Back before poker was marketed to the masses — before television featured celebrities acting like card players and turned card players into celebrities — the game had a certain seedy nobility. Miscreants, n’er-do-wells, scalawags and those who just couldn’t seem to catch a break flocked to the game for its fraternal sense of belonging. Poker had a language all its own, and if you didn’t know what “Big Slick” or “drawing dead” meant, you were definitely the fish at the table — and you would soon be gutted. It was survival of the fittest with hole cards, an evolutionary reckoning whereby luck and skill triumphed over breeding and social standing — a level playing field made of green felt.
Ah, the good ol’ days! Poker today, particularly the high-holy of the game — No Limit Texas Hold ’em — has been hijacked by nice people. Sane people, everyday folk. The kind with jobs. Even we RVers, traveling from state to state, look up a poker game now and then. Sets of cards and chips, promoted as Texas Hold ’em Packs — as if cards and chips are game-specific — are sold at the corner drugstore. It’s all enough to put this old cardsharp off the game entirely. I used to play in my father’s Friday-night games when I was a kid. I then parlayed that hard-won knowledge into college Vegas runs that did not help my grade point average, but usually kept me in date money. I began to frequent poker rooms in Los Angeles, and went on to win many small-town tournaments. Then I walked away from the game. Finances had something to do with it, but poker’s acceptability figured in, too.
I liked the smoky debauchery, the scary characters either on parole or on the lam. Poker these days is another thing entirely. Do I really want to participate in what had essentially become a Tupperware party? Vegas being Vegas, however, I soon found myself on my semi-annual RV trip to Sin City, and I entered a No Limit Texas Hold ’em tournament in the Plaza Hotel & Casino downtown. Ten of us, plus the dealer, sat around the oblong table, waiting to begin the shootout, a format that allows for no re-buys or add-ons — meaning the depth of our pockets would not determine the winner. We had each received $600 in tournament chips for our $19 buy-in. As the blinds and bets went up every 20 minutes, we would try to eliminate each other, until one player from each table prevailed, taking home all the cash.
Unless, of course, we chopped up the winner’s take and divvied it among the top two or three players left at each table — a coward’s option I find rather repugnant. The cards flew, and I felt the killer instinct reacquainting itself with my psyche. I bluffed the cowboy-hatted Texan in the five seat out of a monster pot with rags in my hand. I check-raised the Brooklynite wearing matching pinkie rings with only a pair of deuces. The flop made me look like a prophet, a prophet with a profit, the stack of chips in front of me beginning to resemble the Great Wall of China. I used my chip-lead like a cudgel, badgering and bullying. I caught cards when I needed to and represented that I’d hit my hand when the cards missed.
I made the Cincinnati Kid look like an infant. I was The Man. When I won the tournament, I chopped the pot. As the chip leader, I gave in to peer pressure. I crumbled. I did the friendly thing. I purchased Tupperware. Although I’d put smiles on their faces, I felt unclean, a lesser man, somehow. Sure, it felt good to be back in the game, good to peer at my hole cards and hope for pocket aces. And winning didn’t hurt at all. Yes, I’d be back tomorrow, since the Plaza holds well-run tournaments every day but Sunday. Even with the prospect of gutting more fish, however, something still felt wrong. I headed to KOA’s Circusland RV Park at Circus Circus to clear my head. So many poker rooms, so little time, I thought. There would be other victories, other chances to reveal my killer instinct. In the next tournament I won, I chopped the pot …