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.

In May 1999 the Minnesota Legislature amended its gambling laws to clear the way for a card room at Canterbury Park. Lawmakers surmised that if money from the poker tables were funneled to the track, the value of purses for the horse races would grow (a purse is the prize money awarded to the owners of winning horses). This in turn would encourage more people to raise and race horses in Minnesota, thereby bolstering agriculture in the state. Translation: Poker is good for farmers.

When Canterbury Downs opened the gates in 1985, under the stewardship of former grain company executive and lead investor Brooks Fields, people came in droves to bet on the ponies. The average daily attendance for live racing that inaugural year was more than 13,000. But by the end of the Eighties, because of poor management, marketing snafus (legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker signed on to run betting seminars at Canterbury only to become paralyzed in a drunken-driving accident just prior to the start of the season), and its then-remote location, Canterbury was ailing. It was sold in 1989 to two Michigan businessmen and eventually bottomed out in 1993. Live racing was canceled and the place went dark.

The Sampsons, a Minnesota family that made its money in cable television and telecommunications, purchased the track from the previous owners and formed the publicly traded Canterbury Park Holding Corporation. By the spring of 1995 the horses were running again. But the gamblers and horse breeders were slow to follow. The Sampsons immediately began lobbying the Legislature for the right to give their customers more gaming options. They had hoped for the more lucrative slot machines, but, under pressure from Indian gaming interests, the Legislature balked. Ultimately Canterbury settled for cards.

The Legislature didn't green-light the poker room without some stipulations, however. They dictated that Canterbury set aside a portion of the money made in their card room. Ten percent of the first $6 million in revenue is earmarked for purses. After that, the set-aside increases to 14 percent.

Since opening on April 19 this year, the card club has pumped more than $3 million back into the corporation, almost equaling the racetrack's first-quarter revenue. As a result, before the start of this year's live racing season in May, Canterbury Park increased their purses by a full ten percent. On July 27 purses will jump another ten percent.

It is not clear what poker's impact will be on Canterbury's bottom line. In the first quarter of 2000, Canterbury Park Holding Corporation had profits of $177,767--$350,000 less than from the same period in 1999. But CEO Randy Sampson attributes the dip to expenses incurred in setting up the card room, noting that, compared with last year, revenues have actually increased slightly.

The card room has also had affected track attendance. After the first 34 days of racing, total attendance at Canterbury Park was 132,847, up 12 percent from 1999. "I do think there are some people who are saying, 'Let's go out early and play some races and then we'll play some cards,'" Sampson says. But he admits it's difficult to quantify exactly how many people are drawn to the track because of the card room.

The Canterbury Card Club is a distant cousin of similar operations in Nevada and California, which have larger rooms and higher stakes. In the main poker room at Canterbury, bets range from a minimum of $2 per game to a maximum of $30, capped by law. This falls in the middle rung of poker stakes. In Vegas games routinely require wagers of $150 to $300.

Even so, a single hand in the highest stake games at Canterbury, sometimes lasting less than a minute, can swing a player's bankroll by $1,000. The desire to play for this kind of money keeps people coming to the card club 24 hours a day. And poker has an added allure. Unlike gamblers who play the odds at roulette or craps or at the slots, poker players can control their own destiny. They are not playing the house. They are playing each other.

Or as one poker regular puts it: "In here I'm playing against the average schmuck, and the average schmuck doesn't worry me."

 

Christopher Smith doesn't play poker at night anymore. The 26-year-old high school math teacher and Purdue graduate says he has been through too many erratic, caffeine-fueled games where people wager recklessly. And the smart play becomes harder to determine when the decisions of others at the table are based on nothing but hope and whimsy.

Smith prefers the mornings and afternoons, the time of day when players can be read as easily as the lettering on a poker chip. There are the retirees--to bed at dusk, gambling at dawn. ("They're tight as hell," Smith observes. "I'm not saying they're easy to beat, but it's tough to lose to them.") And there are players who have been gambling all night and are "on tilt"; eyes bleary, hair matted, blurring diamonds into hearts and eights into threes. ("If you sit down with someone who starts bragging about how they've been playing for 36, 48 hours and they bet, raise 'em. 'Cause they got their head up their ass.")

On this Monday afternoon in early July, Smith takes a seat at a Texas Hold 'Em table, $80 worth of chips piled neatly in front of him. He's a stocky man with a scraggly black goatee. In his left ear are four hoop earrings, and another one in his right. He wears a gray T-shirt, baggy shorts, and a green baseball cap.

The image is a conscious part of Smith's poker game. Some days he wears a loud tie-dyed T-shirt, others a plaid, floppy hat. "I try to present myself like I'm a loose player, like I'm there to gamble," he explains. "I play really tight. I try to play a really solid game. But I want to present an image that I don't."

Basically the game of poker is about putting together five winning cards. At minimum, a player wants to have a pair--two jacks, for example. The best possible hand is a royal flush: a ten, jack, queen, king, and ace all of the same suit. You could spend a lifetime playing poker and never see a royal flush. So more often players are gunning for a straight (five consecutive cards) or a flush (five cards of the same suit) or, even better, a full house (three of one card and two of another).

Texas Hold 'Em is a deceptively simple version of poker. At Canterbury the game begins when each one of the up to nine players is dealt two cards face down. Then a round of betting takes place. At this point players are hoping for high cards (aces or kings), a pair, two consecutive cards (a nine and ten, for example), or two cards of the same suit (increasing the possibility of landing a flush). Experienced players will consider not only the two cards in their hand, but also their position at the table, and how other players are betting. Initially the minimum bet at a $2-$4 table is 2 bucks. In a $3-$6 game, 3 bucks. And so on, all the way up to the $15-$30 tables. Players can raise the bet up to four times in each round of wagering, so in a $2-$4 game it can cost up to 10 bucks to stay in the game after the first two cards are dealt. Otherwise a player folds.

After the first round of betting, the dealer turns over three shared cards faceup in the middle of the table. This is known as "the flop." The flop is often where a hand of Texas Hold 'Em is won or lost. Players now know the value and suit of five out of the seven cards they will ultimately see during the hand. If a player does not have at least a pair at this point, his odds of winning are minute. "If you're going to venture beyond the flop, you better have made something," Smith explains.

Following the flop another round of betting takes place. Then a fourth communal card is flipped. This is "the turn" and is followed by yet another round of wagering. At this point the minimum bet doubles: In $2-$4 Texas Hold 'Em, it is now four bucks. After the turn there are usually only two or three players remaining in the hand. The others have folded because they don't believe they can win.

Now a fifth and final shared card is flipped over, dubbed "the river." A final round of betting ensues. Then the players reveal their two hidden cards and whoever has the best five-card hand wins the pot (a player's hand can consist of any combination of the five communal cards and the two individual cards). All of this transpires in no more than three minutes, but for the player a hand can seem like an eternity. Years after memorable hands, many players can recall the exact cards that came on the flop, the turn, and the river.

Smith doesn't have to think about these basic rules any more than he does his own breathing. He's busy sizing up the competition at the nine-person table. Three seats to his right is a ponytail-wearing guy who talks too much and conspicuously mentions that he's been playing for 18 hours. Across the table from him sits a stoop-shouldered man, dressed in suspenders and a baseball cap, grimly whiling away his golden years. When the old man bets, you can be sure he's not bluffing. Right next to Smith is a scrawny twentysomething. His baseball cap is pulled down tight over his pointy head and he's steadily drinking bottles of Michelob Golden Draft.

The first two cards Smith sees are an ace-three off suit. Simply put, an "off suit" is any two cards that are not of the same suit. Most people at a $2-$4 table will bet any ace, any time. After all, it's the highest card in a deck. As a rule the betting is much looser at lower-stakes games. Most players, perhaps seven out of nine, will stay in the hand to see what cards come on the flop. Smith tosses in two bucks. But when the ponytailed player raises the pre-flop bet to $4, Smith folds; figuring the guy must be holding a high pair or an ace-king. "What? It was good enough for two but not for four?" Smith's opponent chides. "It was marginal," Smith mutters.

The kid wins the hand with a full house-- three sevens and two aces. Smith would have lost if he'd stayed in. The ponytail asks Smith what he was holding. "King-two," Smith fibs, not wanting the guy to think he is too cautious. Then the ponytail announces he had a pair of fours. "Now I know that guy will raise to $4 with a pair of fours," Smith snorts under his breath. "A pair of fours ain't shit."

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."

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.

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.

 

P.B.is 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.

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.

Soon you are down to just a few chips. So, like a dozen players that have come before this night, you throw them all in. Three times. And, miraculously, you win. But on the fourth dance with disaster your luck fails. Your chips are gone.

You instinctively reach for your wallet, but there's no money in it; just an ATM card. You think about taking out another $20. Why not? Your luck has to change.

Then the guy next to you shifts his weight. You catch a glimpse of his watch. It reads 4:30 a.m. You blink your eyes, look again. It was 6:00 p.m. when you sat down. You calculate the hours.

You wearily push your chair back from the table, bid your newfound companions adieu, and head for the door. The white lights suddenly give you a headache. Your mouth is parched. Near the exit there's a heavy kid in a dirty white polo shirt looking like you feel. "I haven't been home for three days," he moans.

As you walk out to your car in the early morning hours, daylight just on the horizon, you fumble for your keys and smile wearily. You sat at that table for ten-and-a-half hours. And no one got up to leave. Not one person. Not until they had gambled away their last chip.

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