Trends

ROMANCING THE GAME

The World Series of Poker brings out the glitz and the cash. But it’s the local games that bring out the thrill.

JEMAL HAMILTON May 24 2004
Trends

ROMANCING THE GAME

The World Series of Poker brings out the glitz and the cash. But it’s the local games that bring out the thrill.

JEMAL HAMILTON May 24 2004

ROMANCING THE GAME

Trends

The World Series of Poker brings out the glitz and the cash. But it’s the local games that bring out the thrill.

JEMAL HAMILTON

I’M A FISH. I wish I could tell stories of how I bluffed out a big player who was sitting on the button holding American Airlines after a K-K-J flop—but I can’t, because I’m just a fish (a new player) who’s managed to pick up some lingo. Like millions of others, I was glued to the TV when Chris Moneymaker (yes, that’s his real name) won the World Series of Poker last year. The 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee, who until then had played largely on-line, worked his way through the pros in Las Vegas, betting more money on a single hand than I make in three years of work. I was electrified just watching him: all that cash and that action, everything resting on a moment’s decision. “This is the sonic boom of poker,” a WSOP spokesman declared after Moneymaker walked away with the US$2.5-million jackpot. “This means anyone in their home can become a poker player.”

The man turned out to be right. The face of poker has changed dramatically, the grinders and rounders of The Cincinnati Kid era now joined by soccer moms, urban hipsters and the Hollywood A-list. Internet poker sites are legion—many devoted just to female players, whether pro or amateur—and two major televised tournaments are drawing strong ratings: the World Poker Tour, a kind of PGA of cards spiced up with celebrity games; and the World Series of Poker, the classic that takes place every May in Vegas at Binnion’s Horseshoe Casino, culminating in the week-long “main event” that starts May 22. All the pros go to the World Series, and now more and more wannabes, too. The 2003 WSOP was the largest ever, and this year there are at least 1,500 entries, up 80 per cent.

FOR serious players like Paul, poker is a physical game. He often plays 10 or 15 hours. His record: 48 hours straight.

While I may be new to poker, cards have always given me a rush. At age 7, my grandfather and I played gin rummy in his bedroom. He’d let me deal—which always made me feel tough—and give me sips of his Molson Golden while chiding me for my ridiculous attempts at cheating. He told me to never chase cards. I often begged him to play poker with me—five card stud was big in the westerns I was watching—but he wouldn’t do it. “To play poker you need money,” he’d say, “because to play poker you need to bet.” I did get him to play once, for matches, but after my second nonsense raise he refused to play again. What he was trying to teach me is that poker is about serious stuff: money, self-control, nerve—things a man needs to learn.

Now, 25 years later, I play the game in a basement storeroom of a downtown Toronto bar with a friendly but competitive bunch of guys for whom poker is an integral part of life, like drinking espresso or watching girls. The room is a bunker with unfinished concrete walls and floor. We play on a wonky table with a green felt top worn thin from years of use. The game is Texas hold ’em, just like in the World Series, but we don’t play for big money: the buy-in is usually $50. Like shinny, this game has the form of the pro game that we all watch on TV, and it can be rough, but it’s mostly for fun.

There is a guy who hangs out upstairs at the bar but doesn’t play with us. Unlike me, Paul is no fish. He’s in his early 30s and has been playing poker for almost a decade. He has gone to Vegas hoping to win his way into the final rounds of the World Series. For him, the game is a life commitment that requires study and playing every day. He approaches it like a Zen master. “Poker is a game of people played with cards, and the score is kept with money,” he told me the other day. “If you want to be good at it, you have to really know yourself. Say you’re good at making people laugh. You make guys at the table laugh and maybe get them off their game, or maybe if you’re losing they don’t take it to you as hard.”

For serious players like Paul, poker is a physical game. He often plays 10 or 15 hours. Just last week, he played 48 hours straight— his personal record—two days of sitting in a smoky room, living on the casino diet of coffee and cigarettes, reluctant to take even a bathroom break in case he missed some serious action. At that point poker becomes as much an endurance sport as a game of chance. “Serious players fight against luck,” says Paul. “Luck comes in streaks, and sure, you ride out a streak when you’re on one. But I’ll sit through lots of hands losing my blinds [antes] before I get cards I can play or see some action I can take advantage of. That’s why you learn about the game. You have to know people and be able to read them. I’ve taken a whole table without really looking at my cards because I can feel I’ve got those guys, and that isn’t luck. It’s my experience that tells me they’ve got nothing. Or they’re afraid.”

I can see what he means even in our game. The excitement is in the action—the betting, the bravado of bluffing, the showdowns with players raising and re-raising. Texas hold ’em can be a fast game. On a good night, the bets stack up fast and the chips whiz around the table. Guys lose and keep losing, then come back and take the chip lead in a couple of hands. The guy who had the juice is suddenly down and out. Sometimes I get that beautiful moment when everything I’ve learned about the game comes together and I can feel it’s on, as if God Himself is reaching down and making my cards the cards, when I know that no matter what anybody else at the table has I’m going to win this hand. Real people, real smoke in my eyes and real money, not some ticker in the corner of a computer screen. Paul, for one, has no time for Internet poker. “It’s kind of like on-line porn. It’s what you do when you play in front of people that counts. The rest is just fantasy,” he says, adding, “What the popularity of the game and on-line poker have done is create a lot of dead money, easy pickings for the more serious players.”

As my grandfather knew, you need money to play poker because that makes it important. But money isn’t the point. The point is taking your hard-earned cash, this thing that measures our lives and time, then standing up and putting it on the line. In the postboom era, when money has real value again, the thrill lies in risking what we all fight to get and keep, and doing it without a safety net. It gives you complete focus. “The only time I’m relaxed is when I’m playing,” says Paul. “The world fades away and I’m not thinking of anything else, just the cards, the chips and the other players. It’s the place I like the best to be—even when I’m losing.” Today, anybody can watch poker on TV, then go and play—and maybe even win. And then, like Moneymaker, you could eventually find yourself beating the pros and playing for real money. For most of us, however, poker is simply a chance to live deliberately in a place that’s just outside our everyday lives and worries, an exciting place where we can shuffle off the selves we have become and try to live, even for a little while, as the selves we want to be.

“Your grandfather was right,” Paul told me. “Never chase cards, for two reasons: what you get might not be what you need, and what you need is not what you want.” I don’t entirely understand this, but it sounds like something a man should know. PÍ1

jemal.hamilton@macleans.rogers.com