yells. Within seconds your money has been transformed into five stacks of blue chips worth a buck apiece. You're playing poker.

 

The Canterbury Card Club is Minnesota's only poker room. Slot machines, craps tables, and blackjack--staples in the state's Indian-run casinos--are more reliable moneymakers than poker. This is because poker games are labor-intensive, while slot machines pretty much take care of themselves.

Jackpot Junction, a casino in Morton, Minnesota, run by the Lower Sioux, actually built a room designed to house eight poker tables this past spring. The tribe even advertised for a poker manager. But because the law is fuzzy on whether Indian-run gaming facilities have to seek permission from the state to operate a poker room, and because the profits on these games are minimal, Jackpot Junction ultimately decided to use the room for more slot machines. "We looked at the pros and the cons and said, 'Do we want to jeopardize what we have for eight tables?'" says Steve Whitaker, director of operation at the casino.

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