Thursday, April 18, 2013

Enter the Dragon

"If you lose it, then that's it. You're done?"
 Her eyes locked in like lasers on my face, awaiting my response.
"That's it. I'm done." I said.
And just like that, a deal was struck. I figured it was a win/win situation for me, but you know how life is. It would turn out to be a lose/lose situation. The situation itself was simple, when we got together one of the first questions she had asked me was if I gambled. She made it clear that for her, gambling was a deal breaker. I didn't, so it wasn't. Now, after almost two years of us being together, here I was telling her that I was going to give playing poker a try and even more outrageously, I was arguing that poker "wasn't really" gambling. It was a bit much. She was a tenured Law Professor, certainly no stranger to a debate. But I had plenty of ammunition. Ever since my conversation with Nate, I had been spending a few hours a day in the Border's bookstore downtown reading 'The Theory of Poker' by David Sklansky. All the way through. Twice. Then I read another book by Andy North. And a third. In part because I liked to read, but also because this idea of poker as a beatable game, unlike say, Craps or Roulette, was intriguing. My boy NJ was really good at games and math, and if he thought the idea was sound, then it almost certainly was. But my girlfriend didn't really give a rat's ass about NJ's opinion, or David Sklansky's for that matter. I wasn't going to win any arguments with a mere theory, so we struck a simple deal, I was going to take $100 I had gotten paid for a poetry reading and use it to play poker. And if I lost it, then that was it, no more poker. Forever. I figured it was a good deal, if the theory was correct, then I was going to make some money, and if it wasn't, I'd learn a valuable lesson. We agreed that I'd keep my 'poker money' in a wicker basket on the nightstand next to the bed where she put her jewelry every night and once the money was gone, that was it for poker.

I strolled into the park that day brimming with excitement. And trepidation. The books said that if I employed a very conservative strategy with my beginning cards that I could be a winner in Seven Card Stud. I aimed to find out. The game itself was unusual, all the players were chess players, very strong chess players, in fact I was probably the weakest chess player of the entire group. And we played on a chess table. Since we were outdoors in a Federal Park where gambling was prohibited, we couldn't put any money on the table. So they had devised an ingenious solution, we used a chess piece, a pawn usually, to mark the amount of the bet. Each box along one edge of the chess board embedded in the concrete table counted for a certain dollar amount. If the pawn was moved two square,s then one owed $2 and we squared each other up at the end of the hand. Each player stated  which amount they owed as they folded and we all policed each other. It was an Honor System, but it worked because we were all friends and all paid attention. Because of my memory, my well known hyper attention to detail, and my reputation for honesty, I quickly became the arbiter of disputes about when someone had folded.

To be honest, I had never thought that I'd be any good at poker. I have always had a very expressive face. Whatever crosses my mind usually crosses my face too. This is a great attribute when one is on a stage reciting a poem, but a real problem when trying to conceal emotions in a poker game. Poker is a game of incomplete information, one can't be handing that info out for free. And so I thought that my lack of a 'poker face' would be a big detriment. As it often was in conversations with (mostly women) who fill in conversational gaps with facial expressions. The problem is that my face reflects what I'm thinking, but since my brain works so fast, what I'm thinking is often ahead of or tangential to what is being said. Which can lead to a great deal of conversational skew, sometimes with hilarious results. But as it turns out, my ability to laser focus and to hone in on and recall minute details was way more of an advantage than any expressive face could ever be. As a result, even following a simple and very conservative strategy, I quickly became a winner in the poker game. And as I accumulated more and more information about my opponents, I had little trouble discerning what cards they held. After that first day, I spent less and less time playing chess and devoted almost all my free time in the park to the poker game. The game was full of characters. Most of the guys had very good jobs that paid well, some over 100k a year and two were even millionaires. Several of the player were engaged in nefarious activities, one of the them was a drug dealer, another was a pimp. Across the chess table, no one cared what one did for a living and it was the same in the poker game. The money we were playing for was inconsequential to them, and so they gambled it up with no regard for odds or proper poker strategy. Needless to say, by the end of the week the bills in the basket had bloomed to $300 and in a month's time, topped $1000. For years I had spent countless hours in the park pushing pawns across concrete tables, losing $20 or $30 a week. Now I was hanging out with my boys clearing $500 a week. Both sides of the street seemed sunny and I couldn't have been happier. Her jaw however, was clenched tighter than a pit bull's teeth on a chew toy. But, a deal was a deal, right? The bills filled the basket with trepidation.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

X Marks the Spot

I'm standing in line to cash out my chips in the Borgata Poker Room, facing a seemingly unending line of guys (mostly) waiting to sign up for the day's tournament, when I spot a familiar beat up Boston Red Sox cap. And I know this cap because it belongs to Joe F. a cat I haven't seen in a very long time, mostly because he was barred from the Borgata for Comp Fraud. Joe F. is infamous among AC grinders because while we all are whores for casino bonuses and promotions, he took it to an entirely different level. For every hour a poker player plays, the casino compensates him (hence "Comps"), how much depends on the size of the game, but 1 point per hour is common in AC for 1/2 No Limit. A point is basically worth a dollar and can be used to buy food or rooms or items in the gift shop. Back before he got barred, the system at most casinos required players to clock in and out at the Sign Up desk at the beginning and end of each session. Some guys would sometimes finish playing, but not clock out right away to earn more points. In the bigger rooms, like the Borgata and Taj, there was no real way for the casinos to tell. Some guys would clock in at one casino and then go play at another and earn points at both (or even three casinos) at the same time. In the bigger games, a player could earn as much as four points an hour, which meant that an eight hour session would accrue 32 points, which was basically $32 to be spent in the casino. Joe F. was barred for (allegedly) going to the casino computer and creating a very high limit game that he would then clock himself and several family members into, thus earning comps on multiple cards. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out that an eight hour session times five or six players is $160 0r $192 in comps. Each day. Which could be used to eat in gourmet restaurants or to pay for rooms that could be stayed in or sold. A saturday night room could easily be sold for $250 since the Borgata often charged up $400 a night for premium weekend dates. Joe F. had it pretty good for a few months, but eventually they caught up to him. Because he actually played in high limit games, getting barred from the Borgata was pretty bad for him, given that most of the AC high limit action was there.

I nod and say "Long time no see."
To which he replies "Yeah, six years"
"Six years?!?" I say, "Has it really been that long?"
He nods, "Six years to this very day."

And I trust his count, because well, he'd know. Joe F. is one of the few guys left from when the room was downstairs and that was seven years ago that it was moved. And then it hits me that the Borgata has been open for ten years now. Ten years. Wow. Seems like only yesterday The Borgata was the shiny new kid on the block, a position occupied now by the Revel. But more importantly, if the Borgata has been open ten years, that means that this year marks my tenth year here as a poker grinder, because in January of 2003 I started playing in AC for five days a week, going back to DC on the weekends to spend time with my son. And that summer the Borgata first opened its doors. It's been one hell of a ten years and in my next ten blog posts I'll look back at some of the more memorable things that I've witnessed along the way, as well as chronicling my personal journey. Which, as far as poker is concerned, began in the middle of Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington DC, on a chess table no less.

I first discovered Dupont Circle in 1983. I was an Airman stationed outside the city at Andrews AFB and my mother had asked me to go to the Cape Verdean Embassy to inquire about dual citizenship. As the daughter of two Cape Verdean immigrants, my mother qualified for Cape Verdean citizenship, but she was already a US citizen and had a bunch of questions. Too many really to be asked over the phone, so I volunteered to go and ask and perhaps get the necessary documents to apply. As I had no car, I had to take the bus, a long arduous trip that required changing buses three times. The last of these changes was at Dupont Circle, a neighborhood that even then was known for its heavy concentration of LGBT folk. The inner part of the circle is a Federal Park and is crossed by two pathways that divide it into four quadrants. I had gotten off the L bus on the Southwest side of the circle and was walking towards its iconic fountain, when I noticed a series of stone tables built along the Southwest quadrant of the park. From where I was standing it looked like the men standing there along the tables were playing some kind of game. As I got closer I could see that they were playing chess. I'd been playing chess since age eight and was in the Chess Club in high school, although not good enough to make the Travel Squad of the Chess Team. I was intrigued and so I wandered over. To make a long story even longer, I never made it to the Embassy that day. I started playing and by the time I asked anyone what time it was, it was after six o'clock PM and the embassy was closed for the day. Which wasn't a problem since I was off the next day too. So, I returned the next day, making certain to visit the embassy first, before returning to the park and playing chess until the last bus back to Andrews.

After I got kicked out of the USAF for Insubordination and moved into the city, I visited the park pretty much every day that the weather allowed. The community of chess players was an eclectic group drawn together by our love of the game, but across the board nothing mattered, except one's ability to outthink the opponent. Race, class, height, weight, personal income, none of it mattered, either you could beat the person or you couldn't. Fiercely competitive, chess was the perfect game for me. Over the next fifteen years I became a fixture in the park, drawn not only by the game we all loved, but also by the intellectual company of chess players. Avid chess players tend to be pretty smart and are often well read and well educated. But in our (frequent) debates, like in our games, the only thing that mattered was if you could hold your own. Which I could. My education, though entirely informal, is pretty formidable, I've been an avid reader since I was four years old and I read pretty much any and everything. And remember no small amount of it. So I fit right in.

Fast forward fifteen years and it's 1998. I'm hanging out, waiting for a game to finish so I can play the winner, when I spot NJ, a Master level chess player from NYC who sometimes comes down to play in DC. NJ is one of the best games players I've ever met, besides being a Master at chess, he's also a Master at Bridge and good enough at Backgammon to earn a living playing it. He also was one of the members of the last Blackjack team to crush the AC casinos, before the casinos changed the rules about Mid-Shoe entries to shut the teams down. Me and NJ kick it for a few and then he eyes the last table on the end, where a group of chess players are all arranged around a table playing cards. Seven Card Stud to be exact. Many of the guys who play chess (myself included), also often wager on the games, either games you're playing in or games you're not. Since chess is entirely a game of skill, I don't consider wagering on a game I'm playing in to be in violation of my personal prohibition on gambling. Gambling in my mind, and the eyes of the law and science, is wagering on random events. Chess is anything but random. But other players have no such aversion to gambling and so sometimes craps games break out, or games of Spades or Tonk. And much smack talking and betting ensues. Occasionally someone might even bring in a Scrabble board and it too, becomes a vehicle for wagering accelerated excitement.

But right now NJ is eying the poker game and asking about the stakes. I don't really know because  I don't mess around with the game, in fact I don't even watch, even though all the guys in the game are my friends. In fact, my boy LP, one of my closest friends,actually started this game, when Governor Glendening shut down the legal poker games in the firehouses in Prince Georges County. I'm surprised because NJ doesn't wager unless he has the best of it and I didn't figure him for a poker player. I ask him about it and to my surprise he tells me that, mathematically speaking, poker isn't really gambling, not like Craps or Blackjack. Now, I respect NJ's opinion very much, in fact he's one of the few people I know who is better at math than I am, which is saying something, given that I was also on the Math team in High school and taught myself Calculus, just for the hell of it. But this sounds like some bullshit, and I tell him as much, gearing up for a debate that I surely will have the higher ground in. But NJ, just laughs and runs down how probability works in poker and how an informed player can basically choose his own odds and only play when they favor him. I still call bullshit, but I face an uphill battle now, since the key question depends on whether or not there is a significant skill element to the game. NJ says that knowing when to fold, is the the primary skill and entirely up to the player. I'm about to argue again, when he cuts me off and says "There's books about this, I'm surprised you haven't read any of them." And I haven't, it's all news to me, but he points to the bookstore across the street and says "They've got some of them in there, just go find "The Theory of Poker" by David Sklansky." I still think it's all a giant crock of bovine fecal matter, but hey, if there's a book to be read, I'm down for that. I hop the bench, dodge a few taxicabs, and enter the bookstore. The employees all know me because I'm there all the time, so they just wave as I head back to the Games Section, a place I know well because I come frequently to peruse the chess books. I locate the title NJ mentioned and find a nice chair to sit in, unaware that once I crack the cover of this particular book, my life will never again be the same.

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