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.

Across the table a guy they call Fat Gary is sitting sideways in his seat, staring at you. His oversize glasses look like they could pick up television signals. His thinning hair sits atop his head like a salad, tossed with too much dressing. Fat Gary audibly sighs, lights up another Marlboro Light 100, blows smoke wearily into the air. "Remind me to fold if that guy's in the pot," he says. He's talking about you.

Soon enough there are ten shiny stacks of 20 blue chips in front of you, even a couple of $2 chips colored yellow and brown; a little more than $200. Your mind starts playing tricks. You start to think the cards always run this way. A wiser man would walk away, cash in his chips, buy a beer to celebrate. But you stay seated, telling yourself that when the next dealer finishes her shift you will go home. Just one more hand. One more ace. One more winner.

The cards come. The cards go. You bet, raise, fold. You bet the flop, get flattened on the turn, drown in the river. When nature can no longer be ignored you jog to the bathroom, then choke off a piss mid-stream so as not to not miss a hand. You throw away what would have been a flush, then lose to some jerk with three twos for Christ's sake. Suddenly Fat Gary is your soul mate.

David Kern

A thirtysomething woman with long black hair and wearing a low-cut pink shirt sits down at the table with $40 in chips. She's wretched from poker. Her eyes water. Her head begins shaking in defeat even before she looks at her cards. It's her third table in three hours. And within 45 minutes her chips are gone. "I gotta quit gambling," she says as she pushes away from the table. "It just makes me miserable." You know that this could soon be you, but dismiss the thought from your mind.

Gradually, inexorably, your chips begin to dwindle. A middle-aged, loose-lipped Chinese man is raising the bet every time he gets a chance and inexplicably calling "Deuce! Deuce!" before every flop. It often costs $8 or $10 just to see the flop, and at least that much again to take the pot to the end of the rainbow. And it's hardly worth the effort. The guy is going to win anyway. You know that as certainly as you know that kings are better than threes.

Fat Gary is now muttering under his breath about "Chink poker." Sweat is beaded on his brow. After losing another hand he snatches up his chips. "I can't stand this Chinese poker," he says, plenty loud this time, and departs for another table. There's an uncomfortable silence. It lasts only as long as it takes to deal another hand. at the wrong table. He's playing $15-$30 Texas Hold 'Em, as he usually does, on a Friday night in late May. But the heavy gambling action tonight is ten chairs away.

P.B. is 31 years old, short and stocky, with wispy dirty blond hair, a boyish face, and a faint peach-fuzz mustache. For more than two years he has been a semiprofessional poker player. Until becoming a father in June, he was often at the Canterbury Card Room three or four days a week. To balance himself psychologically, or, as he puts it, to give himself "a positive mental effort," he works at a daycare center each weekday afternoon. Before Canterbury opened he spent much of the year traveling the country, playing poker in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

"Typical Minnesota night," he laughs, sizing up the room. "There must be ten guys here in overalls." P.B. will talk about playing poker only on the condition that his name not be used.

On a computer in the basement of his one-story home in St. Paul, P.B. keeps a detailed spreadsheet of his poker playing. He tracks wins and losses, hours on the table, and what type of poker he played on what day. As of mid-July, he has already logged 53 sessions of poker this year both at Canterbury and in private games, totaling 264 hours. His hourly wage works out to $25.85 an hour. His winning sessions outnumber the losing ones about three to two.

At the table with P.B. there's a guy the regulars call Pirate. He wears a leather cowboy hat, and a bushy mustache dominates his pale face. Two seats to P.B.'s left is a gray-haired man who sports a Gophers baseball cap and has a Minna-soh-da accent. He looks like he should be participating in a friendly bridge game instead of tossing around hundreds of dollars' worth of chips. There's also a freckle-faced kid who's in way over his head, and a sullen fellow with a blond ponytail who fingers his chips obsessively and never lifts his eyes above chin level. The only women around are serving drinks or dealing cards.

The pots hang around the plus side of $100, small for a $15-$30 game. (The average take at the other $15-$30 Texas Hold 'Em game in the room is probably twice that amount). P.B. wins a pot about every half hour. The piles of red chips worth five bucks stacked in front of him barely fluctuate. During each hand, almost imperceptibly, without glancing down, the dealer swipes some chips from the pot. These chips are placed on a slot to the dealer's right. At the end of the hand, as the winner is scooping up his spoils, the dealer releases the chips into a container below the table.

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