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.

The cards aren't falling Smith's way. In the first eight or nine hands he wins just one $8 pot. The rest of the time he tosses back his first two cards without betting. For disciplined players to not bet a hand for 20 minutes is routine in Texas Hold 'Em. And Smith counts himself among the savvy. He reads books such as The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky, and Mason Malmouth's Poker Essays. He also monitors the game's most popular online resource guide, www.deja.com/group/rec.gambling.poker. He usually plays twice a week, four or five hours a sitting, and claims to win more often than he loses. If he manages to get ahead by $50, he will usually cash in the chips. "A lot of these guys, they act like they gotta make their rent money," Smith says of his modest financial goals. "But I just come here to relax." He likens his poker-playing to someone else's golf game. It's a hobby. "You pay $150 for greens fees but scoff at me for blowing $60 playing poker?" he scoffs. "Who got off worse?"

After tossing away another losing hand without betting a chip, Smith raises his arms in mock despair. "I don't know what I did, but I'm sorry," he says to the heavens. Two dealers have completed their standard, 30-minute shifts at the table while Smith has waited on a winning hand. His $80 stack of chips has been halved.

The afternoon's next dealer is Eugenia, a chatty thirtysomething brunette who calls everyone sweetie. On her third hand she deals Smith a king-queen off suit. He peeks at the cards, lifting up just a tiny corner of each one, shielding them from view with his hands. Then Smith bets $2. On the flop comes another queen, and on the turn a third queen. Now he has three queens, the highest card showing on the table and an almost certain winner. Everyone tosses their cards back but Smith and the old-timer. Smith, shuffling four chips back and forth in his right hand, stares at the old man--tries to read him. But his wrinkled face reveals nothing. In the end both players flip over a queen. But the old man only has a three to go with his. Smith takes the pot on the strength of his king. Like most smart players, it's rare that Smith will stay in to the showdown if he doesn't have "the nuts."

The next hand plays out almost exactly the same. Again Smith has a king-queen in his hand, again two more queens show up in the center of the table, and again it comes down to him and the old-timer. This time, though, there are three spades on the table, allowing for the possibility that the old man has a flush. "You got spades?" Smith asks before turning his cards. "Say no." The old man flips over an ace and a four. "Thatta boy," Smith crows, raking in the chips and tossing one to the dealer for a tip. He lets out a long breath, his body visibly relaxes. Smith, who had planned on leaving at the end of Eugenia's shift, has once again renewed his faith in poker. "It's nice to make up two hours in ten minutes," he says, settling in to play another hand.

Smith should have left when he had the chance. After his brief run of success, the cards bite back. He stays at the table for another hour and walks away $40 in the hole. His second straight day in the red. Originally Smith was planning on returning to the card room in 48 hours. But, frustrated, he decides to take an indeterminate hiatus. "When things are bad, going in there and beating your head against the wall doesn't do any good," he says.

Just a week later Smith is back at Canterbury to take another run at the cards. "Your emotions take a big beating down here," he says. "I think a lot of people don't appreciate how much of a toll it takes on you. You take a lot of abuse. And I love it."

 

It's not unlike "It is better to give than to receive." It is as good to lose as to win. There is only a shadow of difference between them, and that shadow is insignificant. Winning is better than losing, but neither one is the goal of gambling, which is playing. Losing never feels like the worst part of gambling. Quitting often does.

--Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss,
Frederick and Steven Barthelme

 

At a certain point, somewhere past the fifth hour and just before the seventh, you lose all focus. Time becomes meaningless. You no longer know if it's light or dark outside, hot or cold. It no longer matters whether the Twins will get a new stadium, what Jesse Ventura said on Leno, or who got the boot on Survivor. All that matters is the cards, the chips, and the pots.

Initially you take breaks. You get up to use the bathroom. You take the occasional stroll around the card room. You even poke your head outside to light a cigarette or take a breath of fresh air. Because, like the countless novices that have come before, you are winning. The $1 blue chips seem to rain from the sky. Every time the dealer goes to flip a card it's a diamond for a flush or a six to complete the straight. And you grin as you scoop up another $20 or $30 pot. You can't help it. You're officially "on the heater." A ripple of delight shoots up the spine. You toss the dealer a tip. Not one, but two blue chips. Then you utter a cliché; something you heard in a movie, like "Keep 'em coming" or "Must be my day."

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