Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When I Knew

"Raise! $250 to go." said the Dealer as the young kid stacked 10 green chips in front of him, the next two players quickly called and I leaned forward to look at my hand. The first card I peeled back was the four pointed Ace of Diamonds, my heartbeat quickened like a child approaching a plate of fresh cookies, I held my breath and slowly peeled the corner of the second card. A slight red curve told me it was a Heart and the solo bottom serif could only mean one thing, the Ace of Hearts. I fanned back through both cards and admired the two red Aces, the best starting hand in the game of Texas Hold'em. My heart was now a steel-toed boot trying to kick its way through the door of my chest, my brain spinning like the wheels of an exercise bike one minute into a workout. I was trying to decide how much to re-raise when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Gino, the player who was next to act after me, slide his fingers down a stack of black chips and back up to the top, which in the language of poker tells meant he was about to re-raise the pot as soon as I acted. Seeing this changed my whole strategy, rather than me re-raising, I could now call and disguise the strength of my hand. I tossed in two $100 black chips and two $25 greens and held my breath. "Raise!! said Gino, as he cut out ten black chips, "$1000 to go" said the dealer. The other players quickly mucked their hands and all twelve eyes at the table turned to me, the last remaining player with a live hand. It was the moment I had been waiting for all night, all my life maybe, the moment I had hoped for when I first scouted out the table three hours earlier.

I had been playing $2-5 No Limit a game with a maximum $500 Buy-in, and winning about $1200 when the word hit the table that a big game, a really big game was about to start up on Table 6 of the High Limit section of the Borgata's basement Poker Room. After the big game had been going for about 45 minutes I decided to walk past it and check it out. They were playing $25-$50 No Limit Texas Hold'em, a game with a $5000 minimum Buy-in and no maximum Buy-in. Meaning a player could put as much money on the table as they choose. Games this big rarely went off at the Borgata unless there was a big tournament in town and there wasn't one going right now. As I passed the table I scanned the faces of the five players, four of them I knew, but there was a young guy, maybe 24-25 with a face like a male model and muscles that threatened the integrity of the seams of his tight white T-shirt, in Seat Four. I had never seen him before and judging by the way he was handling his chips he hadn't played a lot of poker. He had an easy 15k in chips messily stacked in front of him. I went over to the FloorPerson Pete and asked "Who's the kid in Seat Four?" "I don't know" said Pete, "He's killing the game right now though, supposedly he's the boyfriend of some young hot actress shooting a movie in NYC right now, maybe Charlize Theron or Scarlett Johansson." "He looks like he should be playing $1-2 NL, not $25-50 though."

I nodded and returned to watch the game, the other four players were Gino, a rich divorce lawyer from NYC, Frank the Tank, a regular Borgata player, Mr. Lee, another regular (who supposedly controlled the underground gambling in Chinatown) and Gil another rich Borgata regular. Of the four, only Frank was a winning player and Mr. Lee was infamous for his deep pockets and willingness to gamble it up on the green felt. It looked like the perfect situation for me to "take a shot" and try to win some big money. As I stood watching the game, it was clear there was plenty of action. It would cost me 5k of my 30k bankroll to get into the game, but I could easily win 5 or 10k in a game like this. it was a big gamble though, I could also easily lose 5k in a single hand, more money than I had ever lost in even a two week period. I took a deep breath and headed for my Safe Deposit box. I told myself "Let's do this." I had played some $10-25 NL before, but that game had a 5k max and I usually bought in short, for only a thousand dollars. This was going to be the biggest game I'd ever played in before, but it looked like a rare and really juicy opportunity. I got my box and removed 3 orange $1000 chips, knowing once I picked up my chips from the game I was in, I'd have the 5k necessary to buy in to the bigger game.

I took the Eight Seat so I could see everyone's faces and neatly stacked my chips. The game was just as I expected and after a short period of jittery nerves, I centered my breathing and calmed down. I picked up AK of Clubs and called a raise to $250, the Flop came King high with two clubs and I was in business. There were three of us in the hand, Mr Lee and the Kid, with $775 in the pot. Mr. Lee bet out $500, I called and the Kid folded, the Turn was a 3 of Diamonds and Mr. Lee bet $1250, I raised to 3k and he started to stare me down, then released his hand. My heart rattled like a Super Ball ricocheting around a rubber room. But stacking my new chips concealed the slight shake of my hands. Adrenaline surged into my brain like hot water into a clawfoot porcelain bathtub and I closed my eyes and enjoyed a delicious shiver of excitement. This, was what I had come for. The game moved on with me not playing very many hands, my strategy was very simple now, I was going to wait for one good chance to trap someone in a big pot and double up. Then the Kid announced his raise to $250.

"It's $750 for you to call, Pittsburgh" said the dealer, using the name I was known by throughout the poker rooms of Atlantic City, mostly because of my habit of always wearing something that represented a sports team from Pennsylvania's second largest city. I swallowed hard and counted out seven black chips and then two greens. I piled them into one stack like a black pole with a green cap and then just before sliding them forward, announced "I'm All-in." "What did he say?" asked Gino, "Did he say All-In?" The dealer nodded yes, "How much more?" Gino asked. I quickly counted out my remaining chips, "$6275" said the dealer. Gino looked back at his hand and said "I call." "Call!" repeated the dealer, but before I could table my hand Gino asked me "Do you have pocket Aces?" I said "I just raised you sixty-two hundred dollars, what else would I have?" He nodded and glumly flipped over his two Kings. The Flop came Jack, Jack, Seven, all black with two Clubs, the Turn was the Seven of Spades. With one more card to be dealt I now had a 95% chance of winning the more than 15k in the middle of the table. The dealer burned a card and then turned the River Card, it was the King of Hearts! The whole table gasped, Gino had hit a miracle King on the River to beat my two Aces. The dealer turned to me and I tossed in my now useless Aces face up, he quickly buried them in the Muck pile and after scooping my stack, began pushing Gino the pot.

I could see the mouths of the other players moving, but couldn't hear them, almost as if I were under water. The Dealer turned to ask me if I wanted to rebuy, but I couldn't hear a single thing he said. I sat there as stunned as if someone had just told me that my mother was really a Chinese acrobat come from the future to save humanity from the tyranny of giant people eating termites. I thought about re-buying and trying to get my 5k back, but that was sheer insanity. I couldn't afford another five thousand pound hit to the jaw. I nodded no, then got up and somehow made my way back to my room. To this day I still don't know what transpired on that 12 minute walk back to the Borgata's hotel tower. It was like I was walking through a lake of water fifteen thousand feet deep and the casino patrons were large fish parting quickly around me. I got to my room, unlocked the door and collapsed across my disheveled King Size bed. I couldn't feel my arms or legs, I could see them and move them, but there was no sensation. I felt like someone had tipped over a humongous bookshelf and 15k books had fallen on my head. I peeled off my clothes like labels off an empty bottle and threw them at the chair next to the bed. I had to be the single most unlucky person in the entire fucking universe, I thought. I knew the math, I was a 19-1 favorite before the last card. How unlucky would you be if you had a choice from twenty cups of Kool Aid and chose the one that was poisoned? Not even the most melancholy melody ever mouthed by Sade could soothe me at that moment. I had found the perfect game, got the perfect hand, in the perfect situation and gotten fucked like a Toy Poodle by a Great Dane in heat.

I lay there in the solid darkness, misery swirling around me like smoke from a busted muffler. How could anyone be so unlucky, I wondered. I had to be the single most unlucky person to ever grace the face of the earth. In the history of the earth, no doubt. And then I thought about a six year old boy, who was right now at home in his bed snoring contentedly dreaming of the latest video games. And you know, maybe I was unlucky in that hand, but I was lucky enough to be the one guy that that little kid called Dad. And I thought of the time that I almost fell of the roof of our three story apartment building while trying to retrieve a baseball and just caught the edge of the gutter and it held. And that time I was about to run out into the street after a football and slipped on a wet spot and just missed getting hit by a car I never saw until it was swooshing past me. And another time, and another came out of the mists of my memory to remind me that I'd had my share of good fortune too. And what poker player hasn't taken his share of bad beats? Maybe it was just my turn to get flattened by the poker gods like an empty milk carton headed for the Recycle Bin. I rolled over and closed my eyes.

The sharp sliver of daylight coming between the curtains pried my eyes open like a knife in the hands of a fisherwoman shucking clams. I rolled away from the light, yawned and stretched and then got hit with the memory of previous night's events like fifteen thousand pigeons shitting on me at once. I shook my head and then lay back and looked at the ceiling. My five thousand dollars was gone, long gone. but there was action right now downstairs on the tables and that meant I had a chance to grind it back, the same way I had come by it the first time. I hopped out of bed and slipped on my pants, my shirt and then my black Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. I glanced at the clock, there was just enough time for me to catch the Breakfast Buffet, then back up here for a quick shower and shave. Every person has a moment when they know they're doing the thing they were meant to do in life. I had just lost more money than I ever imagined in a single hand of poker, but I be damned if I was going to let that stop me from getting it in good again. I walked to the door and strode down the hall to the elevator, it might take me down, but it was going to bring me back up too.

And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)
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