writer gets a lesson in poker By Holden
chain-smoking woman sitting to my left chuckled.
"If you're staying in, I'm folding,"
she rasped, and she shoved her two pocket cards
toward the dealer.
She should have stayed
in. My luck didn't turn; it stayed bad. After
a round of betting, I folded at the flop.
I was in the card room
at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, sitting
between an unsuited pair of cigarette junkies
at the low-limit Texas
hold 'em poker table. I had taken a brief
class the day before to learn how this variation
of poker is played in a casino. (I had played
a few hands of hold 'em poker in kitchen table
games.) Soon I was about to get a real-life poker
lesson, courtesy of a player named Simon. Like
a freshman English major who stumbles into a graduate
mathematics seminar, I knew that a lesson was
being taught when Simon cleaned out our table,
but I didn't understand it. Weeks later, I'm still
scratching my head, wondering if I played poorly,
if Simon was lucky -- or if he simply outplayed
I have always enjoyed
poker and have always been bad at it because I'm
naive, a lousy liar and too arrogant to take these
personality defects into account when I play.
I have more character flaws than anyone living
outside of prison, and one of them is my belief
that I'm always the smartest guy in the room.
So, at the poker table, I behave as if all I need
is a clear head, and I'll beat everyone. My customary
haughty modus operandi is to sit, sober as a Mormon
missionary, at kitchen tables crowded with pot-smoking,
beer-chugging players, and try to take advantage
of their altered mental states. Then they empty
My boss knew
only about the character flaws, not the poker
incompetence, when he gave what many people would
consider a dream assignment: Go to Las Vegas and
gamble -- on the clock and at company expense
-- and then write about it. I asked for a $500
gambling bankroll and got $300. My game plan went
something like this:
Read a book on Texas
hold 'em poker;
Learn how to conduct
myself at a casino table (when to put in the
"blind bet," a type of ante; how
to let the dealer know that I'm folding; how
to place bets without committing a faux pas);
Impoverish my enemies
in a low-limit game.
Of those three
things, I accomplished approximately one and a
half. I didn't commit any faux pas. I read about
half of "Hold 'Em Poker," by David Sklansky.
As far as impoverishing my enemies -- well, I
didn't do that. Simon did.
Simon joined our table
soon after that chain-smoking woman sitting beside
me folded because I hadn't folded. A player on
the other side of the table picked up his chips
and left. It was a nonsmoking seat, so I bade
adieu to the heavy smokers I was sitting between
and moved. A new player took my old seat. Simon.
I never asked him what
he did for a living, but I pegged Simon as a salesman
-- cars or stereos or big-screen TVs, maybe. He
had black, slicked-back hair, a small tattoo on
the neck under his right ear, and supreme self-confidence.
He greeted the three guys sitting to his right.
It turned out that they were buddies visiting
Vegas together. The guy farthest to Simon's right,
a redhead with a colorful rosary tattooed on his
left forearm, was Simon's brother, Solomon. Between
them were two friends.
Simon was capable of
swaggering in a chair. Whenever he wagered, he
thumped the chips dramatically on the table. He
talked like a character from "The Sopranos"
and probably could recite the dialogue from every
episode. He barked an endless stream of patter.
His favorite saying: "A scared gambler never
And he meant it. Simon
was betting almost every hand -- and winning.
One time, he won with a full house -- 4s over
deuces. "You mean you stayed in with a pair
of 4s?" one guy asked incredulously. Simon
shrugged and said, "A scared gambler never
Meanwhile, I was getting
terrible cards. In one stretch I folded about
25 consecutive times before betting. I sat at
that table for nine hours that night, and the
best deal I got was a pair of 10s. I rode that
hand all the way to the river, continuing to bet
in the face of reason. When the showdown came,
all I had was that measly pair of 10s, which got
annihilated by the winner's flush.
Simon didn't win that
hand, but he won a lot of others. He kept playing
cards that he had no business playing, at least
according to Sklansky's book. Invariably, Simon
would be dealt a 5 and an 8 and get the winning
hand on the last community card dealt. "A
scared gambler never wins," he would say
in the manner of a man who doesn't know much,
but knows what he knows.
Solomon, the redhead
with the rosary tattoo, occasionally studied me
like I was a specimen in an entomology lab. He,
too, probably knew every episode of "The
Sopranos" by heart. The two buddies sitting
between the brothers seemed content to cheer Simon
on, remarking on his amazing luck.
Occasionally, the four
spoke to one another in Arabic. For all the rest
of us knew, they were saying, "I have two
clubs, so don't go for the club flush." Finally,
the Chinese-looking guy sitting to my left said,
in a not-friendly way, "Hey, Dealer -- this
is an English-only table. Will you please enforce
the rules?" Simon and Solomon and his friends
apologized and stopped speaking Arabic. An hour
later, a new player joined the table -- a Chinese
man -- and he and Mr. English-Only exchanged pleasantries
Spots opened at our
table as players got sick and tired -- or suspicious
-- of Simon's winning streak. He came to the table
with $100 in chips. Soon he fetched another tray
to hold another $100 in $1 chips. Then another
tray. Then another. "A scared gambler never
wins," he said over and over, as he repeatedly
won with atrocious hole cards. As if he knew what
cards were coming up. Other players stayed in
hands instead of folding, just to force Simon
to a showdown. More often than not, Simon won.
Simon's endless talk,
his chip-thumping, his Jersey wiseguy manner of
speech, his obvious love affair with himself --
they infuriated the rest of us. Was his loathsomeness
a deliberate strategy, designed to provoke us
into playing badly? Was he merely a repugnant,
but lucky, player? Were he and his buddies cheating?
I'll never know, but in hindsight I suspect it
was an act, and he was a good player taking advantage
of the rubes at the low-limit table.
As for me, I estimate
that I won less than one hand per hour. At one
point I went "all in" -- bet all of
my remaining chips -- and won about $30. It was
getting late, and if I had been playing with my
own money I probably would have cut my losses
and called it a night. But it was the company's
money, so I played for a few more hours until
I had lost all of the hundred bucks. By this time,
Simon had parlayed his $100 into more than $600.
I stewed about it for
days. A week later I flew home and got in my car
at the airport garage (new dent in the left rear
door). As I drove toward the tollbooths at the
exit, I cut off a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.
There were queues at all the tollbooths and I
picked the shortest. The guy in the Mercedes got
in a longer line. I kept my eye on him. Sure enough,
he got through his booth and out the exit five
minutes before I did. Thus did I conclude bitterly
that I was enmeshed in a vast karmic conspiracy
to endow me with bad luck only.
Two months later, after my poker-dealt psychic
scars had faded, I made a pilgrimage to the dog
track, home of a spacious, smoke-free card room.
I couldn't get a seat at a Texas hold 'em table,
so I joined an Omaha hi-lo table, blithely disregarding
that I didn't know how to play the game. I quickly
got the gist. The highlight of the evening was
my four-of-a-kind -- kings -- and I walked out
with more money in my pocket than I had walked
Luck had nothing to
do with it. I won because of skill. Hadn't I made
the same conclusion about Simon?