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 movement is routine, but as he watches, P.B. stews inside. After playing distractedly for about two and a half hours, with midnight approaching, he scoops up his chips and exchanges them at the cashier's booth for a stack of hundreds. In P.B.'s eyes the bankroll should be much thicker. "They're raping me," he says. "I think what they're doing is extortion."

What P.B. is referring to and what the dealers are scooping from the pot is known as "the rake." The rake is how poker rooms survive financially.

The rake at Canterbury varies slightly from table to table. In $2-$4, $3-$6, or $4-$8 Texas Hold 'Em games, for example, where the pots are often less than $40, the house chops ten per cent of the bets. The maximum rake at any Texas Hold 'Em table is $4. In a typical $15-$30 game, 40 hands might be dealt in an hour. This means the house is taking $160 for itself. The games in the California Room--Minnesota 21, Pai Gow Poker, and Super 9--cost players 50 cents a hand. As of July 1, the card room at Canterbury Park had raked in $3,478,000. That's $47,644 per day.

In addition to the rake, the Texas Hold 'Em tables at Canterbury seat only nine players. At many other card rooms around the nation the tables sit ten. This means that, as a rule, fewer players will be betting. Therefore the rake, as a percentage of each pot, is steeper. The difference is minute, but it can add up over time.

P.B. argues that when you figure in the $4 rake at Canterbury, coupled with the nine-player tables, it's the most expensive poker room in the country. In Nevada and California, where there are multiple poker rooms competing for players, the rake is often two or three bucks. "They've got a complete monopoly and there's really nothing we can do about it until we get some competition," he complains. P.B. believes that once the initial infatuation with the card room wears off, the high costs will eventually drive players away. "When you get $100,000 shoved up your butt for six months, you start to realize you're not gonna make it," he concludes. "In six months, when all these bad players go broke, I can't afford to be here."

There are other players at Canterbury who, like P.B., will criticize the rake only on the condition that their names not be used. They fear being barred from the card room by Canterbury officials. (Deborah Giardina, vice president for card room operations, says these fears are unfounded.)

"The rake's the worst I've ever seen," says David, a poker player from Kansas City who has made several trips to Canterbury since it opened. "It's gonna kill the players." David allows that as long as it draws crowds he will continue to play at the Minnesota card room. "When a new card room opens up there's generally a lot of inexperienced people that haven't been weeded out yet," he says. "The action still makes it worth it for me."

Andy Atlas, a full-time poker player and track gambler from Toronto, traveled to Minnesota with two buddies in May to check out the new card room and play the ponies. He expected to spend about a month in Shakopee, but he cut his trip short after just two weeks. "I just found the whole trip was really, really, really super depressing," he says. "Nobody can stand that rake."

Canterbury officials vigorously defend the financial setup of the card room. Giardina notes that the rake at the riverboat casinos in Illinois is $5. Giardina, who operated poker rooms in Mississippi and Louisiana for Grand Casinos before joining Canterbury in November, also notes that most poker rooms that charge a lower rake are part of a full-fledged casino with much greater revenue.

"The card club [at Canterbury] has to pay for all of the security, all of the surveillance, all of the labor. All of that comes right out of this area," she explains. "In Chicago and most places where there are casinos, they have the slot machines and all the rest of that revenue to offset that. The expenses here to run an operation like this are huge."

Giardina adds that there are costs not immediately discernible to players, like the room's air-filtration system that makes it possible for smokers to see their cards: "The numbers sound really big. But when you start looking at what the bottom line is, after all the expenses and the labor and the constructions costs, I would say no, the rake is not that high."

Mike Caro, known as the "mad genius of poker" because of his disheveled looks and prolific writing on the topic, agrees the rake at Canterbury is "not unreasonably high" and notes that good players can beat it. "If I were the management there I would be putting it at whatever the traffic would bear," Caro says. "That's their obligation."

 

Knowledge is a dangerous, seductive thing in poker. You begin to pick up the patter, the jargon, the lingo. "Big Slick, and I still can't win," you whine, showing everyone a losing hand of ace-king in order to garner some jaded, been-there-done-that sympathy. You learn the basics: when to fold, when to bet, when to raise. You practice a stone-faced look patterned roughly on Abe Vigoda in The Godfather. You learn just enough to look good. Then you lose.

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