September 27, 2008
“The Freshest New Truth Since 2001”
It was the night of the first presidential debate, a debate that almost didn’t happen, as John McCain went to Washington hoping to help by injecting presidential politics into the economic crisis. But after saying he wouldn’t participate he changed his mind and flew into Oxford to level with the American people. At the beginning of the debate, McCain admitted it was mostly his fault.
“It’s all this deregulation,” he said. “It’s market fundamentalism, a misplaced, uninformed belief that the market always corrects itself. All my career, I’ve worked to remove oversight from giant corporations. I’ve trusted the greediest and most ambitious among us to police themselves. I was wrong about that. And I was wrong to advocate going to war in Iraq, wasting $700 billion and 4,000 American lives, destroying that country while the Taliban grew stronger in Afghanistan. Some of the most serious mistakes in the history of America were made by me.”
It was a shocking thing for him to say. But it was big of him to admit it. After the debate, we played poker.
We played in my kitchen, our view the windowless backside of Chelsea Gardens, the tacky Mission monument to the next round of gentrification. Adam Krefman had stolen my folding chairs, so I borrowed chairs from Olu, my downstairs neighbor. Dan and Isaac showed up first, then Ben and Tono. Finally, Sarah and Molly. It was nice to have women at the poker table. They wore low-cut shirts and giggled a lot, exploiting stereotypes and pretending like they didn’t know how to play. They won all night.
We started with Texas Hold’em. Two cards down, five across the middle. Later, we switched to San Francisco Peach Grove, and then Denver Peach Grove. Those are just the names of the games, but it’s the people that matter.
When Sarah had a good hand, she would call. She would never raise. And this made Isaac furious. He bet blue chips into her like she was his personal slot machine. And, like most slot machines, she never paid out. She just took it, digesting his money, and smiling like it was an accident. When he had high pair, she had triple queens. When he had a straight, she had a flush. When he thought he had a flush, he didn’t, and when we played high-low Isaac didn’t qualify.
“Listen, miss,” Isaac said angrily at one point.
“Did you just call her a bitch?” I asked.
“I did not say that,” Isaac said. “Tell him what I said. Otherwise, he’ll put it in the report. Do not write that I called Sarah a bitch.”
“The poker report never lies,” I said.
The truth is, Isaac lost to Sarah again and again. He lost so many times it was ridiculous. It was like a slow-motion film of a man punched repeatedly in the face. The man’s arms are at his sides; the fist is coming toward him. You almost want to yell something, like “Raise your arms! Defend yourself!” But you don’t. The back of the fingers line up against the man’s cheekbone, the knuckles rolling into the jaw; a spray of spit flies from his mouth. And then she hits him again. It was a metaphor for all senseless violence. There was Isaac, bluffing half the time, not even a high pair. And there was Sarah, only playing when the cards were perfect, smiling like a carnivore at a meat convention. It was like so many modern conflicts. First, there was some provocation, and then the larger country flew an armada of bombers across the border, and soon everything was burning. And you could see how people become desensitized to violence. You could understand why traffic slows on the highway as the drivers take a long, hard stare at a wrecked car. And you could understand movies like Pulp Fiction and Scream, where people are killed in mean and senseless ways yet somehow it’s funny, somehow we’re still able to sleep at night. And we all sat calmly laughing, unaware of our own cruelty, even as Sarah did to Isaac what a butcher does first to a plucked chicken.
Molly played with a similar strategy. She’s recently married. Her husband, Chanan, was supposed to play, but Molly wouldn’t let him out on a Friday night when there was still cleaning to do at home. Since her wedding, a couple of weeks ago, Molly has carried her beauty differently. Before, it was like a secret, but now it’s a flashlight she’s shining in your eye. “I have such terrible cards,” she would say, turning her face in profile. “I should fold.” But her cards held up. She won all the time. On most hands, she didn’t even ante. She couldn’t be bothered to throw in the quarter. And nobody had the guts to tell her. We all knew what she had done to Chanan.
If there was a loser for the night, it was Dollar Dan Weiss, a distant relative of Harry Houdini and one half of the fabled San Francisco band the Progressive Reading Series All-Star Minstrels. Dan makes most of his money working in a new-and-used-book store. In other words, he makes very little money and lives on the tail end of a dying industry. Like many publishers, he doesn’t know when to fold. In fact, Dan never folded. “It’s more fun to bet,” he said. And he kept tossing quarters and red chips and whatever else onto the felt. He lost $24 in all. Mostly to Tono.
Tono was the big winner for the night. Which is a little scary, because Tono’s a known cheater. With two beautiful women directly across the table, nobody was watching Tono very closely, which is unusual for him. He’s just visiting from Colorado. He was Ben’s college roommate. Ben, who’s never done a bad thing in his entire life, becomes someone different when Tono’s in town. He becomes Bad Ben and does nothing but drink, smoke, and gamble for four days. I thought that would change after the birth of his daughter six months ago. But I was wrong about that.
“How’s T.?” someone asked him through the haze of smoke.
“Who?” he replied.
“Where’s my beer?”
The game went late. Vanessa came over, as did Tori. Olu came up for a little while to make sure we weren’t fucking up his chairs. At one point, I realized there were four gorgeous women in my kitchen, and two of them were playing poker. The other two were like cheerleaders. Three of them were seriously drunk. How did this happen? I asked myself. When did I become trustworthy?
And then it was over. Or kind of. Congress is on the verge of a bailout; nobody’s sure if it will work. The country’s already $11 trillion in debt—what’s $1 trillion more? People stuck around for a bit, helped me put away the table, bring Olu his chairs back, bag up the recycling. Isaac asked if he could sleep on my couch, and then left. Everything went back to normal. But what if John McCain won the election? What then? It was like imagining a world without sunlight. Would any of this matter, these games, this kitchen, these doors? Would we still play poker, or would we only play poker? In the end, poker is a game of hope. Sometimes it’s a game for suckers, but the best players are optimistic realists. They’re people who believe something good can still come out of this mess. The worst poker players are cynics. They stick with what they know, even when it’s a losing hand. They don’t enjoy the game, but they don’t know how else to spend their days. They’re terrified of change. They’re old before their time, and even older when their time comes. They’re like CEOs of failed companies asking to be hired based on their experience.
Barack Obama plays poker. John McCain’s game is craps. McCain’s been known to stand at the long Vegas table, bug-eyed, swathed in green light, blowing on the dice, ignoring aides imploring him to leave. When McCain gets going at the craps table, his mouth gets a hard line to it, his shoulders pull together, and his brow stretches so tight it’s like his forehead’s going to rip. He doesn’t hear or recognize what’s going on around him. He stays focused on the task at hand, without food or sleep, until all the money’s gone. Craps isn’t like poker. In poker, you have a chance, but in craps you’re playing against the house. And you should never bet against the house with your own money. Because the house always wins.
The Poker Report
June 23, 2008
“Sucker-Free and Out of Gas Since 2001”
Guest Writer—Isaac “the Debtor” Fitzgerald
It’s hard to lose when you show up to a poker game with no money. There’s dignity, I guess, but whatever dignity I could scrape together probably wouldn’t have covered the $20 buy-in. Still, I decided to go to Steve’s house in hopes that he was feeling generous, as friends sometimes do. When I walked in the door, he immediately offered to pay for my dinner if I’d go pick both of ours up at the grocer’s around the corner. Things were looking up.
By the time I returned with two pints of piping-hot white-bean-and-pork soup, Steve had his poker table, all red felt and busted legs, set up. The other players had arrived and were jammed in around the rickety table in Steve’s small living room. Steve clamored over the couch behind his friend Otis, who was visiting from Knoxville and looked a bit like a shark hunter, to put on some music. We were going to have to keep our cards close to our chests.
Jason Roberts, Tom Barbash, and Adam Krefman all brought beer. Chanan brought potato chips, and Josh confused everybody by bringing a bottle of wine. Eli Horowitz, whom the L.A. Weekly had just inexplicably dubbed “McSweeney’s boyish publisher,” was also in attendance. Eli has a face cut from granite that could only be described as aged and haggard. I wondered about the L.A. Weekly’s fact checkers.
The moment I walked in the door, Steve asked for his change from the soup, which I was hoping to pocket, and for my buy-in. I gave Steve a look that said “Could you cover me?” It was a look I know he’d given many times in his life. In this regard, Steve and I speak the same language. We’re both city kids who have had our share of empty-pocket adventures, and I was relying on a sense of brotherhood. Steve knew I had had an interesting year, and that interesting years didn’t usually lead to big bank accounts. Sometimes, but not usually. This one certainly hadn’t; it had been the kind of year where you end up working at a biker bar, then find yourself smuggling medical supplies on the Thai/Burma border, only to wake up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a giant tattoo of a tall ship on your rib cage for absolutely no reason. I’ve never even been on a sailboat.
Unfortunately, Steve also knew I had just gotten a new job. A 9-to-5. I got paid with checks now, taxes taken out and everything. No more fistfuls of dirty bills with drugs still on them, just a clean check every two weeks like clockwork. I was getting my shit together, and Steve gave me a look that said “People with their shit together don’t come to poker night empty-handed.”
“Don’t get my first check till next week,” I shrugged.
“OK, but if you lose it all I’m not covering you to buy back in.”
I smiled, confident that I’d be paying him back out of my winnings in just a few hours.
We started out with Texas Hold ‘Em, which would rule the table for most of the night. Chanan took an early lead, winning the first three hands, taking me to the mat every time. Steve tried to instigate an ethnic war between us (despite my Hebrew name, I’m Irish Catholic), but there isn’t much hatred between the Irish and the Jews, and Steve’s instigations fell flat.
Barbash muttered something about not knowing the rules and we took a break while Josh drew up a list of which hands beat which for him.
“Oldest trick in the book,” Otis muttered. I agreed
Adam dealt the next hand. The flop was the seven of spades with the jack of hearts along with his king. Tom, after scrutinizing his sheet, immediately started betting big, humbling even Steve, who doesn’t usually let other people’s bets push him around. I wasn’t buying it, though. I agreed with Otis and figured Tom was a seasoned player who was looking at the cheat sheet for dramatic effect while winning some easy chips. The five of hearts came on the turn, and then the five of diamonds on the river. I only had ace high. Tom laid down one last large bet, I matched it, and then we showed. Tom took me with a flush. It had now been four straight hands and I’d stayed in till the end on every one only to lose.
“Slow it down.” Eli was sitting next to my right, his old voice like gravel. I didn’t pay attention. The chips on the table weren’t really mine, so I felt like I was playing without consequences. When you’re playing with nothing to lose, I figured, the only thing you can do is win.
A few more hands went by, with Otis taking one, Jason taking one, Josh scoring a couple of full houses in a row, and me losing every time. Roberts, who was sitting to my left, and I started drinking from the same bottle of beer, because there wasn’t enough space for two between us. People were knocking elbows, and when I got up to go to the bathroom three others had to get up just to let me by.
“There’s a flashlight behind the toilet if you need a light,” Steve told me. This man teaches at Stanford.
It was Eli’s turn to deal and, despite Chris Cooney and Ben Peterson being AWOL, he started to explain the rules of Peach Grove. I felt bad for the new players; even Tom, who by now I thought might actually be telling the truth. I remembered my first game of Peach Grove with Steve, Eli, Ben, Cooney, and Windy. It was over a year ago. In fact, that night was when my interesting year really got started. They gave me a bottle of tequila without a glass, half-assedly explained the rules, and then ruthlessly took me for all I had. Nights like that make you leave the country.
I looked at my small pile of chips and realized that tonight was going the same way, but I didn’t have any tequila to blame it on.
“You have to understand there’s Iowa Peach Grove, San Francisco Peach Grove, Calcutta Peach Grove—the list goes on,” Stephen was explaining to those who had never played before, which didn’t help at all, which was of course just what he wanted.
After everyone had a grasp on at least a couple of the rules, Eli dealt out the eight hands. We got five across the middle. Everyone was hungry, but for what most of them weren’t really sure. Three winners can walk away from Peach Grove, with pieces of the pot going to the high hand, the low hand, and, of course, the grove. You need trips or higher to win the high, nothing above a seven in your low, and you can take the grove with the highest three cards in a row of the same suit. There’s a lot of betting and a lot of luck. And a lot of confusion at the end.
I bet big, figuring that just knowing the rules put me a cut above the rest. The pot gets so big in Peach Grove that it’s hard not to imagine that you’re somehow going to get a slice. I drank more of my and Jason’s beer, trying to pay attention to the cards, but I was more focused on tossing the chips into the ever-growing pile. Everyone stayed in, except for Chanan, who had been smart enough not to ante up at all.
When we all showed, everyone spoke at once.
“Why the shit did I stay in?”
“What the fuck?”
“I think I’ve got the grove … maybe?”
“I’ve got everything.”
After the smoke cleared, Otis walked with the low, Steve had taken the high, and Krefman took the grove with queen, king, ace, all spades. Two hands later, Steve found an ace of spades under Krefman’s seat; he denied any wrongdoing.
The grove had all but wiped me out. Without even asking, though, Steve set me up with $20 more worth of chips.
“He’s not doing you any favors.” Eli’s last bit of advice. He cashed in his chips, saying something about having to conduct business in Brazil.
Soon Tom and Jason had to head out as well, though they failed to mention whether or not they were off to exotic lands. Adam soon followed. The room opened up, but, with everyone leaving, my pile of chips, even with Steve’s loan only a few hands back, looked smaller.
Chanan kept us on track. Texas Hold ‘Em games bled into one another, with Steve, Otis, and Josh taking turns at taking my money, which wasn’t really mine. Playing without consequences had led me to bet big and not win a single hand.
But the room had more space, and soon we were all laughing. Steve got out some photo albums and he and Otis reminisced about their past together, although what they used to do was never really made clear.
Josh opened the bottle of wine he brought and poured a couple of glasses. The beer was gone, and bringing a bottle of wine, which hadn’t been touched, to a poker game didn’t seem strange anymore. It seemed genius. By the time we called it quits, I only had $3 left of my second buy-in. I told Steve that I’d have his money by the end of the week.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s fine.”
It was good to hear. He knew I’d get it to him and there was no need to worry. Otis, Josh, and I got up to leave as Steve described to Otis the Wiggle, a series of streets that bicyclists use to avoid the hills of San Francisco. We all parted ways as friends.
Adam called me a few days later. I was at my new job, sitting at my new work computer, which stood atop my new desk. It has been a long time since I have had a desk.
I was looking forward to the check with which I was going to pay back Steve. California was allowing people to get married to one another no matter their gender, and everyone in downtown San Francisco seemed to be in a great mood. I was in a great mood.
“Have you seen Steve’s website?” Adam asked.
“Just go take a look.”
I hung up and went to Elliott’s page. I was greeted by my own face on the computer screen, wearing a menacing grin. Beneath the unflattering photo, it read:
“Have you seen this man? If so, keep him in custody. He’s wanted on outstanding poker debts.”
I had owed Stephen Elliott $37 for three days and he was already calling me out. For all I knew, he had put a bounty on my head.
My phone vibrated. It was a text from Steve: “How’s my money treating you?”
The Poker Report
June 3, 2008
“Winning the Shadow War Since 2001”
It was 8:30 in the evening and I met Windy at the Phone Booth, a dimly lit smoker’s bar on South Van Ness. We were on the edge of the Mission, near her boyfriend Eric’s house. He was having a tournament. It was the day before the election and voters across the state would soon decide if San Francisco should continue to have rent control. Windy drank a Maker’s Manhattan in a chilled glass. She wore a dress that stopped dramatically at her knees, and white heels. She looked good, like someone healthy, with a job.
It could be the day before the end of San Francisco, but we doubted it. Proposition 98 wouldn’t pass. The forces of darkness would be banished to their vaults full of money for a brief time. Rent control would be saved and later we would burn down their houses. I told Windy I had been picked as the best political-lit S&M guy in the city and I was wondering if that would affect my life in any way. She said, “You’re so famous.” I knew she was just buttering me up, two fingers gripping the stem of her drink. She intended to take everything I had.
Here’s how you play Texas Hold’em No Limit Tournament Style. Twenty-five dollars buys you a $100 worth of chips, winner-take-all with three rounds of rebuys. Each round is 25 minutes, so if you lose everything in the first 75 minutes you can buy back in for another $25. There’s a small blind and a big blind and nobody else has to bet if they don’t want to. If you do bet, you can bet as much as you want as long as you have enough chips to cover. You get two cards down. Three shared cards come in the flop, then a fourth, then a fifth. The down cards and the cards on the board give you seven cards to make your hand. The best five-card hand wins, if the cards are ever shown. Normally, the cards aren’t shown. The cards are dealt, there’s a bet, and then another bet, then a fold, then more folds. Twice I was big blind to Eric’s little blind and I took his half stack without even gesturing.
It was an 11-person tournament. There was more than $400 sitting in a cigar box next to a monitor. Eric had set up a playlist full of songs I’d never heard of. It had been six months since I’d played poker, more than a year since I’d played a tournament, driving down to the South Bay with Andy Miller at the wheel strung out on crystal meth. Not me, of course. I’m essentially clean and sober. But Andy treated his body like a laboratory, a mixture of blood, tendon, and synthetic adrenaline. Andy doesn’t come around since he got arrested and Ben had a baby and Chris Donahue changed his name to Christine so when you call you don’t know if you’re talking to him or his wife.
It had been so long since I’d played I couldn’t remember the meaning of “big slick,” or how to play a low pair in the hole, or what it meant when someone pressed two black chips onto the felt and said, “Chelsea Clinton.” It didn’t matter. I had a streak of focus dripping down my spine that made me grin. The best poker players don’t play the cards, they play the person. I was ready to go one step further than that.
There were two tables. One in Eric’s bedroom, which is also his living room. That’s how we live in San Francisco, roommates finding creative ways to split one-bedroom apartments. It’s what I do, sharing my space with a 26-year-old hipster who sits on the couch all day reading Foucault and Roth, eating nothing or dining on Acme bread smeared with Nutella, wearing a cheap brown suit and a pencil-thin tie. There are only two other options: find work or move out of town.
I played at the green-felt table in Eric’s room, the windows staring west toward Portrero and south where Bernal Heights rises to the sky. His room is filled with album covers and guitars hanging from the wall and the glass backings of dismantled pinball machines. It’s a visual celebration. There are bottles everywhere, many covered in dust and half-full of something strong enough to clean a puncture wound.
I won fast and early when the blinds were small: $1/$2, $2/$4, $3/$6. I lost to James, who went all in after the flop on an ace-high flush, and me with a pair of jacks in the hole and nothing higher than a 10 on the board. But I won with bullets and I won with a flush draw, and I came back over the top several times, scooping 10 with 30, 15 with 50. But in a tournament the early games aren’t worth much. They might save you a $25 rebuy, but when blinds get up to $20, and then $40, those early pots get filed into a data bank of pleasant memories, about as important in the grand scheme of things as the roller-coaster ride you took when you were 11.
The other table was in the kitchen, near the beer and the porch where players went to smoke when their luck was bad. Windy sat there, leaning suggestively over the Formica table, a pile of chips rising to her chest.
Eventually, the tables joined together in Eric’s room. Windy, Eamonn, and Timmy Tunks came in from the kitchen. It was almost midnight. It was Monday. People were very drunk. Felix had been wiped out an hour ago. He said he had a date later. He was wondering if there was anywhere open he could buy some chocolate and flowers.
“That sounds like a booty call,” Windy said.
“No, no,” Felix protested. “I don’t even know her.”
Ace was still in, wearing her visor, a silent killer quietly hovering at the level she started at. The Ref (aka the Colonel) was standing in the doorway. He had lost everything early in the evening, or years ago, depending on what you were talking about. To the Ref it wasn’t about the money, it was about staying out of the wind.
I was as far as I’d ever been in a tournament, but my stack was dwindling. It was always James, beating my eights with his nines, my pair with his trips, my queen-king with his king-ace. I wasn’t even tired. Timmy told us all about a famous porn movie he’d seen while working on his master’s thesis. The woman had sex with more than 300 men. The janitor, who just worked in the building and wasn’t part of the shoot, also had sex with the woman. When someone interviewed the janitor he was asked if he was afraid of losing his job. The janitor told the interviewer it was a lousy job anyway. They didn’t pay him hardly anything and he could get another job just like it anytime.
“You see,” Timmy said. “It’s about labor. That guy didn’t even have health insurance.”
I wondered if someone could have sex with 300 men in one day and then run for president. I wondered when we were going to get over this sex thing, take the shame out of everything, and stop hiding ourselves. I had been in a porn once. It was a very strange experience. But at some point it’s just naked people and a camera.
Or not. It was almost 1 in the morning when I noticed the disco ball above Eric’s bed and the red light aimed at the silver globe. The music had shifted from funk, to Yes, to folk rock, to techno. Somebody asked, “What would Morrissey do?” But I’ve never liked Morrissey. Maybe I wasn’t as awake as I felt. I wished Andy Miller were still around, but even when he finishes his sentence he’ll still have to deal with all those restraining orders. I realized how comfortable Eric’s room is, and how happy I was to be at a card table again. I realized we were more than still young, we were children.
In a desperate bid, I went all in with a pair of sixes. Timmy Tunks, a man who had built a career out of years of carefully analyzing adult films, called me with a king-seven. The odds were in my favor, but just barely, and I wasn’t even sure that was true. Anyway, whatever was or wasn’t true was quickly wiped out by the flop, with its seven swimming like a guppy upstream in a sea of clovers.
It didn’t matter. I was back in the action. I had never left. I’ve been in San Francisco 10 years now. My bicycle was still locked on the corner with both its wheels intact and I pedaled through the night of my chosen city to my home and bed, more than ready for whatever would happen next.
November 16, 2007
“Truth at a Price You Can Afford Since 2001”
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a poker report, or been in Vegas, or looked into the cold eyes of a murderer, wondering what he told himself as he tried to sleep in his windowless cell at night, but that’s the kind of week it’s been. It’s the middle of November and I’m on Virgin America, flying back from Las Vegas to San Francisco, where, on the other side of the bay, Hans Reiser stands trial for the murder of his wife, Nina Reiser, whose body was never found.
I read recently that people are only really interested in sex and murder. And people aren’t as interested in sex as we think they are. I think it was Dominick Dunne who said that. Dominick’s become a murder junkie, mainlining the Menendez brothers and Claus von Bülow’s fatal charm, assessing the cut of O.J.‘s suit. He can’t get enough.
Nonetheless, I left the Reiser trial, where the famous computer programmer’s son was being mercilessly cross-examined by the talented defense attorney William Du Bois. The child was 6 years old when his father did or didn’t kill his mother. He’s 8 now, and is as handsome as his mother was beautiful. Pursuant to international treaties, he was flown in from Russia, where he’d been staying with his maternal grandmother.
In Las Vegas, I met a longtime girlfriend who was there on business with a free room at the Bellagio on the 21st floor, and a view of the city consuming the desert like termites on a block of wood. We have the type of relationship open to people who don’t get married, or have children, and are willing to live as long as possible slightly unmoored. There was room service, then dancing, and then, while she slept, I crept down to the poker room. It was 6 in the morning. I said, “Deal me in.”
One-Dollar/Two-Dollar No Limit was the only game available. There was a drunken Jew at the table, and a German. The Jew said, “I’m a Jew. But I don’t hate you because you’re German. That was a long time ago.”
The German said he appreciated that. A flop came with a pair of tens and the Jew wrapped his knuckles on the felt and the German pushed $40 over the line. In No Limit you can bet as much as you have, and the Jew had stacks to his eyeballs. I only call him the Jew because that’s what he called himself. I’m half-Jewish, but I never refer to myself as “the half-Jew.” I usually introduce myself as Steve. But that’s not what happened.
What happened was it was early in the morning and normal people were sleeping. The Jew was drunk, but playing very well and talking strange. People bet heavily against him because he made such a scene, but he won every time, or folded when it was the right thing to do. He wore a nice suit and had a big head of hair. He swung his giant stack of chips like Chris Cooney swings a hammer: hard, and with precision. The Jew came over the top toward the German, pushing $80, and then, on the turn, which is another way of saying the fourth card, because in Hold’em there are five cards with the first three coming on the flop, then the turn, then the river. And soon he was all in, though not really. He was all in for the German’s money, but if he lost he would still have money to spare. He had been winning all night.
The German lost that hand, even though he was drinking seltzer and the other man drank whiskey. The Jew said he would buy drinks for the table, which was totally unnecessary since the drinks were free. He tipped the dealer $10 for the 10/ace in the hole. He called the cocktail waitress. He said, “I always tip you, right? Don’t I always tip?”
I wanted to say, “Why do you call yourself ‘the Jew’? Don’t you know I’m going to write about this?” Of course, he didn’t know. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with recently, the difficulty of being decent to my subjects while still being honest with the reader, and where exactly is that moral line? On Sunday, when we’re watching football, there’s an orange line showing the first down, and all the players have to do is get across that line they can’t see. Life’s more complicated than that. The Internet has made people very sensitive with being written about.
The Jew said, “I’m just having a good time.” I liked him quite a bit.
The table was open like a flower and as loose as a hubcap without lugs. It cost $2 to see a hand, provided nobody dropped a pre-raise. I played everything, four ten, five jack suited. I lost $5, $10. But when I won, I won big. I never bet. I took my free cards. When I made a hand, I doubled or tripled whatever came back to me. I didn’t worry about pot odds. I played the players. It was early. An orange sun had risen. A beautiful woman was breathing softly into her pillow on the 21st floor. The Jew was telling jokes. The slot machines were almost musical. I was patient and I was winning hundreds of dollars.
“I’m Asian,” the guy next to me said. “I’m supposed to do better than this.” By that time the German was long gone and I realized that poker says a lot about how we process ethnicity. At some point I felt compelled to tell someone I was born in England.
My biggest loss came with an ace/king of spades in the hole. Two spades came on the flop. Another player raised and I raised back for $70. I was looking for a payday. The turn came: a heart. Now there were two spades and two hearts. If another spade came, I would have the nuts. My opponent went all in. He had a stack and I had a stack. It would cost $400 to see it. If it was a spade, I won. But the odds were less than 25 percent. If it was an ace or a king of diamonds or clubs, I was in good shape, but it wasn’t guaranteed. My chances were less than 50 percent, but there was already $100 in the pot. I didn’t like it. I tossed big king into the muck.
When I told my girl I had won $300, she took $100 from me. She didn’t even think about it. It was fair enough, in a way. She was an escort and lived in Washington, D.C., but that’s not why. She’d come out to Vegas for the week with two scientists who were best friends and split their days with her. They paid for the room, and the room service. She was a friend of the girl I saw sometimes in San Francisco, who would also want $100. It’s the price of winning. Relationships always take off the top. Just like the house. The house pulls a rake from every hand played. When you lose money, they never give it back.
After lunch, she went back to work and I went back to the tables. In the afternoon, the players were well rested; the tables had tightened up. There was a debate happening that night at UNLV but nobody cared. We talked about Barry Bonds looking at perjury charges.
“It’s such a dumb crime,” someone said, probably me. “You never need to lie to a grand jury.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates were refocusing on Hillary Clinton, who, a few months ago, said that she would continue to accept money from lobbyists. “A lot of these lobbyists represent real Americans,” she said. “They represent nurses, social workers, and, yes, they represent corporations and they employ a lot of people.” With the front-runner talking like that, it’s no wonder people are sitting out.
The point is, I tightened up as well, and I was as interested in the debate as everybody else. I waited. I didn’t check the flop. I played the cards. And then I noticed the kid three from the dealer. His black hair spiked and nervous, he looked about my age when I had my first major poker loss. That was a devastating moment and, at the time, I wasn’t sure I would ever recover. I took him for $50, then I folded a winning hand against him and he threw his cards face up on the table with a sharp laugh.
“It’s about time that worked!”
It was uncalled for. He was rubbing my face in it. But I didn’t feel angry. I felt calm. This kid was going to lose it all today. He was going to lose it to me, or someone else. An hour later, we went back and forth on a hand until he pushed all his chips into the middle, a stack of 30 red. I asked for time and I looked at him. He was biting his lip, glaring at me, looking down. I had a paired ace on the board. I had more money than he had. He didn’t have the confidence. All I had was high pair, but he had nothing. So I called and the river came and he faced his cards and stood to leave while I organized what he used to have.
That was yesterday. I’m on a plane back toward the Bay. Reiser’s trial will take at least two more months, probably three. In the airport, I see Snoop Dogg, wearing silver track pants and an oversized sweatshirt with the hood pulled forward covering a pair of giant headphones. He was traveling with two of the biggest men I’ve ever seen. I watched him go to Mrs. Fields and buy cookies with a hundred-dollar bill. He smiled at the woman behind the counter as she counted out his change, and I stood to the side, pretending to consider the hot dogs.
Last night, I wondered if that kid at the Bellagio could afford to lose. Someone said, after he left, that he couldn’t afford not to lose. I doubted that. But, then, not everything always adds up. Who pays for cookies with a hundred-dollar bill?
The Poker Report
July 18, 2007
“Dialing It In From Portland Since 2001”
Guest Writer—Steve Almond
It was Baudelaire who famously warned us: “Nobody wants to see a clown at midnight.” To which we may now add the less famous corollary: “Nobody wants to see Stephen Elliott across the poker table at any time of the day or night.”
Elliott, a shameless raconteur of sexual shame (well, all right, who isn’t?), appears docile and often slightly disoriented when not seated behind a stack of chips. His affect at the table de poke changes. Gone is the lovable masochist who insists on trauma play as his chief form of recreation, replaced by a wolf with a sheep-eating grin.
But I am getting ahead of myself. To set the scene. We are in Pornland, Organ, the only city in America with a mandatory-tattoo policy. More specifically, we are in a large, bug-infested dormitory on the Reed College campus, where the still-coherent staff of the Tin House Writer’s Workshop has gathered for a late-night round of Hold ’Em, organized by Monsignor Elliott himself. Around the table (from my left) are the following personages:
Josh “the Brink” Goldfaden
Cheston “Chesty Morgan” Knapp
Rob “Built to” Spillman
Your humble freak and narrator
The buy-in is $20, nearly half the annual salary for most of these working writers. We settle on a one-dollar/two-dollar game, so as to prolong the agony for the lesser players. The Monsignor immediately takes out the long knives, putting together a three-hand run that culminates in a house full of kings and knaves. Blood appears on his incisors, and his studded choker miraculously dissolves. The game is briefly derailed by Aimee Bender’s effort to buy in using candy wrappers. While the Monsignor impugns her reputation, the phalanx of railbirds seated on a nearby chifforobe leaps to her defense, led by the irascible Jim Shepard, who is dressed (nonsensically) in a pleather crop top. There is no bargaining with Shepard. He has published nine books and we must live with his fashion decisions.
The action turns ugly for young Cheston Knapp, who tosses his chips into the pot with the exuberance of a child dispensing pellets at the petting zoo. Within an hour the baby goats are starving. The Monsignor generously offers to restock him, and extends the same financing to Whitehead, then displays the two twenties he has just taken from his comrades in plain view of the entire table. And they say humility is dead.
Whitehead, representing the East Coast and playing loose enough to be accused of sluttery, comes roaring back in hour two. The youthful master of speculative fiction stuns the Monsignor with a hand that features no fewer than five sevens. He then takes Goldfaden to the cleaners on what has to be considered the hand of the night. It proceeds like so:
Whitehead nabs a four of spades on the flop, giving him a pair. Then, on the river—staring a high pair in the kisser—he draws another four of spades. Trips to win. The railbirds go silent with awe. The Monsignor begins suckling his nipple ring. This, my friends, is how you nab a MacArthur grant.
Goldfaden, to his credit, refuses to back down. Three times he goes all in against the heavy action. Each time, he pulls the necessary cards out of his anus, thus earning his handle. Meanwhile, Bender is cycling through her cash like a playgirl in heat. The cheat sheet she clings is hardly inspiring confidence. Sure enough, she runs through her last ten-spot challenging Chesty Morgan and the Monsignor on the biggest pot of the night. The Monsignor shows two pair. Chesty turns over a seven, to match the pair on the board. The railbirds groan. Bender shrugs and shows the boys a pair of ladies in the hole, making three in all.
Ballgame. Thanks for playing, Chesty.
We are playing with three decks, one of which features George W. Bush in a variety of costumes. Bush as a fairy princess. Bush as a bonobo. It is sad to see the sitting president reduced to a novelty gag, nearly as sad as the Monsignor’s wardrobe, which has been provided—as he informs us bashfully—by Nike, whose co-founder and former CEO, Phil Knight, is a fan. I believe my favorite item of clothing is the sleeveless mesh T-shirt, which allows for a clear viewing of the Monsignor’s guns. That or his backpack with leather cell-phone holder. Very street.
Things turn sloppy in the third hour of the game. Spillman, a dominant force in the early going, finds himself battling Whitehead in a series of pots only a mother could love. Jacks over nines. Eights over sixes. Ace high beats a queen bluff. Faced with this onslaught of mediocrity, the railbirds fall asleep, one by one. Bender hits the rack, mumbling something about a gentleman with playing cards where his hands used to be. The Brink bids adieu on a minor flush. El Tigre watches his life savings dissolve to the nut straight, held by yours truly. The game is down to seven, then six, then five. Soon, the only seats left are the Monsignor, Whitehead, Spillman, and myself. The games take on a certain grim momentum. Everyone has shit cards. The action is something like cutting for high card, only not that compelling. We are passing chips back and forth, very slowly. Testosterone and a reasonable fear of poverty are the only things keeping us awake.
Finally, the Monsignor himself cashes in, claiming he needs his beauty sleep. Nobody disagrees. In a move that exemplifies the class of his particular operation, the Monsignor notes loudly that he’s up $42, and signals for me to include this in my notes. (I am not taking notes.)
It is hard to overstate the plain human misery incurred by this single poker game. The play itself has been listless. The company dull beyond words. I have come to see just how poor the quality of patter becomes when writers try to do more than one thing at once. And yet I am also strangely moved by the sight of the Monsignor, stumbling off to bed in his mesh T-shirt, with his winnings stuffed deep in his pockets. If this man can honestly fleece a small portion of the earth’s population for an entire misspent evening, there is hope for us yet.
The Poker Report
June 9, 2007
“Maintaining a Room Since 2001”
Class Warfare in Tinseltown
It was the day Paris Hilton went back to jail and it was just in time. My ex-girlfriend had called me earlier to make sure I knew she would never sleep with me again under any circumstances. It seemed gratuitous to me; why did we have to have this conversation? It was so sunny outside. “Maybe a hug, if we happen to run into each other on the street. But that’s it.”
It was one of the most depressing phone calls I’ve ever had. It seemed to me we should sleep together one last time, just to be sure.
Anyway, a catastrophe had been temporarily averted. Since Paris Hilton’s release, people had been stashing bricks, preparing to storm Pacific Heights. The windows of the rich, peering across the Golden Gate Bridge, were ripe for breaking. But then Judge Sauer applied a warm compress to the mounting rage. There would be other opportunities for the poor to mass in the street. There was a war going on, after all.
Still, I was angry. No one should be sentenced to a lifetime of sleeping alone. Sheriff Lee Baca had a lot of explaining to do. What was Paris Hilton’s strange illness? Anyway, it wasn’t so much that they’d let Paris out; it was that they’d kept everybody else in. For one shining moment I imagined every drunk behind bars in Southern California exiled to mansions pocking the Hollywood skyline, staring down at all the sober losers clogging the 101 on the way to work. Forty days of in-home spas and catered meals. Parties and pills and anorexia and rock-and-roll in the backyard.
Then back to the grind. Or not. You can actually live a long time on very little if you’re careful not to have a family. There’s more than one American Dream.
What You Find in the Grove
All the talk about Hollywood heiresses and $3,000 handbags is just to set the mood for our first-ever Friday-night poker game.
Ben came early with chorizo burritos from Farralito on 24th. Wendy’s out of town for the weekend, so Ben is on a mission to digest as much red meat and cholesterol as he can before she returns. He was with his brother Andrew, who wore a brace. They were followed by Windy, Eric, Isaac, Michelle Richmond, Cooney, and Eli. Windy and Michelle looked like movie stars and the obvious question was what they were doing in a shabby apartment with a dull-gray carpet off Prospect Street on a weekend night. But nobody wanted to ask.
We played variants of Hold’em but quickly moved into Peach Grove. Cooney bet big on double barrel, four in the hole, two rows of cards across the middle, then two more to share. There were often four cards down. Often two and only two. There was California Peach Grove and San Francisco Peach Grove. There was even talk of Peach Grove 11th And Folsom, the only card game with a wraparound, the highest combination a suited king, ace, two.
But it didn’t happen. What did happen was that Isaac called Windy a bitch. Then he apologized. He was trying to live up to the ghost of Andy Miller. But Miller was a meth addict and Isaac was just drunk. Isaac lost everything, including bus fare, finally paying $7.25 on a $10 wager and hanging his head in shame. Windy offered to take care of him for a while in exchange for housecleaning duties and Isaac cried like a child in her lap.
This is all true.
Otherwise Michelle played carefully but still lost $20. Cooney played scared like a man with a broken-down tractor signing away the family farm.
I lost $16. I don’t remember much else. Except there was a new version of Peach Grove: French Grove. In French Grove you play two and only two in your five-card hand, then three on five cards on the table. The French also invented a game called euchre, which goes a long way toward explaining why they haven’t won a war since Napoleon.
When it was over I threw away the Indian pizza box and mopped the spilled tequila in the kitchen. It was 11:30 and Bernal Heights was quiet, so I went to a drag bar on Polk Street for Patti Smith Night. The bar had colorful flags on the walls and sloping hardwood floors. It was the kind of place where people are easy with their hands and if you let them they’ll take things they haven’t paid for yet. I didn’t care. It was a free-market economy. I was down nearly $16 on the night. Michelle had lost $20 and she had a husband and a child. Her gambling was irresponsible.
I was writing on the back of a study on Internet addiction commissioned by Stanford University. Bonnie was there, dressed like a cheerleader, and I rested my head in her lap for a while on the bench out back where you can smoke.
When she went down to change for her show, a boy in a cute mohawk asked me what I was writing. I told him I didn’t know. I could have said in California Grove it’s trips or better for a high and in Iowa you roll four cards one at a time. I could have explained the importance of our poker games and how it kept us young and our community vibrant. How we had been playing regularly for six years now. How we had started with dime-ante Hold’em and now we played quarter-ante Grove. But I didn’t.
He told me he was a poet and that he did “boy burlesque.” He was pretty, but if I were gay he wouldn’t be my type. I’d want someone strong, with a good job, a nice clean apartment, and a big bed. Someone I could be faithful to. The daddy type.
But, then, who knows?
Patti Smith was telling us Jesus didn’t die for her sins. Bonnie was on the stage with pompoms. Patti was singing and a drag queen was peeing on her abusive boyfriend and pretending to slit his throat.
It was all very San Francisco. The rest of the country was staring at their ceilings, mouths agape, wondering what would happen to Tony Soprano on Sunday. I was, too, but I didn’t let any of the queers know it.
Bonnie was luminous in her pleated white skirt, kicking her legs high. She was just turning 24. I watched the queens in their makeup, wigs, and leather pants. I wondered why I had never been a drag queen. But then I’m twitchy. There would be lipstick everywhere.
It would be hours and hours before the night was over. I’m not sure if I made it back to even. But that’s not really the point. In poker, as in life, there are winners and losers. And just because you stay at the table, that’s no guarantee you’ll come out ahead. But only the rich and the dead don’t bother to try.
The Poker Report
March 19, 2007
“More Truth Than We Know What to Do With Since 2001”
It was Thursday and I was just back from touring the country with the Sex Workers’ Art Show. We had been to 31 cities in 35 days. We had caused a scandal at William and Mary, where they had just removed a cross from the chapel before inviting a group of hookers and strippers in to perform for 500 screaming children.
I was sick at William and Mary and lay backstage with a jacket over my head until it was time for me to perform. But that’s beside the point. The point is I was back in San Francisco where I belong. In San Francisco, where everyone is a sex worker, where every marriage is polyamorous, where men are usually women, and the women wear strap-ons beneath their long, flowing skirts. Back in San Francisco, where sex and sexuality is so guilt-free, liberal, and without pretension that it is boring.
It’s where we play poker.
It was a large game. Ben brought Dave, Dave, and Tono, his Colorado friends. Then there was Erin and her sushi chef, Chris “Write That Down!” Cooney. And Isaac, Anna, Donahue, and, finally, Eli, the renowned editor, stumbling in late and ready to play.
There were 12 of us at the table, counting the sushi chef. The game of the night was Iowa Peach Grove, four in the middle and four down. In Iowa you need trips or better to win a high and nothing higher than a seven to go low. Isaac was drunk as usual and sporting a thick beard but seemed to win every hand. In one brutal turn of events he laid down ace through four, catching the five on the river with $30 in the pot, nearly wiping me clean.
Donahue lost everything as usual, or half of everything, or maybe just a couple of dollars. I gave all the guys golf balls and gave out sports bras for the women. I found a few boxes of Nike stuff recently, and I’ve been giving it away.
We played Hold’em and Dave or Dave lost with kings in the hole. I had a bottle of single-malt, left by the guy who sublet my place while I was touring the country for a month with two vans full of hookers, and we all drank from that.
Ben was particularly drunk and he started talking about what a good time he was having while his girlfriend was out of town. How he and Tono and Dave and Dave would wear bedsheets like togas and cook giant piles of sausage while watching basketball on the big-screen TV and doing ritual dances in the living room and pouring beer all over each other and beating their chests and proclaiming their undying man-love for one another.
“You better clean it up before Wendy gets home,” I told him.
“She’ll never know,” Ben replied, drinking another shot from his Starbucks cup.*
There was also Scrotum and then the sushi chef left and we played California Peach Grove and then San Francisco Peach Grove.
“I have brought this game Peach Grove from the prairies of the great Midwest, an area once covered beneath a giant lake and now flooded with ears of corn. And I have delivered this game onto the dry shores of the California coast, " Cooney said. “Write that down.”
There were more cards and money to go around and my luck was changing quickly as it got later. Also, I got my poker table back from Windy. She re-felted it so it no longer reads “Steve’s House O’ Poker, Suckers Welcome.” Still, it had weight and drink holders and it felt like we were back again in the best of old times.
Somehow, nothing happened to my furniture. (I had made Ben leave a deposit—his Colorado friends are known thugs, animals full of violence, prone to howling at the moon.) Somehow, we were able to find truth in this glorious mass of humanity, the second-largest poker-night turnout ever, a peace that rarely arises between nations save when confronted with a common enemy such as pirates, starvation, or disease.
Somehow, Tono won $50. Somehow, I was ahead $5 before the chips were put away, and poor Anna, who runs a store that raises money for charity, lost her last $20 in the whole world. I told her she was welcome to take some macaroni and cheese home with her so she would have something to eat tomorrow, but all the macaroni was gone by then. (I had made the macaroni in a baking pan using fontina, Parmesan, and ricotta and covering the top with matzo meal in place of bread crumbs.) Somehow, it all ended nicely as the night and the cards faded into a pleasant morning, a tiny hangover hovering in the back of my temples, reminding me gently of what passed the night before.
The Poker Report
- Each Starbucks cup has a number on the side of it accompanied with a quote from a famous author. The particular cup Ben was drinking from was number 180.
January 19, 2007
“Teaching Your Children to Read Since 2001”
The Road Home
Before anyone arrives I make a stir-fry of all the vegetables left in the house. Three potatoes, four carrots, half a bunch of spinach. I use cayenne, mushroom base, the center stalks of some very old green onions. I make eight servings of rice in the cooker. It’s still cold in San Francisco, I’m out of beer, the Chinese have just shot down a satellite, and no one is really sure what’s going to happen tonight.
Meanwhile, Jory and Joel, both new to poker night, are down the street negotiating for a hostile takeover of a 12-pack with the angry liquor-store owner on Cortland. Isaac is flying across the hills on a bicycle as high as his knees. Ben, Cooney, and Ben’s young, impressionable brother, Andrew, are motoring Noe Valley at high speeds, brown bags on their laps, Cooney driving the station wagon as if it were a Camaro, as if it were 1986 and there were no doors and there were nothing to look forward to except a handful of good times and a long stint in jail. John Stassen is taking his sweet time, kept company by a six of Corona.
Meanwhile, Bob Ney, the former congressman, gets 30 months in prison, the longest yet for anyone associated with Jack Abramoff. Lewis Libby is going to trial for lying. Thirty-four thousand Iraqis were killed last year, none of them wearing uniforms. Pelosi is wearing well-cut skirts and pushing for ethics reform. And I’m leaving. This will be the last game before I hit the road for more than a month with the Sex Worker Art Show tour.
Putting It All Together
We start with Texas Hold’em, standard, two down, five across the middle. There are four school teachers at the table tonight. There are several people that have never played poker before. My roommate Jory is playing for the first time and he has a gambling problem: you can see it in his spinning eyes.
The first big hand is Cooney vs. Ben. They’re playing Iowa Peach Grove, which is the traditional game, four down, four across the middle flipped one at a time. Cooney keeps raising a dollar and Ben stays with him the entire time. In Peach Grove, unless you’re playing San Francisco Grove, where anything goes, you need seven and under or trips to qualify. When Cooney turns his hand he doesn’t qualify and Ben sweeps the pot with a small straight.
“I thought you’d fold,” Chris says. “Would it hurt to respect my position once in a while?”
Nobody ever folds against Cooney. “You got to lose big to win big,” he says.
Later, Cooney will yell, “Write it down! I bluffed with a pair of nines showing on Texas Hold’em!”
Later, we will have the first-ever 50-cent misdeal when Ben Peterson forgets the “man hand” in San Francsico Peach Grove.
Later, Ben will try to get his 50 cents back by putting two quarters in the pot and calling it a buck.
“The hay’s not in the barn yet,” Cooney says to Andrew during 7-card low.
There have been a lot of complaints recently about accuracy in the poker report. I decide to open it up to the participants to set the record straight.
Here’s what Isaac remembers of the night: Walking out the door with $30. Having a big pile and watching it dwindle only to win most of it back with three kings. Three big wins that showed up on the final flopped card (walking on the river or something). Finally feeling like I grasp Peach Grove. Joel winning big, then losing it in seven minutes. Jory staying alive with a 25-cent all-in. The precedent being set on 50-cent fuck-up tax. Picking at the stir-fry after declining on the offer of a plate. A lot of beer. A lot of sports talk. Everyone being called “teach.” End result: +$30.
Here’s what John Stassen remembers of the night: I fell under Cooney’s spell last night. His mantra of “NICE!” followed by “I like it … aggressive” after every stupid bet only encouraged me and made me lose all my chips. Peterson was as sneaky as ever. Cooney kept hollering for low games. I lost a majority of my chips on a low Peach Grove bid, with an ace, two, four, five, seven. Somebody, I think it was Isaac, had a three. Peterson was nice enough to explain it to me. It’s always good to know why you just got hosed. Joel, I think that’s his name, knew apparently nothing about cards. It was unclear if he had even seen a deck before, and he still beat me. The stir-fry was tasty. There was a lot of talk of the Vatican Council of Cards. Cooney upped the ante for a misdeal to 50 cents, costing Peterson a quarter. We covered the continental United States in Peace Grove games. We all feared the Man Hand. The dude in the corner(I forget his name) tried to play money and was shot down by the poker gods. End result: -$30.
When it was all over, Isaac pronounced, “I earned it,” then cracked himself a beer.
Joel was down $5—respectable for a first-time player and San Francisco hero. He waited for his wife to pick him up.
“Really? You play poker all night and she just picks you up?”
“I’m a cool guy,” Joel said. “And I married an artist.”
The Morning After
In the morning, I wonder if Ben will call again like he did last week while I slept naked early in the morning. Ben won $20 last night, probably the most he’s ever won. I wait until 9:30 to put clothes on, then I leave for the office.
It’s lunchtime when Ben calls.
“Are you dressed?” he asks.
“Of course,” I tell him. “It’s afternoon.”
“I have all this money,” he says. “But I feel kind of bad winning it from Cooney.”
“He can afford it,” I say. “He’s got a job.”
“I wish everyone could win,” he says. “It feels so good. If everybody was a winner that would be so great.”
“It’s not the way things work,” I say. I heard Jory cry last night, his sobs piercing the wall between our rooms. He works with children all day, then he comes home and loses it all. I heard him late at night on the phone to someone far away, wondering aloud how he would pay the rent coming due. You could say he was a victim, but whose victim? He had two pairs in the hole. He thought they would take him all the way.
“You don’t really think that,” I say to Ben. “You’re just feeling generous.”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line.
“I’m a winner,” he says.
“I am,” he says. “I am.”
The Poker Report
January 11, 2007
“Controlling Our Ambitions Since 2001”
When Bush started his speech I was already making pasta. It was 5 p.m., January 10, and the Middle East was on fire, bombs across Baghdad like pigeons shitting from telephone poles. The president’s face, lined with concern, begging for time. In two more years he’d be out of office and all this mess he’d created would be someone else’s to clean up.
I cooked up a sauce: half-and-half, Parmesan, Tabasco, four tablespoons of butter, four tablespoons of flour. I boiled the noodles, minced some garlic, some coarse pepper, some salt. I mixed it together. Layered the mix in a baking pan I’d bought for $2 at the overpriced grocery on Cortland. The mix, then four cheeses, then the mix, then again. Then matzo meal, more Tabasco, cook at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, make a pan full of perfect macaroni, enough to feed eight.
And the whole time I was grating the cheddar, the Gruyère, washing plates, the president was talking about the troop buildup. Streets were shredding like confetti. He wanted 21,000 more soldiers. “We can’t afford to lose,” he kept saying, “the stakes are too high.” But what if we already lost? What if we had already bet more than we could afford?
House on a Hill
Ben and Cooney arrive on time. The apartment is clean and they’ve brought beer. They’ve been warned about the pasta and they want to eat. Then there’s do-gooder Chris Thomas, Windy and her dog, Isaac, Poindexter. Donahue is missing. So is Eric Martin, whose wife doesn’t want him out with any degenerates until after his next book is published.
“Some kind of precautionary measure,” he told me in an otherwise incomprehensible e-mail.
Eli shows last, unshaven, angry, wearing green and yellow in support of the local baseball team. “You’re replaceable,” he let’s me know, in response to something or other. “Anybody could write ‘Stephen Elliott’s Poker Report.’” I give him some pasta anyway, to take the edge off whatever has been going on for him.
First hand is Hold’em. Chris Thomas plucks a flush on the river.
“What did I do to you?” Ben asks.
“I just play the cards I’m dealt,” Chris replies, which is basically true of Chris.
Next, he takes Ben’s nines with kings on the turn. Cooney switches it to California Peach Grove and Eli takes it one step further to San Francisco Peach Grove, which is like all the other kinds of Peach Grove except that everything goes.
Meanwhile, Poindexter sips bourbon. Windy wins quietly, her stack of black-and-whites framing her features, cards held close against her chest, dog asleep on a pillow on my kitchen floor. If it weren’t for Windy, nobody would ever be pretty at this place. Poindexter explains bankruptcy to Eli, who loses his chips early. “You have to use what you have. What do you offer? What does the other guy want? If you don’t hold something out, nobody’s going to give you anything. Unless you’re dealing with friends, which is different.”
Eli doesn’t fair so well in the grove and Isaac loses it all, cards hovering above the table, waiting on a scrotum that never comes, chasing three of a kind with a shared wild card when only four of a kind will do. Earlier, Isaac told us about the new iPhone. He said it was good the screen turned off when you held the phone to your ear, because he had a Treo 650 and he was always hanging up with his dimples.
“Look,” Isaac says, pointing at his cheeks. “Dimples.”
“This guy is supposed to replace Andy Miller?” Cooney asks. I shrug my shoulders. It’s true we’ve replaced one of the most hardened criminals in the history of San Francisco with a guy who talks about iPhones and dimples. But Isaac is young. There are crimes he hasn’t even thought to commit yet. Plus, he has a drinking problem. He could still go either way.
We don’t talk about the president’s speech. What if he was right? What if we are 21,000 troops away from victory? What would that look like, a victory in Iraq? It would probably look like Saddam was still in power, but we hanged that man, and he told us where to go before he died.
The whole time, Chris Thomas and Windy are stacking up. Ben also quietly wins, 50 cents on trips, $2 with four across the board, catching my eye when he can and pointing at his chips.
“Winning,” he mouths, hoping I’ll notice.
We play baseball, threes and nines are wild, four buys you a card. Ben is too busy counting his chips and declines to buy a card, which turns out to be wild, and throws his cards on the table in disgust. Windy takes down Cooney with a full house.
“I always win when I play with you guys,” she says, as if it weren’t enough she has a job.
Eli goes bankrupt, like his distributor. I feel bad for him, though he did try to make a leveraged buyout on my intellectual property.
Cooney cashes out early. “My wife dropped me off,” he says, spreading his hand and giving that smile he has. The one that stopped the other kids from kicking his ass when he got caught stealing their toy tractors at middle school in Cedar Rapids. “She went shopping and she’s coming back. She making a quilt.” That’s the kind of guy Cooney is these days. All style but long in the tooth. A married man.
After that, things fall apart quickly. Chris has to leave for a meeting, something about saving the world through the power of music. Ben has to get home to Wendy before she notices. Eli’s lost everything he has and then some. Windy and Isaac stay a little longer to finish the tequila and the macaroni and then they’re gone, too.
Ben Bright and Early
In the morning, Ben calls at 7 a.m. “I won $11 last night,” he says. I squint my eyes, stare out the window. From my window you can see Holly Park, some of the hills on the southern side of the city before the industrial city and the casinos in the graveyard town down the freeway.
“That right?” I ask. “You know what time it is?”
“You going to write a poker report?”
“I don’t know.”
“People think I never win at this game,” he says. I feel bad for Ben. I made the macaroni and cheese because he likes it. Otherwise, I would have made Texas chili, but Ben won’t eat beans, because of something that happened to him when he was very young. There are ways in which Ben’s my favorite person. I have a plaque on my window Ben gave me, a quote from my unpublished novel: “The apartment is a bad work of art”—Victor’s Snow. Ben’s one of only two people who read that book—the other one broke up with me. Still, it’s true Ben doesn’t win very often. Though that’s not really my fault. I lost $20 early last night before running a grove and a high straight over Eli and Isaac, who split the remaining third of the pot between them. I only came out $6 ahead, not counting a donation from Poindexter. I didn’t even win enough to cover the macaroni.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I say. “I don’t want you to look bad.”
“Tell everybody I won the last six times we played,” Ben says. It’s so early. Somebody’s drilling somewhere nearby. They’re always building houses in my neighborhood these days. I turn on the stereo, check out some Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Going On.
“You know I can’t do that,” I say, standing naked in my doorway, the construction workers across the street pretending they don’t notice. The front page of the paper: “Bush Blows It.”
“There’s loyalty between friends, but there’s also the integrity of the report. Some things are bigger than both of us.”
Editor for Life
The Poker Report
December 8, 2006
“Biggity-Back Since 2001”
When you don’t go online you miss things. You miss Britney Spears flashing the world and the more intricate details of the Iraq Study Group report. You’re forced to browse the bookstores; the magazine rack becomes your Internet. Flipping through the articles, gathering data.
I haven’t been online now for eight days. I pledged to take December off. The upshot is reading David Foster Wallace discuss lobsters and George Packer’s discourse on the plight of the Iraqis who have helped the occupation forces and are ripe for slaughter when our forces finally, inevitably, cut and run. It’s right there in the pages of The New Republic. The mainstream media, and everybody else, proclaiming we have lost. What now?
When you don’t have Internet, I realize, you get bored. I haven’t been bored in years. Every time I’ve been bored I’ve gone online. Now I sit and wait.
When you don’t have Internet you have to call people to have a poker game. There are those that won’t respond. They don’t like to talk on the phone. I don’t even know who Chris Donahue is anymore.
But at 7 o’clock I meet Ben, Cooney, Isaac, and Eli outside of Little Otsu, a stationery store on Valencia. It’s cold and dark and the hipsters are waiting in line for the show to start next door. Half an hour later, Windy arrives with the chips and her dog as well as Eric Martin, who may or may not be the greatest writer of his disaffected generation.
It’s been a year since our last game. We’re adults now, so we double the stakes. The buy-in is $20 and the ante a quarter, more money than we ever thought we could afford. Noticeably absent is Andy Miller, serving time for check fraud in South Carolina, surviving under the protection of his cellmate, a former gang leader and drug runner who goes by the name of Matilda.
“You’re going to have to take Andy’s place,” I tell Isaac.
“What’s that entail?” he asks. He’s wearing a pea coat and a blue cap. He’s from Boston, and, like Andy Miller, has a penchant for changing jobs and breaking the law. These days he works with children.
“It means you’re the bad guy.”
“I can do that,” he says and promptly accuses me of cheating.
Windy starts the deal. She looks like a queen, her new dress cut high, her dog, some form of abused Greyhound picked up from pet rescue, resting on a pillow near her feet.
“I wouldn’t mind being that dog,” Isaac says. (Actually, I say it, but Isaac’s the bad guy, so I’m putting words in his mouth. It’s all very meta.)
“Don’t talk that way,” Windy tells Isaac/me.
Windy deals Hold’em, and I lose fast and early. She turns two ladies on the board and Eli battles Ben with trips and Ben loses, as he will all night.
On Cooney’s deal he calls Peach Grove. We’re playing on a long table, behind a stationery store, in the offices where a literary journal is published. The lighting is poor. We have lots of beer and a cheap bottle of tequila resembling dish soap and Windy and Isaac take shots from the cap and soon Isaac is drunk and out of money and buying back in. In this way he is no Andy Miller, who played to win and could handle his alcohol and his intravenous drug use. On the other hand, Andy lives in a 4-by-8 cell, sleeps with his arms stretched forward, facing the wall, hums lonely tunes to himself outside for only an hour a day, circling the yard.
Peach Grove is the game for most of the night. We play Iowa-style, mostly. Best hand takes a third of the pot, trips or better to go high, seven or less to go low, three suited connectors to pick up the grove. Ben wins twice, but always splits the pot. I get beat over and over again by Chris Cooney, who turns a straight to my trips, a flush to my straight, four of a kind to my full house.
Losing to Cooney is like being smacked in the face repeatedly with an ear of corn or having your head dunked in a bucket full of ethanol or your cow tipped or your tractor ripped off. It sucks.
“I don’t shine shoes anymore,” Chris Cooney says.
Here’s most of the rest of what you need to know: My girlfriend comes by twice. She’s luminous in her thin white dress and black leather jacket. She kisses me and encourages me to win money so I can buy her something nice. When she leaves, the question is implicit in everyone’s eyes: What’s she doing with you?
Around 9 o’clock Chris Thomas shows up, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing, which is fine with us. He runs a political organization; he’s trying to save the world and suffers from extreme poverty. We’re happy to take his money.
There is a moment where Ben loses another hand of Hold’em and Eli gently touches his wrist. Another where Chris splits a winning hand with Isaac, just to be nice. And Windy, sitting there looking so pretty you wouldn’t even notice when she squints knowingly, or that she wins nearly every hand she plays.
Around 9:30, two strangers walk in and begin filming the game.
“We’re just playing poker,” I say.
“Don’t talk to the camera,” they reply.
But the only truly important hand of the night comes during a game of Pineapple, a game we play only once and probably never again.
I should mention, for the sake of journalistic integrity, I’m down $20 at this point.
There are four cards down, nine in a square on the table. The cherry is wild—that is, the lowest red card. People forget that my girlfriend had a cherry pattern on her dress, so I am poised to win big. You can take any run of three to create the best five cards. You have to use two, and only two, from your hand. The max bet has been raised from 50 cents to a dollar. Cooney raises. I raise back. Eli follows suit. Ben folds. Eric plays, then folds. Windy folds. Cooney turns the center card, a king of clubs. Cooney bets. I raise. At least $30 sits benign on the table. It is the biggest take of the night. Cooney turns. Four kings. I turn. Straight flush, ace-high. Aka: THE NUTS. My hand is, to put it mildly, a quiet blazing wonder of 1,000 suns.
I reach for the pot.
“What’s going on here?” Cooney says. He lives in the Richmond District. He is a long way from home. I moved to Bernal Heights. I will have to bicycle uphill. Isaac is drunk and asleep, snoring loudly into his folded arms. Eric has a baby. Ben has to get home before he is in trouble with his old lady. Eli is the only one who knows the combination to the alarm. I am the only one for whom the night is still young. I am wearing bike shoes.
“What’s it look like?” I reply, wrapping my forearms around my winnings, pulling them to me in a great glittering plastic pillow, tears pooling in my eyes.
In this moment I love Chris Cooney as much as I have ever loved another man. He has broken my heart before and I’m sure he will again, but I am determined not to think about those things. What’s important is that we are still together, except for Andy Miller, who is now a prison bitch. But we have Isaac, younger than all of us, injecting new blood. It is late, but it is also early. We’ve weathered the worst of it. We’ll be playing poker still for a long time.
The Poker Report
December 10, 2005
The Euchre Report
By Susan Steinberg
I just ran into Peter at the café. He could barely look at me. He was like, “Hey.” I was like, “Hey.” And that was it.
Val witnessed all of this. When Peter walked out, she was like, “What was up with that guy?” And I was like, “I have no idea.” She was like, “Do you even know him?” And I was like, “Kind of.” I was like, “We played cards last night.” And she was like, “Well, did you kick his ass?” And I was like, “Yes, Val.” I was like, "Yes, I kicked his ass.
When I was in seventh grade I got an honorable mention for some shitty essay I wrote about peace. I was told to use at least three of our most recent vocabulary words in it, one of which was “trepidation,” which I most likely used incorrectly and most likely still would. But it must have impressed someone, because, next thing, I got this piece of paper that said “honorable mention” on it, and, as I was a D student and I knew A students who didn’t get shit, this was evidently a big deal, a “win,” if you will, and yet I was like, “Whatever.”
Which is to say I didn’t used to care about winning.
Which is to say I now want to be a better person.
So I’m not going into the details of all the winning last night. If you want the details, you can ask Adam:
1. Is it true that Susan and Andrew won, like, 12 times, and that you, Stephanie, Peter, and Ed won, like, zero times?
2. Did they really win 1 point at a time?
3. Are they really undefeated in Cole Valley?
4. Were they really playing against four people? Five, if you include the one in utero?
5. Is it true that Peter was unable to win even when he was cheating? Even in the special round of “speed euchre”? Which was your idea. Which was total bullshit. And, really, didn’t Susan and Andrew win that one, too?
6. Did you really spiral into some kind of gender confusion? The details of which are devastating?
7. Was Ed sweating?
8. What happened to your grammar?
9. Is it true that you threw down your last card and said, “Me and them called diamonds, and you shouldn’t have won against we”?
10. Did someone respond with “What’s he saying?”
11. Did you respond with “You heard I”?
12. Did Andrew and Susan just sit there after all the winning, their feet up on the table, like, “Whatever, this is no big deal”?
Not that it matters.
I once was a decent human being, gracious even, even at 12, and, more importantly, as Andrew reminded me after the last game, as I was standing, reaching into my bag for my tiara and a can of spray paint: We’ve been here before.
He said, “Have a seat.”
I sat down, breathed, considered helping with something. I looked around the room. I could have cleaned, perhaps. There was all this food on the table. These really good pretzels. And plantain chips. I could have carried the dishes back to the kitchen. Washed them even. Sponged off the table.
In seventh grade I rescued fucked-up animals and gave away canned goods. Before this, I was a Girl Scout. Though I despised it. I despised going to the nursing homes. And I despised all the songs about friendship and love. And I eventually got kicked out for reasons I won’t divulge. All this to say I’ve never been a saint, but once in a while I found the time, even as a complete fuckup, to give something back to someone.
I looked at Peter. Jesus. He looked so humiliated, sitting there, staring into his lap.
I thought to grab him by the collar. To say, “Dude, let me help you.”
1. But was I also thinking of mocking him?
2. Was I also thinking of pouring beer over my head, celebrating the way I’ve seen other professionals do?
3. Or did Andrew say, “Easy,” and did I, therefore, regain my sense of decency and hold out a hand to shake hands with Ed?
4. If so, did he mistake the gesture for a high-five?
5. Was it awkward?
6. Did I leave him hanging?
Last year I gave my birthday money, though God knows it wasn’t much, to charity.
Euchre brings out something fucked up in me.
Had I stayed home last night, I would have taken a bath. I have this new bath gel. It’s lavender or lemon verbena. It’s organic. I would have filled the tub with scalding water. I would have climbed in, closed my eyes. I would have thought about the people I’ve hurt.
But instead I dragged my ass to Adam’s, and it was worth it.
The Euchre Report
November 18, 2005
The Euchre Report
(Exclusive to Stephen Elliott’s Poker Report)
By Susan Steinberg
Andrew and I were watching the Giants play the Eagles this morning at a bar. I’m no fan of football, but the point is I was thinking—as all of these Eagles fans were screaming and spelling out the word “Eagles” and high-fiving and drinking bloody marys and eating onion rings at 10 in the morning (and one guy’s shirt said “Douchebag”)—about something my ex-boyfriend Nick once said to me. He said there was this football player who was so good he retired when he was, like, 21. And the point is this player was so good he would run the ball into the end zone and just hand it over to the referee—no crazy dance, no high-five. He just handed the ball over and walked off. And the point is, so Nick said, there was this announcer who once said about this guy something like, “He’s a player who acts like he’s been there before.”
I thought, at the time, that this was a really good story, that it was really profound, and I understood it completely, and I have been able to apply the lesson in it to my own life and, more specifically, to one of my own talents, for I suppose that when it comes to parallel parking, something at which I am amazing, I do take great pleasure into sliding effortlessly into a space and just saying nothing afterward, just getting out of the car like it was no big deal, as my passenger looks at me in awe.
That said, this is a euchre report, and what’s important, I suppose, is that I’m not as good at euchre as I am at parking. I have confessed to as much in previous reports. I have also confessed to not liking losing. And I have confessed to liking winning. But the truth is, I’m prepared to lose each time I play, because I’m always Andrew’s partner, and—let’s face it—we’re just not good at cards. We’re not like Adam and Steve, with their professional card-playing gloves and visors, their nicknames, etc. We’re not like Tom McNeely.
But. Euchre. Friday night. Adam’s house. It’s hard to know where to begin.
I’ll just get to the point.
Andrew and I won a game. And then we won again. And then again. And what’s that? OK. And then again.
We won against Steve twice. And we won when we were all in the barn. And we won when we’d been losing 7 to 2. And we won against Zondie and Otis. And at one point we were playing against two pairs of people, for God’s sake, and still we won. And we beat Adam. And we beat Peter. And I was completely sober. And I had shitty cards all night. And the cards were sticking to each other. And still we won. Every. Last. Game.
We were rock stars.
And we were bigger rock stars than anyone else.
Think about it.
Winning against Steve is one thing. But think about what it means to beat Otis and Zondie. Otis and Zondie would win on Survivor.
And we kicked their asses.
We won the last game with a fucking nine of hearts.
After he pulled me down from Adam’s shoulders, Eric said to me, You’re glowing. I said, Well, I like winning.
I said, Fuck you.
They were all so jealous.
Because we fucking won every fucking game.
Because Steve suggested renaming the game Susan-and-Andrew-Kicked-My-Ass.
And yes, we’d won before on other nights. We’d won a game here or there. But we’d never kicked every last ass the way we kicked every last ass the other night. Now we have. Fine. Next time we win, we can put the cards down on the table with class, like, whatever, we’ve been here before, and we can have a cigarette and wait quietly for the next game.
But that night was different.
Things got blurry.
There was an incident with Andrew on the lawn.
I may have keyed Adam’s truck.
And I vaguely remember, later, lifting weights at some 24-hour gym, Andrew standing over me, saying, You can do it, baby, before I blacked out. Or maybe that was just a dream. Hours later, I woke up in the park. Andrew was sleeping under a tree, still clutching a jack of clubs and some of Scott’s hair. I looked around for my shoes.
The Euchre Report
October 26, 2005
“Saving Money by Not Playing Poker Since 2001”
Editor’s Note: We don’t always play poker. Sometimes we play euchre, a game brought to the Midwest by French fur trappers in the 1800s. Luckily for us, Susan Steinberg was there to document all the action at our last game. If you don’t live in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, or France, you might not have heard of euchre. Let me be the first to assure you, it is a game for kings (and queens, especially queens). —SE
The Euchre Report
Guest Writer—Susan Steinberg
I saw mysterious bruises on my body this morning. Which made me think of Steve Elliott. Which made me remember the Euchre Report.
We played at Allie and Andrew’s on September 30. Allie and Andrew have wall-to-wall carpeting. They’ve got an electric stove. They’ve got a drunk old neighbor across the street who told Andrew he parks his car like a girl. What they don’t have is a card table. Jeff and Tom brought a table. And we also used a giant cardboard box.
In attendance, too many players to name. There was this guy Matt there who smoked cigarettes with us and this woman Rita who was very tall and some guy in a black T-shirt with words on it I can’t remember named Rusty. Etc. Suffice it to say, all Stegner Fellows and ex-Stegner Fellows in attendance, with the exception of me, never a Stegner, for God’s sake. I am an outsider, and I think we can all agree it’s good for there to be at least one outsider at these card games, particularly if that outsider has a proclivity toward observation and a proclivity toward wanting to report the absolute facts of an evening. Even an evening in which my own card-playing, I admit, was weak.
For this weakness, I blame not Andrew, my partner, yet again, for every game—though his playing was, as well, weak—but the young, beautiful, triathletic poet Rachel Richardson, who had some kind of quiet thing going on all night, a strategy I couldn’t figure out, who played with what I would call, were I feeling generous, classiness. Or sophistication. Like it was hard to say anything to her, like, “You cheated, fucker.”
Steve was Rachel’s partner. He took breaks, midgame, to rub Bacitracin into the new tattoo (heart, pierced) on his bicep (huge), and I found this to be distracting.
At one point I considered turning over the table. I thought, like, What would happen if I did?
Andrew was wearing that greenish textured shirt that always makes him seem angrier. He was questioning everything I did. Why lead with a 10? Why lead with a trump card? Why the jack of the opposite suit, for God’s sake? Do you have a diamond? If you have a diamond, you need to play the diamond. Jesus. Are you holding six cards?
Adam and Robin were screaming out from the other table something about “sticking the beaver.” Robin assured Adam he would, in fact, get his beaver stuck, and everyone over there laughed. I don’t know why this was funny, but they were clearly having a better time than we were. I turned around and waved to them, hoping someone would wave back. Jeff waved his glass of white zinfandel. Andrew punched the table and said, “Focus!”
Jack, the dog, was pacing around the room, a strange look in her eyes.
Tom McNeeley was there.
During some downtime, Steve brought me into Andrew’s bedroom to show me the intricate new piercing-needle cuts—shaped like angel wings (sentimental)—on his back. I asked if they bled. He assured me they did. He pointed to a bite mark on his neck. He told me that when women bite him and bite him hard, he gets tired. I suggested that maybe what’s happening is he’s actually passing out from, like, excruciating pain or some kind of, you know, serious infection. Andrew walked into the bedroom and said, “What the fuck are you two doing?” Steve pulled down his shirt.
At some point, we won a game. I remember high-fiving. I vaguely remember making our opponents feel like shit. I’m certain this felt good. But I have no recollection of who we played.
We tried to get another game going, but no one was into it. Then Eric left. Then others left. I don’t know what else to say. We ran out of cigarettes. Someone did an impersonation of Tobias Wolff. Jack looked bored. It was clearly time to call it a night. Adam left his jacket behind, and Andrew and Allie and I took turns trying it on. The guy named Matt left. The guy named Rusty left. Tom and Jeff folded their table and left. The place was totally untrashed. A few bottles and one crooked lampshade. That was it.
The Euchre Report
October 21, 2005
“Something Something Since 2001”
Guest Writer—Denea Mesa
There would be crazy games, games I had never heard of. Walking down South Van Ness Street from Mr. Pickles, Eric was already striking up ideas, mumbling sequences, “Low cherry … Burning … Mechanical … Low cherry … Burning … In the hole.” The light turned green. “Mechanical McGarnickle Crazy Pineapple appendance.”
I acquainted myself with Chris and Julie. Ben and Stephen I had known from previous competitive throwdowns (poker and Scrabble). When I’m first learning a game, you might as well count me in the “I’ll play some cards as long as it don’t come in the way of my drinking” category. Peach grove was defiantly not my suit. Nor could I make a baby flush. I couldn’t even make two of a suit. Feeling the breeze, with nothing but a vest.
“You should put that in,” Stephen said after Andy Miller tried to short everyone a dollar on their buy-in. “He’s a thief.”
I was sitting next to Ben, who was talking about the World Series, Ong-Bak, and a Player to Be Named Later. For me, it’s a little offsetting at first, going into games where things are predetermined, just like anywhere else where people know the rules before you have a chance to act.
Deal was to me. I called McGarnickle. Sanchez wild, five-card hold or drop, match-the-pot game, with a ghost player. To make it a little fun for everyone, men with mustaches are wild. In San Francisco, queens have mustaches, but that’s just how we live here. Chris, after first receiving instructions for McGarnickle, wasn’t happy. “I like this game,” he said after a few rounds. Stephen pondered what happened to him in the corn so long ago.
I wound up taking in $19 in another hand and started to tell the difference between Folsom and Iowa.
When Ben, Stephen, and Chris left, we raised the stakes.
By 10:40 we had lost Chris and Stephen, but had gained Eli and Windy. Andy said that the games don’t usually last this long. I was just happy that this table included smoking, a luxury I had only at my upstairs Saturday-night game. Staying up late isn’t a problem; keeping my cash sometimes is.
The deal was to Windy. She wore tight jeans and a stylish necklace. Everyone’s cigarettes were gone. “I wish we had more cigarettes,” she said. Me too. It’s something we were dependent on. There was still beer in the fridge, but it just wasn’t the same. Andy Miller suggested a drink at the bar. We counted up the chips as we listened to Rush. Andy, Windy, and Julie went off further down Van Ness. I had a deadline and it was already 1:30 in the morning. Eric and I walked back. I watched the ground, remembering the time I found an eighth of hash and weed at 19th. I didn’t find any last night.
The Poker Report
Editor’s Note: I won $24, mostly from Ben and Eli, but also a staggering pot against Andy Miller, who spent the better part of the night cheating and stealing. In one of the biggest hauls of the evening, Andy, Ben, and I went heads-up in peach grove. I took the high hand with a full house, sixes over nines to Andy’s sixes over eights. Andy never quite recovered. In the afternoon, I called my girlfriend. I said, “I’m a winner again.” She said, “So you’re not obsessing over me anymore?” I paused. There was no right way to answer her question. She was starting work in half an hour. I had spent the morning working on a collection of S/M porn. I tried to explain that this meant our relationship was getting healthy, that we could date and I could still take money from my close friends. She said she wasn’t buying it. At any rate, my losing streak is over. It was a long one. The Mission streets are once more covered in gold. In every bet there is a sucker and a thief. —SE
October 4, 2005
“Drunk and Gambling
While Our Country’s at War
The Shortest Game Ever
I showed up hungry to Eric’s on South Van Ness. It was a $25 buy-in tournament. There was a tray full of pork in the oven. I was with Windy, who had taken all of my money last time. It was already 8:30. Andy Miller showed up soon after I did, drunk, asking to borrow money, muttering that he was going to knock me out of the tournament today, and he expected me to write about it.
“Make me famous,” he said.
There were 22 players, three tables. I was the first out. I had two kings in the hole. There were two raises before the flop. A pair of kings is a strong hand. The flop came three clubs. One of my kings was a club. There was a raise, then another raise, a big pot. I went all in. I had top pair, I had a flush draw. The player to my right turned over two aces. I was still pot odds. His aces were red. But my club never came. Five minutes in, I had lost my stack.
“Yee-ah,” Andy said, pulling a half pint of whiskey from inside his jacket pocket, unscrewing the cap with his tongue.
“Your friend Andy is crazy,” somebody told me.
I bought back in. You’re allowed one re-buy. But you have to wear a day-glo cardboard hat. Here’s what happened.
I had an ace-six of diamonds, a straight draw. It was me and Richard. Richard was wearing sunglasses. His hair was freshly washed. I was full. I had eaten a lot of pork. He was waiting on an inside straight. I had him beat. But his straight came, and mine did too. Had six seven in the hole. He shouldn’t have been playing but he was. An impossible hand.
Twice, within an hour, I lost everything I had. It reminded me vaguely of being pulled over for speeding three times in one day on the four-hour trip between Champaign and Carbondale. Illinois college years. I remember the judge’s face in the Champaign County Courthouse: dismissive, confused.
I stood in the doorframe to Eric’s kitchen. The light was pale and fluorescent. I was waiting to see on a second re-buy, but I knew it was ridiculous. You could re-buy once in the first hour and that was it. You re-buy, you wear the hat. Eric was wearing the hat as well. It was his house and his pork and he had bought back in. He smiled. The smile stayed there. He wouldn’t say if I could re-re-buy or not. He was stuck on the question. I left it at that.
I Went Away
It was 10 at night and I rode my bike down South Van Ness. I saw a man pulling a bicycle from the back seat of a car, a woman with a snake tattooed over the top of her foot and up her leg, standing in front of 17th Street Chicken and Gas. I wrote it all down in my small notebook, riding in the breeze, no-handed across the cracks in the road.
A policeman fell in behind me. I thought there was probably a law against writing and bicycling at night. He followed me for two blocks. I stuffed the little pad in the pocket of my down jacket. The city had gotten cold. He took me as far as Whiz Burger, then turned around.
It was the day before Rosh Hashanah and I was going to see Jenny Traig. She had made matzo-ball soup and cupcakes. There would be wine. She lived across from the pizza shop. Originally I didn’t think I would have time to see her. I hadn’t thought my losses would be so quick and staggering.
The truth is that I’ve been dating someone. It’s almost three months now and I haven’t won a game of cards since we met. My girlfriend before her would take my money when I won, so I was playing without incentive. But this is different. It’s not just poker. I haven’t won at euchre or bridge. My mind is somewhere else.
In the morning, I write about a journalist killed in Iraq. There are important and terrible things happening in the world. Then I replay my last hand. I slide my chips onto the felt. Remember the room. The walls of the room are covered with the innards of old pinball machines, guitars hanging from a line in the window. Would he call me if he had anything less? Richard is a loose player, even with his sunglasses on. Maybe he has two pair. Maybe he just can’t let it go. Can I take him for a gutshot? A bluffer, a hyena, as consistent and predictable as a phantom wind. Why was Andrew Miller laughing?
Should I have seen it coming? There was a hand earlier in the night where I folded my small pair on a $5 push only to see trips on the turn and nothing on the river, a pile of chips split between two racers speeding toward the edge of the cliff. An edge I casually strolled across and then fell over.
I’ll see her again, hours from now. It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. “Did you win?” she’ll ask, her face like an angel’s. Nobody wants to date a loser. But relationships are based on trust. I won’t glorify anything. I’ll just open my hands; the international sign for money lost. I’ll tell her about evenings in the city, the drawn curtains, the slow police car, riding a bicycle no-handed in the dark while taking notes for something I might write in the morning. I’ll finish with matzo-ball soup, a glass of wine, a cupcake to go.
“Don’t worry,” I’ll say when she squints, hoping to divert her from what she already knows. “Stick with me long enough and my luck’s likely to change.”
The Poker Report
August 2, 2005
“The Fix Since 2001”
$25 Buy-In, No Way Out
When I arrived at Andy’s house he was wearing spring-loaded shades and frayed gray denim, his dark curls buzzed high and tight, mid-length sideburns. He reminded me of Travis Bickle, God’s angry man.
“Do I look like a bad player?” he asked.
“The worst,” I told him.
“Good. I’m going to take some sucker’s money.”
“They read the Poker Report,” I told him. “They know who you are.”
“Tell them I’m Chris Cooney,” Andy said. “Then they won’t think I’m any good.”
The game was just down the street at 8:30. Twenty-five-dollar buy-in for $100 in chips, tournament style, two tables, 16 players, progressive blinds. Andy was the first one out, check-raising his full stack into the felt. He was in third position and there had been two raises before. Both players called.
“Who’s got aces?” he asked, turning over a pair of kings, lips like flat tires. The lady next to me turned a pair of tens. Erik, the host, rolled American Airlines.
“That sucks,” Andy said. But Eric didn’t win.
I was dealing. A ten came on the flop, then another ten on fourth street.
“Four tens,” I said. “That’s a tough hand to beat.”
Andrew was out of the tournament but he had brought a bottle of Jack Daniels with him. He drank near the door frame looking angular. Then he left for a cigarette. When he came back, the bottle was almost empty, it was 10 at night, and he was still wearing his sunglasses.
“What are you still doing in?” he asked, weaving near the fruit bowl.
“You’re projecting,” I told him.
The second player out was Tim. Windy flew sorties over his bluff. Tim had won $15,000 in an online tournament earlier in the week. There were some ringers at the table. Windy used to own a record store and now kept her face serious and focused, occasionally slurping from a styrofoam container full of noodles. Windy had invited me to the game after I thanked her for calling me her favorite local author in an interview.
“I’m really not that good,” Windy said, cupping her hand and peeling her top card. But she was that good. She took down Mike with a paired ace in her hand and all of his money across the center. She played like General Sherman, burning everything behind her. I had thought Windy had invited me over because she liked the Poker Report and wanted to be friends. Now I knew I was just another sucker in her eyes, something to destroy on her long march to the sea. Her chips became a fortress guarded by a full house and a nut-flush moat.
I almost made it to the second table but I didn’t. I was the eighth player out, just before the two tables combined. I had $65 and a paired ace. Lynnore had a pair of queens in the hole and a queen on the flop. She owns a furniture store. She took the last of what I had.
I sat outside with Andy Miller and Tim, who had won $15,000 a week ago but lost $25 tonight beneath the Windy blitzkrieg. Tim and Andy wanted to play a losers tournament and I agreed. But I was the first to lose at the loser’s table.
Without Reason, All the Way Home
It was getting late anyway, and it had been such a strange week. My heart was stretched and close to my ribs. I had visited a prison in the Antelope Valley, spoken with men in a gymnasium converted to a dorm, piled three-tier on 40 bunks, 120 of them kept in that room 20 hours a day. I had come back to San Francisco, where I explored the meaning of commitment, walked straight to the emotional edge and looked over the face and saw the swirling waters filled with the debris of when things fall apart. I wrote a love poem, started a novel, organized a fundraiser for children tried as adults. It was a week filled with jealousy, innovation, and reinvention. I was asked what my needs were and replied that I wouldn’t know until it was too late. If it seems like I’m being vague it’s because I am. There are secrets that must be kept. But I’ll tell you this: love is a bruise, the child commits the crime but the father is guilty, sometimes there’s nothing to do but climb the Twin Peaks and watch the tankers poking through the small rocky opening into the bay.
I fled the poker game $25 poorer, sped home through the Mission, streets empty and flat. The fog was rolling in and the doors to the bars were closed. Andy Miller was still at the Loser’s Table, his whiskey gone. And Windy, who had seemed so innocent, was at the final table beneath the façade of an antique pinball machine, a wealthy smile like a small demon at the corner of her mouth. For no reason I thought about a story I heard this week, about an old man who left his wife for a much younger woman, and the incredible price he paid.
Hours later, I was on my hands and knees, scrubbing the stains from the bathroom floor, chipping the grout from between the tiles, sick with the smell of bleach and industrial cleaners. How had the bathroom become so dirty? Had I let things go too far? It was 2 in the morning. It would take me three hours to clean the tiny bathroom. The bathroom would never be this clean again. I remembered that I didn’t always play poker. I grew up playing spades in houses with other troubled boys. The boy next to the dealer would peer at the second-to-last card. The games weren’t for money but they were filled with the heavy air of potential violence. Between hands we tattooed each other with blue India ink, one dot at a time. I had a large dagger on my left shoulder, which I later covered up with something resembling a wizard escaping the sun. I left those savage homes in Chicago for quiet games in San Francisco. But the past always follows. Everything is cool, nothing makes sense.
The Poker Report
July 28, 2005
Special Euchre Report
By Susan Steinberg
We were at Dave Roderick and Tom Kealey’s apartment. There were two games going on, and I don’t know what was happening at the other table, except everyone seemed way too serious. Geri Doran and Steve Elliott were talking about poetry. Tom was playing the Indigo Girls or something on the radio until we complained.
Andrew Altschul and I were partners for all three games. Steve says, to all who will listen, that Andrew is the worst euchre player of everyone he’s ever played. Others, unnamed, have agreed. I say this not to make Andrew look bad but, rather, to make Steve and the others look jealous. For how is it that Andrew, with his supposed lack of talent, and I, with my complete lack of skill and limited understanding of the rules, were able to kick so much ass?
We won the first game against Eric Puchner and Jeff Hoffmann. There’s no need to go into the details of our strategy. Then, whatever, they won the second game. At the risk of sounding like I’m a sore loser, which I assure you I am not, I have to say that I (and others) suspect they were cheating. Everyone knows Andrew and I should have won that game. At the end, we were all “in the barn,” as it’s called, and then I got a useless hand, and Jeff called diamonds (again), and Eric, coincidentally, had, yet again, all diamonds, as I recall, and somehow they won, and no one could question anything because Eric, rather strategically, started talking about his 2-week-old baby, how little sleep he’s gotten, and the cheating incident was temporarily forgotten.
Then we smoked cigarettes on the fire escape and talked about the view. I noticed that most of the guys were wearing shirts that buttoned.
Then Steve wanted to play me and Andrew, and I was a little intimidated at first because everyone’s always saying what a good player Steve is. Though maybe, now that I think about it, I’ve only heard this from Steve. Someone shut off the radio, and the conversation turned all serious and political (“Who’s gonna be our candidate?” said one; “Well, not Hillary,” said another), and Steve was throwing out like four cards at a time, doing all these things I didn’t understand, knocking on the table, sometimes playing alone, which is likely why I can’t remember who his partner was. No. It was Scott Hutchins. I remember now because he also was showing off. Even his shuffling technique was involved. But the thing is, even with all their professional-seeming moves and attempts at highbrow conversation, we won that game too.
The end was dizzying: Andrew violently throwing down the last of his cards. Then silence. Then someone told me we won. We high-fived. Whatever happened after that is a blur. I think we talked about poetry. A book got passed around. Steve’s phone rang. Someone threw the bottles away.
The Euchre Report
May 10, 2005
“The Bluest Skies Since 2001”
I arrived at Andy Miller’s house at 6:45 Monday evening. It had been raining earlier and I had two burritos with me in a plastic bag and I gave one of them to Andrew. He asked if I had gotten super with guacamole and sour cream. I told him I hadn’t. He shook his head, taking two plates from the shelf. He wouldn’t be paying for his burrito. He had been done wrong and the game hadn’t even started. It was just the two of us, but already things had reached the tipping point. Things were going to have to change on a massive scale.
“We’re going to play a tournament tonight,” Andrew said, taking another bite of his free burrito.
“What if people don’t want to play a tournament?” I asked. We were on a sunken futon, waiting on the remaining players, watching a Larry David rerun.
“It’s my house,” he replied, sweeping his arm across a sea of damaged furniture, cigarette-stained rugs, burned-out lamps, and shelves full of tattered books. “Look around you. Everything you see is mine.”
A Boy’s First Tourney
My roommate Jake arrived at 7:05. He’s new to poker night, and to San Francisco. He’s a young Communist with curly blond hair. He was followed by Ben and Ben’s little brother Andrew, who is in town for his 21st birthday. He was 36 hours from being old enough to drink but decided to start early. They had with them a six-pack of red-and-white tall boys and a carpenter named Chris Cooney.
We opened our tournament with a $5 buy-in, progressive blinds, winner take all. In our tournament, you could bet as much as you had in front of you. We were playing all-in and Ben was the first to lose, a pair of tens in the hole against my club flush. He had a good hand but hadn’t bet it properly. When playing all-in, how you bet your hand means everything. There would be time later to make his money back. Jake was second out. Cooney and I were next and it was Andy Miller versus Andrew Peterson. Miller had 10 years of experience on the boy. He also had a new haircut. He looked handsome, but sinister. Miller’s beard was grown out, so it was like his curly hair, circling his entire face, sharpening his nose and cheekbones. He looked confident, mysterious. He looked like he read Nietzsche and threatened teenagers with screwdrivers on the BART train. A woman in a bar might refer to him as devilish, or devilishly handsome, or wicked, depending on what she was into. It’s possible he would be spoken of as dangerous and charming. You see what I’m getting at.
Peterson, on the other hand, had the clean cheeks of a young man about to embark upon a life of drinking. The broad shoulders and wistful innocence of a merchant marine boarding his first ship. There were sharks in that ocean. And the water was cold. Life could be hard on the seas, but the relationships with your shipmates would pull you through.
We all expected Miller to win, but that’s not what happened. In poker, like in war, like in life, you always have to leave space for the unpredictable. Any hand is a possible winner and every interaction a deal struck between a sucker and a thief. Miller laid down queen/three, Peterson laid down king/three. Miller played seven/eight, Peterson spread six/ten, suited. It was flush over straight, trips stepping on pairs, two threes slamming ace high into a tree. There was a table behind Miller and, on that table, a bottle of Jim Beam. Miller began to reach for that bottle. He drank in quick sips, without ice cubes or a glass. There would be no caviar tonight. And by the time the young Andrew had all but won the tournament, Andy Miller was drunk and angry. Which is when Susan showed up with light beer and calmed everything down.
The Impact of Women
There were seven of us then, but everything had changed. First, there was Susan’s calming presence, the simple fact that women are nicer than men, and if a woman enters a room full of men, the chances are that the room will smell better and people will behave with more kindness. Then, there was the fact that Chris Cooney had just started a job after six weeks of blissful unemployment. His pockets were stuffed with greenbacks; he was a carpenter again.
We played three types of games over the course of two and a half hours. We played San Francisco Peach Grove, Texas Hold’em, and Scrotum. Readers of this report will already be familiar with the three games. Cooney took some hands early with a low pair and a straight draw on the flop.
“I don’t bluff anymore,” Cooney said. “I learned that from two years of losing.”
But he was unable to take his own advice. Or perhaps he took it too literally. When Donahue and Berry used to play, there were people for Cooney to beat on a regular basis. But Jon had a baby and joined a Star Wars cult; Donahue stays in the East Bay, where he can keep a close eye on Christine Fox. They don’t come around as often, poisoning Cooney’s odds.
In a game of Scrotum, Cooney’s good hands were beaten consistently by Susan’s better hands. If Cooney had a full house, Susan had four of a kind. If Cooney had four of a kind, Susan had four aces, and so on. Soon Cooney was out of cash and reaching into that secret place in his wallet where his new boss had given him a hundred dollars earlier in the day, in case he needed to pick up supplies.
“Don’t write that in the report,” he said. “I’m not stealing. This is just a loan.”
“I have a responsibility to my readers,” I informed him.
Peach Grove was another matter, different from Scrotum, so many ways to win. It was a game for Jake, who always had three suited and a straight. “Peach Grove is good,” Jake said, prophetically, and then quoted a Noam Chomsky passage at length.
By the end of the night, young Andrew Peterson had lost all of his money and shed the last of his youth. Chris Cooney had won back his boss’s money. Susan, meanwhile, had lost everything, including her beer. The bottle of whiskey next to Andrew Miller was empty, but Miller himself was sober again. We stacked the chairs and the table.
“By next week,” Andrew promised, “I’m going to fix the table leg.” The old table has been broken by four years of savage use and what Andrew was proposing was taking some sawdust and mixing it with glue, creating a paste that he would patch in near the top of the leg. The paste would be stronger than the wood. Andrew was going to do more than fix the table; he was going to improve it.
And that’s when it really dawned on me what was happening. Cooney had a job and Peterson was turning 21. Jake was new in town and ready to fight capitalism. We had entered a filthy, drug-infested house on South Van Ness and were leaving it cleaner than when we arrived. At 7 p.m. we were just a bunch of caterpillars, but by 10:30 we were butterflies. Our wings were full of color. The Mission is a valley; we would fly above it. We had begun what could only be called a period of renewal. I was up $11 for the night, depending on how you look at things. I was feeling good.
The Poker Report
April 29, 2005
“The Only Lasting and Final Truth Since 2001”
Guest Writer—Eli Horowitz
Look, I don’t know how to play poker. I can’t understand half these Poker Reports, even when I was playing in the actual games. I’m not going to tell you about the flop, the elephants, the block raise, whatever. That’s not what it’s about anyway. Focusing on the cards is like going to a violin concerto and just staring at the strings. I don’t play the cards, I play the player. Wait, no, I ignore the player too—I play the night. (On this particular night, I lost $12.)
And I can’t pull off the hard-boiled tone, the pithy life lessons dropped in abruptly amidst the grime. I’m not about grime. I live in Berkeley. I snack from the blackberry bush in my backyard. I’m just a kid. On Tuesday night we sat around a table and I took some notes. They’re in front of me now. I will try to find some sense.
The evening starts on a familiar note: It’s Andrew Miller’s house, and Andrew Miller is the banker. I hand him a twenty and receive $10 in chips and … that’s it. “Oh, was that a twenty? I didn’t even notice,” Andy purrs, eyes alive with love and menace.
There are no women here, and no Poindexter. All decency and sophistication is absent. It’s just me, Stephen, Cooney, Ben, David the Poet, Andy Miller, and Jake.
Andy has a plastic bag full of day-old muffins, but somehow we aren’t biting. “I could bust out some of those pickled green beans,” he offers. (Apparently, he has somehow finished off the pickled asparagus over the past few months.) Still, hunger persists. Then, in a fairly shocking twist, Andy announces a plate of “caviar and crostini.” The crostini turns out to be slices of Sara Lee multigrain bread, cut into small nubbins. Over the course of the evening, this “crostini” becomes tostini, crotini, and tostonis, in a hopeless search for legitimacy. Eventually, Andy concedes the correct term: bread. (This leads to a discussion of the fateful week Steve lived with Andy and was accused of stealing three slices of white bread [see Poker Report, 5/16/04], which leads to a further debate over whether Andy offered Steve a pillow and whether or not he deserved one.)
But the caviar! I inspect the label: “Black Lumpfish Caviar, Product of Iceland.” It appears to be the real thing.
“I got this from the nuns,” Andy proudly proclaims. “This was normally $5.49, but I got it for 50 cents!” We seek clarification. “It was their 100th anniversary, and I was a busboy.” No further clarification is sought. Soon, however, the quality and flavor of the caviar is questioned. “That’s just what caviar tastes like!” epicurean Andy insists. David: “At some point, it’s just fish eggs, not caviar. When you steal it from nuns, it’s just fish eggs.”
The night’s banter follows along those lines, kind of David Mamet meets P.G. Wodehouse. For example, Andy accuses David the Poet of cheating. Says Steve: “No one has ever accused a poet of cheating!” Says Andy: “That’s why they cheat!” Says Ben: “No one has ever accused a poet of cheating. No one has ever accused Andy Miller of not cheating.”
The Poet subsequently wins a Peach Grove hand with four tens. “That makes me writhe,” says Cooney. And then writhes.
Stephen would love it if I used this opportunity to obsess over a controversial double-or-nothing between me and Andy Miller (see Poker Report, 10/16/03). That was over a year ago, in Steve’s previous apartment, the little yellowish one where a man once tried to jump in the window, despite the apartment being on the third floor. Yes, it was a year ago, and I hold no grudges—I am young and have had a relatively easy life so far, so I deserve a few lumps. But simply for posterity, allow me to note: While Andy Miller is far from blameless, some attention must be paid to the banker, who handed out the actual winnings. That banker? Stephen Elliott.
Steve wouldn’t try such things anymore. He’s got a career now. People fly him to Russia. Ethan Hawke reads his books. But I remember a time, sitting with him in a rooftop shack, figuring out the closing sentences of his novel. So what if Steve may or may not have assisted in the thievery of $6? He’s our friend.
OK, fine, the cards: We mostly play California Peach Grove, a variant of Iowa Peach Grove. Andy tries to introduce a game called Ace, Jacks, Kings With An Axe, Pair Of Sevens Beats Everything. After one round, Cooney observes, “Fuck this—I hate this game,” and it is not played again. At one point, my three aces beat Jake’s three queens. The rest of the night is darkness.
The darkness becomes eventually literal, when a toaster full of crostini/tostini/crotini/tostini blows a fuse and we are plunged into black. Chips are gripped tightly. The lights come back on, and someone breaks out the O’Douls. I know it’s time for me to leave.
The Poker Report
March 3, 2005
“Growing Up Poor Since 2001”
Guest Writer—Chris “Cornfed” Cooney
I come from a family of card players. Unlike the card players that write the Poker Report, my family somehow was able to play cards and not have the typical associated vice of chronic lying. So I guess perhaps if Steve (Mr. Smug) were writing this report, we would get another dose of all the familiar themes. Who could argue that Andy Miller had a shocking amount of grease in his hair or that Wendy and Beverly brought a level of sophistication and style that the poker game rarely sees? Mr. Smug probably would even point out that Poindexter once again played a cavalier game that seemed to say, “Let not me depend on my cards, let the cards depend on me.” The script usually writes itself: a smoky night just off Razor Blade Alley where Mr. Smug wins all the big hands in the most profound ways (recapping and enlightening all the while).
“If we live but two moments, let there be one for truth.”
All the early signals were wrong:
1. Earlier in the day, President Bush capitulates and agrees to work with the Europeans to try to slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
2. Wendy shows up with her vintage Las Vegas shirt and pendent earrings with little sparkling dice hanging from them. (She also drops a hint that she had just spent some of her workday watching a video on Texas hold’em.)
3. Steve Elliott was looking even more threadbare than normal despite the fact that he brought a girl to the game. I’m pretty sure he borrowed the shirt from Andy Miller—it had all the markings of Steve spending time at the poker room and not at the Laundromat.
So like I said, the signals were decidedly not aligned normally and I cannot tell a lie—here is what really happened.
Our most celebrated and most experienced gambler, David Poindexter, started the night off by totally reinventing the concept of a raise. Usually a raise indicates strength or at least the illusion of strength. David turned that concept on its head when he introduced the dime raise on top of a 50 bet. He had been in the crossfire between Ms. McKennon and Ben on a couple of different occasions. To reach the three-raise max faster and with less dough, David said he’d “see the 50 and raise 10,” thereby indicating weakness or at least the illusion of weakness. I can’t make this stuff up—those present were witness to the only new innovation in poker this decade.
From high to low: I am sorry to have to report that David followed this up with having to show his hand on a game of Peach Grove only to not have a qualifying high or low hand. Much to the entertainment of the table, Wendy also stayed in without a qualifying hand, all the while raising with the blue chips. As David later said, “They should have a rule about that or something.” The new Mr. Smug definitely had a good laugh but the old Steve would have gone totally berserk. I can just see him shouting (while he turns red from laughing), “Trips or higher, trips or higher …”
Jamie, another very able player, got ahead early and then proceeded to chase every pot of Omaha and Peach Grove on the table. His misfortune was sitting next to Wendy, who was ready to make everyone at least show their cards and pay the price for staying in against her. When Jamie mentioned that his aging cats might be better off in the next world, Wendy stared him down and muttered, “You better get out early ‘cause I’m going to bury you just like I’m burying everyone else at this table tonight.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Smug is slowly turning into Mr. Smitten. Instead of lectures on proper card play, Steve was busy with little tiny giggles, tiny pinches, and even tinier stacks of chips. (By the end of the night, Steve would have bought in twice and lost it all).*
All the while, the normal winners were losing and vice versa. I built my stack the old-fashioned way—by making sure I didn’t get cheated by Andy Miller. Andy was quick to point out our push with A-K flushes in a big pot of Peach Grove. I agreed until I came to my senses and realized how unlikely it would be to have identical flushes. Of course, upon review, I had an A-K-J flush in hearts and he only had an A-K-8 in diamonds. Some things never change and Andy Miller with bloody money in his pockets is one of those things.
So that was that:
1. Poindexter invents a dime block raise and misplays a hand of Peach Grove.
2. Wendy muscles into every pot winning everything in sight and refusing to tell us the title of the video she watched.
3. Weakened by romance, Steve adds his name to the list of those unable to be a warrior and a lover at the same time.
4. Ben, dead broke, has to beg Wendy (who is too busy winning to care about her 4 a.m. wake-up call) to drive him home.
Perhaps a better writer could have denied these truths—I cannot. I always kid Steve that he never lets the facts get in the way of the truth, but last night I think the truth took a cosmic turn. Bush trying to avoid war, the two most charming people at the table (Wendy and I) winning, and Steve more interested in pinching the soft leg next to him than lecturing … this might be the start of something beautiful.
Chris “Cornfed” Cooney
The Poker Report
- Editor’s note: I did not buy in twice, I bought in once.
February 27, 2005
“Reinterpreting the Facts Since 2001”
There are truths and there are lies and there are interpretations and it’s interpretations that seal history like the cracked gasket rimming the center of a transmission beneath an old car lurching down the corridor toward Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco.
And have you seen what transmission fluid looks like? It’s like pink oil, thick, translucent, and viscous. It looks like it comes from beneath the ocean, a gas station in Atlantis. Do you know how to change it? You stand below your car facing the tailpipe and you throw the gasket away. There are many bolts keeping the transmission together and the gears inside. And there are reasons why transmission fluid is pink and coolant is blue, but I don’t know them. And there are a million stories not written in the history books, and I can’t tell you those either, nor the stories collected in our time, bound and then forgotten. Posted on the Internet, then wiped clean like bugs on a window, like the arguments between abusive fathers and their lying children.
Some things can be proven. It is a fact that Andy Miller and I arrive at the Lucky Chances Casino in Colma on Saturday slightly before noon. There’s a tournament going on but we’re too late to play in it and, anyway, Andy doesn’t want to because it costs too much, the casino takes her cut, the players split the rest, the winners tip the dealers, and even a jackal can win on a good day because no one knows what the jackals may or may not do.
While waiting for a table, Andrew’s name gets erased from the board and he argues with the woman watching the spaces. She says she doesn’t have time for Andrew. Andrew is wearing a thin brown leather jacket and a sweat-hoody, his curly hair greased back like a duck’s ass.
“You should do your job,” he tells her. We wait outside for the next table. Andy says if he gets kicked out I should just take transit home. The surrounding hills are green and wet.
We sit at the three/six, like we did last week, and the week before. I drop $70 before our names are called again for the 1-1-2, no-limit, a game I’ve never played.
There are three blinds and a $100 buy-in. It costs $12 an hour to sit at the table. There are elephants and fish and it’s always better to be lucky than good but it’s better still to be lucky and good and to make it stick and line up your opponents’ chips on a flaming branch that you can then wave toward your god as the mice follow you down into the lower reaches of the city of the dead. Necropolis. There are more dead than living in Colma. It’s been that way for as long as we’ve known.
I’ve never played no-limit; otherwise, everything is the same. I ante eight/nine and fold when someone pushes 40 into the pot. When someone makes a hand, they bet big. Stacks of 20 shoved forward in multiples of three and four. The stacks are like silos. We play with single-dollar chips. The stacks are so high they make me think of steel mills, Homestead, Pennsylvania, and the glittering shopping mall built beneath the closed-down factories as the new economy finds its footing on the river’s muddy bank. It’s a game of tangents, of loosely connected thoughts. But you have to concentrate, watch the players, see how they move. Some are elephants, some are mice, some are jackals, inconsistent and impossible to read. But others are lions, and lions will swallow you whole.
There is a lion at the table. A Russian. His face is green from 24 hours at the tables. He looks like he has scurvy. He pushes $100 into the pot when Andy Miller makes a $20 bet. Andy folds and the Russian shows an eight, top pair. “It beats you,” the Russian says. “Of course it does. Top pair, it’s got to beat you. Or maybe not. I’ve never played with you before. Maybe you have aces in the hole. I don’t even know you, man.”
And there is an elephant next to Andrew as well. Or some would call him a fish. The most common term would be a whale. He bets and he bets and he buys in and he does not know when to fold. He loses hundreds of dollars. He wears a cap that says Newark. He says, “You got to pay to play.” He says, “I’m learning something from you guys,” when he takes a hand. Andy kicks his feet out from under him and stomps him with an ace-jack, pairing jack kicker on the river. I steal his heartbeat for a moment with an ace-nine of clubs, nut flush, three on the board, his breath between us like a ghost.
But I am losing. I am down $300. I am a jackal. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Then I start to come back. If someone asked me my best play of the afternoon, I would call it double jacks. Newark is all in for 30, and two seats to my right is a $20 raise and then a call. There are three hearts. Position is everything. I have never seen position matter so much before. I have won the dealer seat. And when he checks on the flop, I say, “All in.” I don’t touch my chips. I don’t have to. I push my chair back and take a sip of my coffee, which is in a white styrofoam cup behind me on a server tray. I have just finished a plate of corned-beef hash. I have $120 in front of me, and that is my bet. There is $60 in the pot. I wonder if anyone else can hear my heartbeat, see it bumping beneath my sweater like a bunny rabbit with a drum. I am not a fool. I read the news. I am aware of what is happening in the world. And I’m aware that different people see things differently. That’s why there is conflict. Your enemy is always a liar. You have to fight with guns for your own version of what is true.
He folds his hand. But because Newark is all in, I have to show my cards. “I would have beat you,” he says, when he sees my pair of jacks. “I folded two queens.” Newark wins the side pot on fifth street.
“Two queens is a scary way to live. Even in these times,” I say. I take my chips and leave the rest. It is not my biggest hand. Not by a long shot.
There is a professor next to me. He teaches statistics at Berkeley. The Russian is winning everyone’s money. There is a Chinese man in a short gray cap who only bets when he’s holding a high pair before the flop. The Chinese man is a mouse. Mice only play when they have good cards. The professor is losing but he wins one from the Chinese man. He says, “Thank you, mamma,” when he takes the hand.
Andy Miller is running even. I join him outside for a cigarette even though I don’t smoke. I take smoke breaks to breathe the air, because otherwise I would never go outside. I spend too much time in poker halls and cafés and in my room. The other day, there was a man masturbating in his window across from my apartment window. I turned out the lights. He closed the blinds.
“You’re doing well,” Andrew says, because I was losing so much but I’m halfway back. This is a new game, and because it’s new, it’s dangerous. We should always fear the unknown, and also embrace it, because there is only possibility. When something is known, it isn’t dangerous anymore. It isn’t anything.
“That guy next to you is good,” Andy says. He doesn’t mean the professor. He means the chubby guy with the beard who’s been bullying a lot of pots.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I think he’s a jackal. I think he’s inconsistent and he likes to play.”
The biggest hand of the night comes 15 minutes before we have to leave. I’m meeting a woman for dinner. I’ve never met her before. She sent me an e-mail and I sent her one back. She drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco with her friend. The professor is gone but the chubby guy, the jackal, still sits on my left. I have king-five of hearts in the big blind and I almost fold to a pre-flop raise but I don’t and my king comes on the flop and I bet it and the jackal bets back. There are three clubs on the felt and he could have a flush. Another king comes on the turn and I move all in again. It’s my third time of the night going all in. The other two times, everybody folded, the same way I fold when they go all in. Because if you don’t fold, you have to match $100 or more. I have $118 and the fat guy has double that and he waits and I want him to fold because if he doesn’t fold then I think he must have a flush and if he has a flush then I am in trouble because I don’t have a flush. There is no chance of me getting a flush in this hand. Not now, not ever. But he doesn’t. He calls. And the dealer lines our chips. I have three kings. There is $300 in the pot. I am down $200 for the day and maybe more. I do not have position, but position no longer matters, because I do not have any chips in front of me from which to take advantage. I cannot push, or be pushed, around.
When the fat man flips his cards, he’s got a one-card flush draw and an inside straight. There’s a 20 percent chance of him making it on fifth street, also known as the river. Andy Miller has so much grease in his hair I can see right through to his scalp. He is rooting for me, and I am rooting for him. We root for each other. We play poker at the same table every week. We are friends and that is what friends do. Last night we went dancing. We danced with the same woman. There were so many people there. The DJ was awful. The DJ was playing music through an iPod. He was the worst DJ I’ve ever danced to in my entire life.
The river flows my way. That is to say, the fat man’s card does not come. I went all in and got called and lived to tell about it.
“That was a bad bet on my part,” he says, and I nod my head, lining his chips in front of me. These are my defensive walls.
“That’s why they call it gambling,” I tell him, tossing two to the dealer. I should give her more, but I don’t.
“Sometimes you have to follow your gut,” the Russian says, bags beneath his eyes like slices of lime, a puckered face disintegrating into citrus hues.
We leave a little after that, taking the same way home though we keep saying we’re going to try something different. One day we’ll turn left instead of right, take the 280 instead of the 101. But maybe playing a new game is different enough. It’s still early, not even 5 o’clock. Later we’ll meet Ben and Wendy, and also my pen pal from Los Angeles will arrive at a restaurant near the Opera District. After that, I’ll end up at a poetry reading performed by 15-year-olds. A child will read a poem about his father. His father wants him to send a letter but the child tells the father he has come too late. Before and after the reading, I’ll drink Manhattans and we’ll all end up at a hotel bar, the hotel on Mason Street, the bar sterile, the ceilings terribly low. Before midnight, I will have done things that I will mildly regret but that’s what weekends are for, making mistakes and learning from them. I will eat a steak for dinner. I never worry about my weight. I was a fat child but I have grown up thin. I will remember trip kings beneath a moon obscured by the chaos of streetlights and cars and tourists in San Francisco’s downtown. I will eventually make my way home, because that is the only place left for me to go.
The Poker Report
February 21, 2005
“The Voice of Your American Child Since 2001”
On the day that Hunter Thompson dies I’m playing bocce in the park with Andrew Miller and the executive directors of several national political organizations. Political people are competitive by nature and they scream at each other and measure the distance between the balls with a yard of thin white tape. It rained earlier and the grass is wet, the air is clean, and the Twin Peaks stand clear as the sun sets in the distance. It’s an incredible view in a city as beautiful as any in the world. Andy Miller suggests we go to the poker hall. Tomorrow is a holiday.
We get a cab on Fillmore and tell the driver we are going to play cards. “You have to go to a casino,” he says, knowingly. “There’s a free bus that will take you to Sacramento and another heading to Reno.” We’re on Van Ness and the traffic is backed up in piles. The lights are on in the Honda dealership on the corner of Mission Street.
We leave the cab for Andy’s truck and continue south to Cesar Chaves and then the 101. Andrew’s been drinking but he tells me not to worry about it. “I play poker well when I’m drunk,” he says, swinging the truck into the center lane. On our left the bay is flat and silent beneath the hotels and the airport, and then we exit the highway, passing the quiet streets of Colma, and finally we arrive at the Lucky Chances card room, across from the cemetery.
We order fried rice and Budweisers at the poker table. We play $3/$6 Texas Hold’em. There’s a small blind and a big blind. The small blind is $1 and the big blind is $3. Whoever has the dealer button also has to pay $3, which the house keeps.
There are three college students at the table and another kid, a little younger than ourselves, wearing a sweat-hood with earphones. There’s an angry Chinese man, old and bitter; he threatens the dealer when he mucks his cards and turns away when it’s his turn to pay the blind. There’s a Filipino who wears an employee badge sitting in the first seat next to the dealer and a couple of other stone faces watching as the button makes its way around. The players’ personalities show in the card’s laminate. Players change tables. There’s a woman who folds unless she has the nuts but never raises. There’s a man with a mustache who plays every hand.
The largest college kid has a thin beard across his chin, his sweatshirt taut around his shoulders. His girlfriend wears a white Kangol hat and drapes her arm across his knee. He bets hard on low pairs even when face cards square on board and he makes a couple of hands and he says something cocky about chewing tobacco and nicotine patches. When he folds on fifth street he asks me if I had anything and I say no. I didn’t have anything. But it isn’t true. I made my hand. I was being spiteful and mean and later, when he looks wistfully into the felt and says, “The river is my only friend,” I remember that there’s nothing good to be said about meanness, that it’s better to like people when you can, that a kind word will take you farther than a city bus. I want to tell him that I made my flush, that he saved himself some money when he folded and should be proud of himself. But it’s too late to take it back.
The table is loose and my racks fill with chips. I hit two pairs with a king-queen in the hole. On the next hand, I make trips. I hold and check raise. I pull straights and four-card flushes on fifth street. I take a miraculous beat losing with aces and a full house to four eights. But it doesn’t matter. We sit and we play. “Buy me another beer,” Andy says, because I’m winning, and I buy us both a round, though as a rule I’m against drinking and gambling and against drinking and driving as well. The truth is we all do things we know we shouldn’t. It’s human nature. On my third beer, I start playing tight.
Andy jokes with everybody at the table. He tells them of the time he got belligerent at 7 in the morning and the casino wouldn’t serve him any more alcohol. He laughs about his last trip to Vegas, where he was stalked by a pair of Japanese card counters outside the Imperial Palace. Everybody loves Andrew’s stories and Andrew loves to tell them. He pulls a monster pot when his ace with a jack kicker turns into two pair against an ace-king.
Our final dealer is a thin woman with sharp cheeks, the top button of her shirt open, a small bump at her sternum. She has no eyebrows except what she has painted in thick marker above her eyelids. I find her terribly attractive. “Be nice to me,” I say and she smiles because a thousand and one gamblers have said exactly the same thing and they’ve always meant aces in the hole, jack-10 suited on the button, trips on the turn. I know what it’s like. Seven years ago I was a bartender on top of a mountain in a ski resort. I went snowboarding every day. Millionaires would sit at my bar, when the snow was dumping, and tell me they wished they had my job. I smiled at them the way the dealer smiles at me. They were liars who didn’t know any better. But I didn’t mind their company.
At the end of the night, I am up $300 and Andrew is down $60. We drive north past the airport into the city singing along to Soungarden: “Black hole sun, won’t you come, wash away the rain!” What a great band Soundgarden was. And what a fabulous time, the early ’90s. Things were really happening then.
Because my girlfriend and I broke up two months ago, I get to keep my money tonight. She used to take my winnings. It was like an expensive game we played. I didn’t complain. I knew every relationship has its price. I miss her sometimes, but less when I have $300 in my pocket. Andrew refuses to drop me at my home, so I go with him to pick up his friend Susan. The three of us dance in the car. It’s only midnight, tomorrow is a holiday.
We go to the Phone Booth, a smoking bar on 25th filled with aging grunge rockers filling out the final years of their unprofitable youth. We talk about the radio show we’re recording tomorrow. Andy’s been introducing himself to people as the executive producer, which isn’t technically correct. But is there really a title complex enough to fit a man like Andy Miller? I don’t drink anymore, I have a three-beer limit. I hang out and have fun. I like spending time with people. None of us in the bar know that Hunter Thompson is dead. That he killed himself with a shotgun in Aspen, Colorado. That writing Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail, the best American political book ever written, was not enough to save him. Writers, like myself, sometimes think that if we write and publish then we won’t have problems anymore. But it’s not true. Our ambition is just an outward expression of our internal insecurities. You have to work on yourself regardless. And nobody in the bar knows that the architects behind the Swift Boat Veterans For Draft Dodging are now turning their well-greased guns on the AARP and senior citizens in general. All the bar knows is the smoke and the pool table and the loud rock music, the final touches on a day well spent. My hair smells of cigarettes. I feel rich and wonderful.
I leave the smoke and the music for the gated bookstores of Valencia, the pizza parlors still alive, casting flashes of yellow fluorescence onto the street. The cleaner bars near Guerrero are empty. Only the underemployed are celebrating. It’s raining and I walk my neighborhood with my umbrella open, it’s hem ripped, spokes poking toward the gutter. In the morning, I will find out the news about Hunter Thompson, and then I’ll have a cup of coffee. The sky will be speckled with clouds. I’ll start the whole thing over again.
The Poker Report
February 12, 2005
“A Proud Member of the Elite Media
I went to a party last night, beneath the smoky hills lining the ocean south of San Francisco. There, on the green cliffs, sit the mansions built at the height of the dot-com. Fake wealth cashed in stocks turned to plaster and brick and a view you can leave to your children, a view of boats slowly puffing toward the bay, tankers, like skyscrapers laid on end, all the way from China.
Inland, the houses are more modest and that’s where I went. One-story bungalows, a tree in front of every window, homes to professors and marketing executives. Quiet, expectant streets pulsing with all the problems attendant upon the modern suburbs; unfaithful spouses, bad children, burdened and impoverished by the ever-rising costs of raising a family on the peninsula.
It was a party for Ron Carlson. He had come to Stanford to give a reading and was heading back to Arizona in the morning. Ron wrote stories of real people at war with themselves, lost in the wide tracks of land spread across America’s center. His characters were always lonely and often cashed in their last chance for less than it was worth. They found redemption in roadside motels, junior colleges, and deep sleeping bags over packed snow.
The party was filled with poets and storytellers and, eventually, after 6, upon Andrew Miller’s arrival, a thief. Adam Johnson was throwing the party. Ron had mentored Adam before Adam found his own success with Emporium. Adam and Tom McNeely had made a gumbo. Sponsored by the English department, they’d bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of fish and it swam in the oyster roux, a giant cast-iron pot in front of a white table in the long backyard.
There was some rain, which was fine. The rain grew stronger before it abated. I was in the kitchen with Ann and ZZ Packer, who aren’t related but who both know a thing or two about how to get by in this world. I was listening intently when out of the corner of my eye I saw Andy Miller beneath the yard light speaking with Ron and Tobias Wolff. I thought it was odd, in a house full of writers, that Andy Miller would be alone in the back with Ron and Toby in the rain. I thought, There are two men who have influenced the shape of American literature, and there is Andy Miller, whom I invited because he works nearby and owns a truck. I’ve always liked dishonest people, and without Andy Miller, my life wouldn’t be very interesting, but I’m also aware of the risks of bringing him into civilized society, particularly people I work with. Toby wore a leather jacket and a cap and was listening to Ron, who wore a waterproof jacket. Andy wore a cheap cotton coat, the kind that looks like wool but isn’t. His face was pinched and plotting. A mist rose from Andy’s curly hair.
Close to 8, Andy and I made to leave. “I thought we were going to play poker,” Ron said.
Ron was sitting in a chair in the living room by that time, having shed his waterproof coat. Toby had already left. Others were preparing to go. People were saying goodbye. It seemed like everybody was either pregnant or had children. I was drinking more than usual and wasn’t sure why. It could have been that there were tubs full of beer everywhere, or it might have been the roux, or the distinct quiet of respectful neighbors. Ron Carlson looked like a king in a throne. He has a full, healthy face, friendly and strong. He wore khakis and a red button-up shirt. I thought, I wouldn’t mind being where he is in 10 years or so.
“Watch out,” Todd said. Todd was sitting on the floor like a bearded Buddha with a plate full of cornbread in his lap. He had come all the way from Alabama. He’d written a fantastic novel called The Australia Stories and had another on the way. “If we play poker,” Todd said, “Steve will write a report and he’ll lie about you. He’ll tell everyone that you loved his book.”
“I’ve been lied about before,” Ron said.
I didn’t think it was a good idea. Adam and Stephanie had two small children and they’d be back soon. Also, there was a party in San Francisco, a bondage art show with human serving tables. I thought it would be interesting to go to that. I had a collar in my backpack I intended to wear. I put my bike in the back of Miller’s SUV and we drove down University.
“What’s wrong with you?” Andy said. There was a hint of desperation in his voice. He was gripping the steering wheel like a junky. “That was easy money back there.” He stared into the dark, wet street. “I need some money,” he said. “I’m in debt. Bad.”
We didn’t say anything for a minute, then I said, “Bondage and bonbons.” He turned to face me and almost smacked into a Volvo. He looked about to cry. I waited another minute. “OK,” I said.
We set up the white table in the garage. Adam had laid down a rug and turned the garage into his writing studio. We wiped down a half dozen folding chairs from the backyard. The rain had stopped. Todd and I bought two sets of chips at Walgreen’s and Andy bought a deck of cards at the 7-Eleven. The streets of Palo Alto were filled with pale neon and overpriced cafés. The children were home and people were wiping poop in the bedroom. It was going to be Miller, Ron, Adam, Todd, Otis, Zandie, and me. We would play Texas Hold’em until it was over. Adam put on Johnny Cash.
I explained how the game worked. I was the bank, so I would hold all the chips, and if anyone needed to break larger chips into smaller ones, they could purchase them from me. There would be a $10 buy-in, a dime ante, and a 50-cent maximum raise. We were going to play basic Hold’em. No big blind, no small blind. Three raise max unless it’s just two players, head to head. Two cards in the hole, three up for the flop, then the turn, finally the river, five across the middle. Best five-card hand wins. Ties split the pot.
My first cards were jack, five of diamonds. “I’ll bet a quarter,” Ron said. “That’s what I’m going to do every time.” Andy’s eyes grew wide with greed.
“I’m in for 50,” Todd said. I mucked.
“This is just a game of luck,” Otis said. Otis hadn’t had much of that.
On the first hand, Ron turned over two kings and swept Todd’s change into his own stack of reds and greens. Todd was playing threes and eights like aces and kings, betting 50 cents a hand, pushing it straight to the edge where his nuts met the stool, but Ron wouldn’t break.
Todd continued that way, betting every hand, riding inside straights like camels into the desert. He was playing like an optimist. He never had anything and occasionally took a big pot with a queen high. He was a man who couldn’t fold, and he bet heavy. In a longer game, the kind that goes on for a day or two, and includes stimulants and dancing girls, I would take Todd for everything. I would own his car, his house, and royalties on all future publications. But there wasn’t enough time for that. He was almost done with a new novel and I knew it was going to be good. I was going to have to leave the rights on the burner. But Todd would be moving into the area come summer, and I likened it to coming home one day to a chest of gold coins in your bedroom. Ron kept winning with his always-bet-a-quarter strategy. And Andy Miller, nervously tapping the table edge, never got the big hand he needed to rake the lawn against a group of players who wouldn’t fold. The table was as loose as sweatpants and there was nothing to do but wait for the big score. Every 15 minutes or so, someone pushed back and returned from the yard with bottles of beer. I felt strangely alive. At some point, turning over suited connecters, catching a second pair on the river, an empty Dixie Brew in front of his stacks, Ron said, “I wanted to tell you I loved Happy Baby.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“I wish I could write a book like that,” he said.
“You probably have,” I replied.
“I told you he’d lie about you,” Todd reminded him.
“What’s to lie about,” Ron responded. “I’m a fan of his work. I can’t help that.”
I was down $5 at the time and wondered how much a blurb from Ron Carlson was worth. Adam Johnson threw a dime into the pot. “I’m going to ante,” Adam said. “I don’t give a damn about the rest of you.” Adam couldn’t catch a hand with a mitt. Otis was shuffling, everyone had two down, and Otis made to flip the third card.
“Put the deck down,” I said.
“Put it down,” I told him. Then I said it again. He just stared at me, rattled. He was a gun lover and lived on a farm. He lowered the deck to the table and we placed our bets pre-flop.
“I was going to place them upside down,” Otis said. “Then turn them one at a time.”
“You’ve got enough for your report already,” Ron said. He was laughing and winning big and I couldn’t blame him for wanting people to know about it.
When no one was looking, Otis, still fuming over being told what to do, whispered in my ear: “You think you can take me?”
Oddly enough, at the end of the night, Otis was the big winner, up $16. His girlfriend, however, had lost everything. Adam also lost everything. He had two children, a wife, and a house. It was going to be a tight week for him. Ron eventually came down to even and Todd lost only $5, which had to be considered a victory. And on the second-to-last hand, I pulled ahead.
I had a jack/queen in the hole, unsuited. I was in the second position, following Todd. Todd raised a quarter and I made it 75 cents. Everybody folded except Ron and Todd. The flop ran ten, nine, seven. Todd bet, but I’d seen him bet on nothing all night and knew that anybody who folded into Todd was a fool. I met his quarter and Ron did the same. A queen came on fourth street and I raised Todd on that and on fifth street let it ride. Todd turned over an ace like it was a winner. “That beats my king,” Ron said. They weren’t even playing pairs. They were looking for high cards. Maybe the money didn’t mean enough to them or maybe it meant too much. I flipped my queen into the felt and swept what was mine.
It was almost 11 when Andy and I left. “It’s early still,” Andy said, as we arrived back in the city. “I’m going out.”
“With what?” I asked.
“There’s a lot of potential out there,” he replied. “Someone in this town wants to buy me a drink.”
I knew what he meant about potential. It was Friday night. Lots of things could still happen. The city would be awake for hours. I took my bike from the back of his truck and rode down the phosphorescent glow of Mission Street. I felt like an astronaut. Adam and McNeely had spent three days on that gumbo, shelling giant shrimp, melting mussels and clams into a giant brown brew of pepper and onion. South of the city, across from a park, there was still a 10-gallon pot of the stuff. Enough to feed a village. I peddled north toward 15th and the apartment I shared on Guererro. Great packs of smokers stood guard outside the bars. In the crowds, I saw a woman with ball bearings implanted in her forehead to resemble horns and a man in a white suit like solar panels, a cigarette in his mouth backwards and unlit. I crossed the dust pool where the housing projects had been destroyed and where new housing projects were being built. It hadn’t rained in the city. My wheels rode smoothly above the dry concrete. The streetlights provided the only border between the stars and myself.
The Poker Report
November 30, 2004
“Everything You Need To Know
About Running Away Since 2001”
Live From Palau
The water here, on this small island north of Australia, is just slightly cooler than the air, and it goes forever in fluffy wrinkles to a light-blue horizon. Looking east from Angor you can’t see anything but blue. There’s not even a reef like there is on the west side of the island. This is the last big island, eight miles in circumference, south of Koror. Eighty Palauns, a Catholic church, and the only reminders of the great air wars that took place here are the rusted engines popping from the surf, the shards of wings blown from flying machines flaming into the ocean, worn smooth on the rocks. But that was 60 years ago. Things have been pretty peaceful since then.
If you wanted to look farther than that, you could hike the northern rim, a five-mile walk. And you would find a German lighthouse, a Shinto shrine, a statue of the Virgin Mother, monuments to the Japanese dead, and the less impressive monument left by the Americans—a large, angular stone. You’d also traipse past the caves where the locals huddled for a month, hiding from the death pouring from the skies.
Death doesn’t pour from the skies anymore, not on this island. And last night nine of us sat in the house we built* on the cliff. During the day, we dove from the cliff.* The water is 20 or 30 feet there, depending on the tide, and the waves will turn you over once or twice, like a baby, before you get your bearings. The house is a post-and-beam, solid wood planks, holes hammered 16 inches into the limestone, sparks flying from your shovel, then filled with cement. An outhouse that looks into the cove, open on two sides, so you can contemplate the world while you poop. Also, a poker table.**
It would be easy to call this place paradise, easier still last night when I turned mediocre cards into a stunning victory. Palau is situated near the equator, just north of Australia. Kimiko was dealing and the game was Texas Hold’em, nothing fancy, ante up single chip, no big blinds, no small blinds, five chips max, bet three times, keep it simple.
Sarah was the big winner, and the house belongs to her and Alex. She made so much she leased her chips wholesale to her fiancé. When Sarah bet, it was because she had the cards, a five with two fives in the hole. Three aces, flush draw. She played tight/strong and close to the vest. Every time she bet I tossed to the muck. Darrin was a little more cautious, unsure of his open straights, unconcerned with pot odds. Justin stayed in every hand assuming he’d never have to pay his credit. But every bill comes due one day. And Josh Bearman, who used to play in a house game in the evil town of Hollywood, piled chips across his rows and into the drink holders, until I called his bluff.
Bearman bet first, five before the flop. I matched and raised and the other players quickly folded. I had ace-king in the hole, and when ace-king came on the flop, I raised again, but Josh came back over the top, and soon most of our money was on the felt. The waves were crashing and the moon was obscured by the clouds. There was talk of swimming in the darkness, a suicide mission. People die in that ocean. The sharks don’t even notice. I thought Josh was sitting on three of a kind. He was betting like Jim McManus on steroids, sharing his Cheshire-cat grin beneath the propane lamp, the lamp’s thick black cord twisting past his collarbone, the whole thing hanging from a strong wooden beam, just out of reach.
I bet back toward him. Earlier I had seen a shark, just a small one. We were 50 feet from the shore. The shark was maybe 2 feet long and had a face like a coffee mug. Josh had stayed closer to the coral, and the fish he saw was larger, and maybe that had something to do with his poker strategy, but in retrospect, I doubt it.
After fifth street, Josh turned his cards. A pair of fours in the hole, the equivalent of nothing. It wasn’t a bluff; it was a mistake, a misunderstanding, an optimistic faith on the inevitability of your dreams that fails to take into account the odds stacking generously against you. I took all of Josh’s money.
“Island justice,” I said.
“I thought a pair was a good hand,” he said.
“I thought John Kerry was going to win,” I replied.
A person doesn’t have to leave America when they’re dissatisfied with the results of their political process. You can get a 7UP anywhere these days. The world is a smaller place. Zephyr had brought a bottle of Glenlivet from the beach house and Justin had strung Budweisers from the rocks, the beers sloshing in the warm, shallow pool. I was drunk. The night was the darkest I’ve seen on the island, the sky comfortable with clouds.
I bicycled back to the guest house. The woods were pitch, itching with the sounds of crabs scattering sideways through the trail edge, red claws lifted defiantly. We had a feast a few days ago, and we ate those crabs, claws cracked open, layered in coconut milk. An island dish made for special occasions, like building a beautiful house on a cliff. It was a bad day to be a crab, but a great day otherwise. Sometimes the Palauans hunt the crabs, scouring the brush with flashlights, pinching the crustaceans into a sack.
I came to the clearing then, a 2-mile-long airstrip and a roofed shelter affectionately referred to as International Terminal B. The plane doesn’t land often here. Angor is a quiet place with a Catholic church, a Filipino road crew, rich with betel-nut and papaya trees. I thought to myself, I’m on an island. I saw a shark. I’m filled with love. I just creamed Josh Bearman at a handmade poker table 16 hours from his home on the West Coast.
The Poker Report
- I didn’t actually “build” this house. I took part in the last three days of a four-month effort, but who’s counting?
- I don’t dive from the cliff. Instead, I kind of crawl in through the cove. I’m not much of a swimmer, plus I’m a coward. I did dive from the cliff once and nearly drowned.
- It took Cabot 40 hours to make the intricately carved table. There are two rows per player and each row holds 50 chips. There are also two drink holders, which work equally well holding a deck of cards. The table is covered in a long sheet of green felt. I have no idea where he got the felt.
September 24, 2004
Wednesday was Erik Jensen’s last game of poker in San Francisco. He’s going to move in with his sweetheart in Portland, which is a city with a great bookstore, full of fog and drizzle, where people wear lots of flannel and stylish knit caps. He’ll live there, rich and in love, hiking on the weekends and carefully preparing his route to the top of Mount Hood. So Wednesday’s game was a farewell game for Jensen and the end of something powerful and important in San Francisco gaming history.
The truth is that we don’t play poker as often as we used to anyway. There’s talk of a resurgence after the election, presuming Kerry wins. And from our original game on 16th Street across from the chocolate factory and the hookers that dug through the garbage bins we’ve had to move to Andy Miller’s kitchen, a step down if such a thing is possible. In that apartment, I could always hear screaming from the transient hotel next door. The gangway was entirely enclosed between the two buildings and formed something of an echo chamber. It sounded like the people were actually in my apartment. The rooms in the hotel were small and dirty. There was a German woman that lived there for a while and she would yell at her boyfriend, letting him know what a worthless loser he was and how lucky he was to have her.
“Look at my body,” she would say. “Just look at me, you jerk.”
I saw her once, across the gangway from my kitchen. She was half naked and she had a black eye and her breasts were covered in bruises. Her skin was mottled and she looked exactly the way you expect a junkie to look.
There was another time that someone tried to jump from the transient hotel into my apartment. First he threw a radio through my window. Then he followed the radio, but didn’t make it. I lived on the third floor.
But this is not about where we started playing poker and under what circumstances, or the places I’ve lived, because I’ve lived a lot of places even though I’m only 32 years old. This is about Erik Jensen and his boyish good looks, his generous smile and olive complexion. It’s about what happens when a good man, a mountain climber who’s scaled peaks up and down the Pacific coast, falls in with a bad crowd and is saved by love. This is about his last game and what happened on Wednesday night on South Van Ness in Andy Miller’s kitchen between 7 and 10 o’clock at night.
And the first thing that happened was Andy Miller tried to cheat Erik Jensen out of a dollar. Erik gave Miller 10 dollars, which is the standard buy-in, and Miller said, “Hey, there’s only nine dollars here.” So Erik was going to give him another dollar.
It’s worth mentioning that Erik is one of the most decent guys you could ever meet. So honest people take him for a sucker sometimes, and not always incorrectly. But this time he decided to take his money back and recount it himself, because even Erik Jensen, who trusts everybody, knows better than to trust Andy Miller. We all remember how Andy Miller tricked Eli Horowitz out of his last six dollars in the whole world. It was an ignoble start to the evening, and Andrew was caught. But Andrew’s been caught plenty of times before, because of his haircut and his cheap clothes and the way he wears his shirts baggy and long in case he finds himself in a grocery store wanting to steal a melon, and his pinched, dishonest nose. But we were all aghast that he would try to rob Erik on his last game of poker in San Francisco. Erik who’s never done a bad thing to anyone.
“I’ve seen a lot of shit in my day,” Cooney said slowly, peering up from below his green cap, a fistful of cards at his chin. “I’ve been to two county fairs, a goat-roping contest, and I’ve never seen anything as crooked as what I just saw.”
Miller just shrugged his shoulders and pulled a jar of pickled okra out of the fridge. The jar had a large black “X” across the front of it. Andy had been buying overstock at the flea market again. He asked if anybody wanted some okra, but nobody did.
There were some new players, friends of Andy’s: Ravi, Craig, and Brodsky. And we started with Texas Hold’em, which is the original game we started playing back in 2001 after Ben and I read that article in Harper’s by Jim McManus which later became a very successful book. And the first showdown of the night was between Ben and Erik.
Both players had two cards down. Jensen was raising and Ben was raising back. It started with dimes but moved quickly to white chips and then blue, and the flop came two, jack, jack. Ben raised and Erik raised him back and the next card was a king and then another two on fifth street. Ben turned a jack/two and Erik tossed a jack/king into the felt and pulled a giant stack of white and blue chips into his holder.
“You sure you guys don’t want any okra?” Miller asked.
There were more matchups: Ravi and Craig went head to head and Craig took all of Ravi’s money. This was Ravi’s first game. He wore gym shoes and pants cut off just below the knees. Ravi complained a lot and then didn’t buy back in. But the most exciting hand of the night came while walking through the Peach Grove.
There’s a lot of debate still over whether or not Peach Grove is an actual game, and if it is, are we playing it correctly. Essentially we play Peach Grove like Omaha, four cards down for each player, and five cards up across the middle, shared. In Omaha you play two, and only two, of your down cards and three in the middle, but in Peach Grove you can play all four of your cards, or none. You need three of a kind or higher for a high and nothing higher than seven with no pairs in your low. Three suited connecters, a three-card straight flush, is known as a grove, and is entitled to a share of the pot, which could be a third, half, or the whole thing if there is no high or low. It’s the kind of game Chris Cooney likes to refer to as “a Mickey Mouse game.” Except that he was the one that introduced us to it.
On this particular hand, there were a lot of spades on the table and a lot of high cards. Jensen started betting early, raising everything. Always with the 50 cents maximum allowable. Craig stayed in. Ravi was done by this point, bankrupted, and Brodsky was showing Miller her cards wondering how far she should take it. She was nowhere near as docile and meek as a person might think from looking at her. She has a kind face and she’s a school teacher. But she’s also got a sharp, accusatory tongue and is not afraid to place blame when she has been led astray, and on fourth street she turned to Andy Miller and said, “You don’t know anything. All of your advice is bad.”
With all cards dealt, Brodsky folded and Craig, Cooney, Ben, and Jensen stayed in for the giant pot. Ben took the high with a full house, kings over aces, and Cooney took the low with a six, and Craig and Jensen faced off with the groves except Craig’s grove was black and started with a queen and finished with an ace. And Erik’s grove was red and started with a four and ended with a six.
“Aww man,” Jensen said, leaning back in his chair. For as long as he’s been playing he’s almost never won a game. But he’s got a good job and the stakes are low.
Wendy, Ben, and I left at 10 o’clock. I was going to see my girl, who was alone in her apartment watching a movie with a bowl of popcorn. I had won 10 dollars, and the deal I have with my girlfriend is that when I win money, I give it to her. Also, it was her birthday and I had bought her two pairs of shoes. I had drunk four beers, which is a lot for me, and I was feeling a little loopy. Wendy had to be up early for her long drive to Sunnyvale and Ben always follows Wendy. So we didn’t see what happened next. Apparently Brodsky threw her shoes and climbed on top of the table and started dancing, whipping her fists over each shoulder, kicking her right foot while slowly turning on her left heel, and Jensen drank so much he couldn’t stop laughing and his face was covered in snot. Cooney pedaled back to the Richmond District and checked in on his fantasy football team before kissing the map of Iowa and going to sleep. Later still, just hours before sunrise, Andrew went to Mission Street with the 10 dollars he had won, a scarf wrapped around his neck and lips and a thin breeze cutting down 19th Street. But it’s all hearsay, because after 10 o’clock, I was gone.
The Poker Report
August 19, 2004
“Pickled Eggs and Flea Market Nuts Since 2001”
Guest Writer: Tom Kealey
The Suckered Welcome
This was only my third outing at poker night, and my past experiences have made me expect the following: I’m going to lose 15 bucks or so, I’m not going to know what the hell’s going on for about a third of the hands, and I’ll win two or three tosses and I’ll have to take some solace in that. The players tonight were host Andy Miller, regulars Ben Peterson and Eric Jensen, me, newcomer David Roderick, and of course the maestro himself Steve Elliott.
When you go to Andy’s house you know you’re going to listen to some great music, he’ll serve you some weird snacks, and though he’ll say there’s no smoking, he’ll eventually be lighting a cigarette off one of the burners on the stove. All these things came to pass. The music was Sun Kil Moon, the Archers of Loaf, the Decemberists, and a lot of other great bands. The snacks were mixed nuts that he’d bought at a flea market. We were like, “You mean the farmer’s market, right?” He was like, “Do I stutter? I said the flea market. You don’t like them, pass them over here.” There were also pickled green beans and okra. He told a story about the first pickled egg he’d ever eaten, which was given to him by the hot mom of some friend of his when he was 10 who also owned a party pony. A party pony is the pony that gets rented out for birthday parties. I’d never heard pickled eggs described in such erotic fashion before, but then that’s the kind of thing you show up for poker night to hear about.
David, a.k.a. Doc Roderick, started off strong, taking a few Texas Hold ‘Em hands. He went up about $5. Steve has mentioned in previous reports that Ben hasn’t won all year. It’s my opinion that this is the usual fabrication you find in Steve’s poker reports, and I’d like to state for the record that you’ll get nothing but the honest truth here. Ben held his own for the first hour, then went deep in the hole. How did he end his night? Read on. You know Ben Peterson. You love him, you need him, you’re rooting for him. This report could also be titled “Peterson’s Revenge.”
Andy has this cat. It’s one of those chill cats that likes hanging out with people and who’ll steal your chair if you get up to get a beer, and who’ll negotiate a half-space on the chair when you return. Early in the night, this cat proved to be a charm. Three or four hands in a row, if the cat was in your chair or in your lap, you took the hand. I was down eight bucks early, but won two hands in a row, mostly thanks to the cat. He moved on to Jensen for a while, and so did the winnings. Then, the cat moved on to Steve, and during a game of Scrotum, Steve had a straight, king-high, and the cat in his lap, and he still folded. What a dummy. Doc Roderick scooped up those winnings, and he was up almost 10 bucks for the night. After that, someone left the door open, and we didn’t see the cat again till the end of the evening.
Elliott was going to make it a short evening at the poker table. He was meeting some woman who’d e-mailed him about his book Happy Baby. “You are so hot. Here’s a photograph of me. I’m hot too” was the gist of the e-mail. They were going out to some dance club, and Elliott had to get home and change from his jeans and wife-beater to leather pants and a collared shirt.
“A dog collar?” said Jensen.
“Don’t count it out,” said Elliott.
I’d guess from the remainder of Elliott’s chips that he was down six bucks after cashing in. He and I took a break out back, by the pingpong table, before his exit for the night to dance clubs and hot women. He’s got the all-star lineup for his Operation Ohio campaign, which, in a nutshell, brings writers to college campuses in Ohio to sign them up to vote. If they vote for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, that would be appreciated. I’m not saying it’d be appreciated by Steve Elliott, because he’s a nonpartisan of course, but it would certainly be appreciate by me. As Tobias Wolff said the other night at the MoveOn.org reading (which Steve also organized): “I look forward to no longer seeing G.W.’s smug, smirking, arrogant face on my TV set for the next four years.”
My warm feelings of fellowship and good company ended during the next few hands. Steve was out the door to his Wednesday night adventure. I get two straights in a row, and I push as many chips in as I can. I’m queen-high both times, and both times Andy Miller is straight, king-high. He takes all my money, and I’ve got to buy in for another 10 bucks.
“I’ll remember this, Andy Miller,” I say.
“I’m sure you will,” he says. “This should go in the poker report.”
Well, here it is. Jerko.
People keep calling for games that I can’t even remember the names of. Games where you’ve got to deal with seven to nine cards, but you can only use two of the ones down and two of the ones up and one, or two, or all of the cards in the middle of the table. I ante up, knock until someone raises, then fold. The one time I stayed in, Ben and I stayed in for a big pot. At the end of it, I say: “I don’t know what I have. What do I have here?”
Ben leans forward and checks out my cards. He moves them around on the table. He looks hard for something that’ll help me out, though what’s helpful to me is hurtful to him.
“I guess you’ve got nothing, Kealey,” he eventually says, while still looking for something on my behalf. “I can’t see anything here, though maybe I’m missing something. Is there something here?” he says. He says this to Andy.
Andy also looks for a long time at my cards. These are good guys. They’ll rub it in when it’s called for, but they won’t kick you when you’re down. “I guess it’s nothing,” he says. “But it was almost something.”
“You almost had something really good,” says Ben, and he and Andy talk for a little while about the jack that I might’ve had but didn’t that might’ve made all the difference.
Ben’s cell phone rings. He picks it up. Ben gets a lot of flack about his cell phone. He picks it up in case it’s his girlfriend, Wendy, calling. “Is that Wendy?” people say. People say this, giving him a hard time. It’s funny. I laugh when people say this. But I never say this. If my girlfriend were Wendy, I’d pick it up every time too, and I wouldn’t care what people thought. But that’s just me. And that’s just Wendy, and that’s just Ben. It’s not Wendy, and Ben says he’ll call this person back. We’re playing poker here.
But Jensen notices that Ben’s phone is purple. I mean, it’s purple. There’s no other way to describe it. Ben says: “You know that color the sky gets, right before it storms? It’s like, storm blue. It’s not purple. It’s storm blue.”
Jensen says, “Your phone is purple.”
“It’s blue,” says Ben.
“Tom?” says Jensen.
I look at the phone. I’m from North Carolina. I know storms. I know tornadoes. I know hurricanes. The phone is purple. It’s The-Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Prince purple. I want to help Ben out here, but I side with Jensen.
“That’s a purple phone,” I say.
“It’s like your shirt,” says Jensen.
“My shirt?” I say.
“Yeah,” says Jensen. “Your purple shirt.”
My shirt is definitely blue. I don’t buy purple shirts. I don’t have anything against purple shirts, but that’s not the kind of shirt I would buy. Jensen is a cool guy. He’s leaving in a month to go live with his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon. I wish him the best, but after the purple comment, and the insinuation involved in it, I hope it rains a lot there.
“Your shirt is purple,” says Ben.
“I’ve got a whole closet full of shirts,” I say. “You’ve only got one cell phone.”
Back to the poker game, Jensen is up $3, and Andy Miller is about the same. Doc Roderick is playing smart, playing cool, just like he did two hours before when he smoked Steve Elliott at pingpong. He’s up almost $10. Who’s in the red? Me and Ben. Big time. Dick Cheney big time.
We play a few more hands. Nothing much changes. I go in the hole a little deeper. Then a lot deeper. When I’m empty with chips, Jensen spots me.
“I’ve got total confidence in you,” says Jensen.
“That makes one of us,” I say.
“Actually,” he says. “That makes zero of us.”
I lose that one and have to buy in again. Just $5 this time. I lose $4 of that. I’m in my last hand. I go all in. I’ve got three kings. When I lay them down, I think about making a stupid joke about “we three kings of orient are, etc.” I figure it’s been done before, and not saying it is one of my few smart decisions of the night. I win. And then I win the next hand. “Comeback Kid,” says Ben. I lose, then win. I’m three out of the last four. Things are looking up. Though I’m still about $19 in the hole.
Jensen cashes out. He’s won $3. Could be worse, could be better. He’s riding his bike home. He puts on his gloves, his jacket, his bike shoes, his helmet. He looks like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Someone not to be trifled with.
“When are you leaving for Oregon?” says Andy Miller.
“A month,” says Jensen. “A little less than a month.”
“We’ll make it two a week,” says Andy.
“Sounds good,” says Jensen.
I get the feeling that Jensen, in three or four years of playing poker night, has about broken even. He’s probably up by $17 after all that time. He’s had his kick-ass nights, he’s had the nights that kicked his ass, and he knows the difference between the two. He’d arrived the latest of all the players tonight, and when he’d sat at the table, no one had asked if he was in or if he was good for the first $10. He bikes off into the San Francisco fog now, and my guess is that we haven’t yet heard the last of Eric Jensen in the poker report.
Four of us left now. Ben, Andy, Doc Roderick, and me. I’m getting my ass kicked, but I win another hand. If I had to speculate, Andy is doing terrific tonight. He’s up $7, and Ben is down five. Doc Roderick has slipped some, but is still up eight, and I’m about $16 short.
“Last hand,” I say. “I’m done for the night.”
“All right,” people say.
We play it. One of those games that I don’t understand. Andy takes it. He’s having a good night. I lost a lot on that last one, hoping that three sevens would take me somewhere. I obviously should’ve known better, and now it’s time to head home.
“One more game of Scrotum,” says Doc Roderick. Doc Rod is my ride home, and I’m not going to contradict him. Besides, this is a game I understand, and I might make up another $5 before we head home.
We deal it. Two players stay in. Me and someone else. I don’t remember who. I lose it, which means I’ve got to match the pot for the next deal. Scrotum is one of those games where it doesn’t end until there’s one person left standing. You get four cards, and there’s one card in the center of the table. Every person gets to use that card, and that card is wild.
I throw in my few bucks. It’s not much, but I still have to cash in for a those bucks because I don’t have the chips. We deal again. Doc Roderick is dealing. We take our cards, and I’ve got nothing. When it’s time to decide, I drop my cards, but the other three players stay in.
Ben takes it. He’s about $10 from breaking even. A nice bonus for the night. He’s had a bad evening overall.
All right, here’s the deal with Scrotum: you get four cards. A fifth, that everyone can use, and is wild, is in the center. People hold their cards over the table. Dealer says, “One-two-three-drop.” If you don’t drop, and if you don’t have the best cards of the people remaining, then you have to match the pot. This is fine when the pot is 50 cents. It’s a little more stressful when the pot is two dollars. It’s very stressful when it’s four or eight dollars. If you don’t win, then you have to match what was put in the pot.
I hang in there. I win one. With a straight. No one’s going to beat a straight. But Andy Miller hangs in there with me, which means the deal is not over. I don’t win much that deal, since Doc and Ben had folded.
We drop again. I stay in. These guys don’t have guts, I think. And they don’t. But they do have cards. Andy takes $4, Ben takes eight. Because I’ve stayed in, I have to match the pots. I’d made a comeback, but now I’ve made some arrogant mistakes. My three sevens, which earlier would’ve looked great, have somehow betrayed me.
Ben takes it again. Then Andy takes it, and we’re done. I think I’m $35 in the hole, but when all is said and done, I’m only $28 in the hole. Not bad? Are you kidding me? That’s terrible. I’ve gotten my ass kicked. When Ben says, “Kealey, how about one more?,” I’m like, “Hell yes.”
I deal. I choose Scrotum. You can win the most money at this game. We start at a dollar ante. I had those three sevens on the second deal, and I should’ve stayed with them, but I drop my cards, just as everyone else does. Redeal. Doc Roderick is still up $8. That guy is steady. You can count on Doc Roderick. Andy’s got loads of chips. I’m far in the hole, and Ben has climbed out but is still a few dollars in the hole. We deal.
Everyone drops. If I’d held my three sevens, I’d be done for the night about $16 in the hole and with a nice ending that could be written up in the poker report.
But I’m chicken, and I drop, like everyone else. We throw in an ante. The pot builds. This hand, that hand, $4, $8, $16. Ben takes with a flush. Andy had a flush. A card lower than what Ben had. You don’t drop a flush in this situation, but Andy still lost. Doc Roderick had a straight. You don’t drop a straight in this situation, but he still lost. I had three of a kind. You don’t drop that in this situation. I think. I’ve been wrong before. Three of a kind does not normally come in fourth in this situation. But guess what? I’m $25 in the hole, and I need to ante up another 10 for this hand.
I take my cards. Last cards of the night. I look up. The cat has returned. He’s sitting on the windowsill outside. No one else sees him. He’s looking in at me. No joke. He’s right there. I check out my cards. Lucky cat. I have nothing. We drop. Everyone drops but Ben. Ben takes the pot. Going into the last two hands, Ben was $15 down. Now he’s $15 up. Thirty-dollar swing in 10 minutes. Who deserves it more than Ben Peterson? No one, of course. Steve Elliott says that Ben hasn’t won all year. He won big tonight.
“That’s ‘cause I wasn’t there,” is what Elliott would say.
“You made your choice, Mr. Leather Pants,” is what I would say.
No way, did I lose $35 tonight? Afraid so, moron. Andy’s up a few bucks, and Doc Roderick, who has played smarter than anyone else in the evening, ends up broken even because of the last two hands. It’s what “Hey, how about one more hand?” plus “four beers” often equals.
If I had to choose one person to take all my money, then I would choose Ben Peterson. That doesn’t help the burn though. Andy Miller promises to meet me at my house on Sunday for euchre, which is a card game that involves no money. It’s just reputation, and though I had none, or next-to-none, before arriving tonight for poker, I still can’t help but feel the sting. The poker table is two years old now, a present Ben and Co. bought for Steve on his 30th birthday. There’s a felt etching on the table, now faded, from past poker reports. You can barely make out what it says.
“Steve’s House of Poker,” it reads. “Suckers Welcome.”
Because he’s a good host, Andy Miller walks us out to the front porch. “That was fun,” he says. He asks for a light for his cigarette because he can’t drag the stove out with him.
“I don’t think anyone’s lost more than I did tonight,” I say.
“Sure they have,” he says.
“Who?” I say. “When?”
He takes a drag off his cigarette. Andy’s a nice person.
“I’m going to think on that,” he says. “That is definitely worth my time to think on.”
The Poker Report
Read a section of Tom Kealey’s unfinished novel in the San Francisco Chronicle.
August 13, 2004
“Yawning Through the Precipice Since 2001”
In the early evening in San Francisco, the streets are splashed with colors: neon reds and flat, violet paint jobs on the cold cement stairways. The sky is half dark and bruised; the clouds catch on the hills like cotton.
It’s easy to love this city, with its spectacular views and its bright palette of pastel row houses twisting through the headlands and veering into the cliffs beyond Ocean Beach. But below Pacific Heights and the office buildings scratching the sky above Market Street and the shuttered windows with their dark secrets past the gates in Seacliff, there’s an underworld vandalized by the fantasies of restless travelers long since stuck in this town, given up on ever going home, ravaged by freedom and lust, their promiscuous desires gyrating against the unspoken promise of city hall, protected only by the prophylactic of things learned in the past and long since forgotten. And it’s among these places, the shooting galleries and halfway houses and basement bondage clubs, that Andy Miller lives in a home full of mice, along the dirty entryways of South Van Ness, just down the road from 17th Street Chicken and Gas. That’s where we meet to play our games.
Andy’s still got my table, with its plastic rim and wooden base, but the table is deteriorating since I left town, bundling all my stuff into the back of Andy’s truck, then running off to follow the presidential campaign trail. The table is breaking apart, splitting near its legs, the hinges bending in awkward directions. The table, getting old, like the rest of us.
And because Andy still has my poker table, “Steve’s House o’ Poker” still lightly stenciled across the green felt, and because he also has my shoebox filled with thick clay chips, and because he has a kitchen, and permissive roommates, this is where we meet for our game, the game we used to play weekly, then monthly, and more recently six times a year.
Ben and I show up first with a six of tall boys. Then Abby and Eric, the Marvelous Martins, then Marika, who is new and doesn’t know how to play poker, nor will she by the time she’s done. Then Eli, all angles and elbows poking from his young body. Then Jensen, who recently climbed Mount Rainier, and Poindexter, who brings a bottle of good whiskey and a bag of potato chips because he has more money than the rest of us. It’s a good crowd and a good crowd makes for a good game, which is one of the few things ever proven true.
We start with Peach Grove, three-of-a-kind or better for high, seven up on the low, and three suited connectors for a share of the pot. Eli wins big, taking the high and the grove and stetching his arms forward to engulf the pot. I tell Eli I had folded the winning hand.
“What do you want,” he snarls, chin tucked to the nape of his neck, nose facing the table, eyes staring across his forehead, “a medal?”
This is a new Eli, and I shouldn’t be surprised. Since I’ve been gone, Ben and Wendy have bought a house, and Jon and Alice have had a baby. Jon now e-mails naked pictures of his wife and child to a small group of friends, which is something he never used to do. Donahue and Foxy are getting married, as are Julie and Jeremiah, and both couples are leaving the city. And Eli is a man now, a successful and powerful editor, and not the Eli I left behind, who was just a kid out of college, an up-and-comer, trying to make his way in a society he was just beginning to understand. This was not the shy kid with the curly black hair and skinny arms who always had something nice to say to people, even if they didn’t deserve it. This was a competitive Eli, a year older, his smile bright and violent, his gums red like blood.
“What?” he asks again, and I look away.
Then we play Omaha and Texas and Scrotum and Six-Card High-Low. There are nine of us total and we haven’t all been in the same place for a long time and it seems like we still like each other and we all agree without saying anything that Eli is a man now and we will treat him as such. Later, in the weeds with two to play, Eli takes the high and the low with spades and kings across the middle as Poindexter mixes water with his whiskey, stretching his drink. Miller’s slow cat scales Eli’s leg and arrives on Eli’s lap, his tired, evil nose and ears poking just above the cup holder.
“What do you do to that cat?” Marika asks. The cat is listless, as if drugged, and Eric Martin lifts the cat and shakes him, then puts the cat back down. Andy claims it isn’t his cat. The cat, he says, belongs to his roommate, and he is therefore not responsible for its condition.
But it is a bad night for Andrew, who loses against trips, straights, full houses, and everything in between. He rubs his eyes with his fists and demands to see the cards during a game of Six-Card when everybody has folded except the winners.
“It’s my house,” he cries, and everybody laughs and shares Poindexter’s potato chips or opens a beer or says something funny. We’re having a good time.
Eli leaves first, to meet his girlfriend, but refuses to tell us where, or what her name is. And after Eli leaves, Eric and I split a terrific pot with Poindexter bluffing on a pair of fours straight through to the bitter end.
“How did you know?” he asks, coming over the top on my 50-cent blue chip before turning his doubleton four on its face.
“I didn’t,” I say, though in a way I did. “All you can do is take snapshots. There is no bigger picture.” And when he scratches his head, I continue, “People act like they have a view of the world, a basic understanding of things. But it doesn’t exist. History is nothing more than a set of pixels brushed together to create a picture of a man and his wife having a picnic. Nobody knows anything. Anyway, you were going up, starting low and building toward a seven—that’s how I figured I had you beat.”
After that, Ben decides to go, and Jensen also leaves, $10 down. Ben has clawed his way back from the brink and is leaving in the money for the first time in almost a year. Abby is the big winner, still pretty, her cheeks still creased into dimples after all this time. Abby smiles when she wins. When Abby wins she always has fun. And in the last hand of the night, with $20 in the center and only two beers left in the fridge, Marika folds four nines into the current, and Poindexter sweeps the final bills from the table. The cat saunters knowingly into the damp backroom, and Andy Miller turns to the stove, touches the gas knob, then thinks better of it. We all hug. And as Andy and Marika prepare to go to the bars on Valencia and squeeze the last drops of opportunity from a city that had not yet gone to bed, the rest of us kiss cheeks and hug like men, before setting out to face what is surely not yet upon us.
The Poker Report
May 20, 2004
“Begging without Asking for Things Since 2001”
The Three-Year Anniversary of “The Poker Report”
Sometimes you have to lose to win. That’s what the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said a week or so ago in reference to Iraq. Though he didn’t use those exact words. What he meant was that for the Iraqis to win, the Americans would have to lose. It didn’t strike me as a great argument, but I’ve been writing a book about American politics and I no longer look at truth the same way.
At any rate, David Brooks has never met Andy Miller. We set up at Andy’s house last night for what would probably be our only home game this month. I’m on the road a lot this year, traveling with the Kerrys and Bushes of the world. Andy’s been holding on to my poker table, a birthday present from years ago. The felt is wearing away and the wood is splintered around the legs. The stenciling—"Steve’s House O’ Poker, Suckers Welcome"—is faded like an old tattoo.
This month is the three-year anniversary of “The Poker Report.” The first one was generated on May 2, 2001, and yesterday was an all-star game, composed mostly of the best and the brightest, the people and the players that have been in from back since the beginning.
Almost everyone was on time except for Jamie Berger, who showed up late with a bottle of whiskey, drank three fingers, and split. Otherwise, there was Jensen, Whiz Burger in hand, preparing for his assault on Mount Shasta this coming weekend; Long Tall Cooney, in his red-checkered shirt and rosy, innocent cheeks; Ben Peterson, who is sporting a handlebar mustache these days; Andy, who has taken the New York Times columnist to heart and wins through losing; myself; and my publisher David Poindexter, the most popular person in the room.
Noticeably absent were Abigail Martin, Chris Donahue, and Jon Berry—three of the founding members of poker night from back when we played on Folsom Street with a view of the chocolate factory and the junkies banging through the trash bins. Abby was doing something else and said she’d be late, then told Ben she wouldn’t show at all. Chris Donahue has moved to the East Bay with Christine Fox and it’s hard to blame him. Jon Berry stopped playing poker a long time ago.
The games of the night were Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Iowa Peach Grove, and San Francisco Peach Grove. In Iowa Peach Grove, you get four cards down and then four across the middle turned one at a time for a total of eight cards. There’s a high and a low, and the high, low, and grove split the pot. A peach grove is three suited connectors, and the higher peach grove beats the lower peach grove. You need seven or lower to claim the low and three of a kind minimum to compete for the high. In San Francisco Peach Grove, you get five across, just like in Omaha, and you turn them like Hold’em, starting with a three-card flop. In San Francisco Peach Grove, the highest grove is called a “handjob.” Queen-king-ace is the best handjob.
“We went to the casino on Saturday,” Andy told everybody. “And I lost the tournament. But because I was out early, I got to sit at the $3/$6 table. And I won back all my money plus some. Steve went further in the tournament but he didn’t finish in the money. So you see, I won by losing and he lost by winning.” Andy’s been winning by losing all his life.
A lot of the conversation revolved around a game of bridge we played over the weekend. Suds and I beat Cooney and Ben three thousand to three hundred. Nobody was more surprised by this than Suds and I, who both recognize Cooney and Ben as the more experienced players. I ran into Jay at the café and mentioned the score to him.
“Don’t Cooney and Ben read books on bridge and play as partners all the time?”
When I mentioned to the table what Jay had said, Cooney responded sharply, “Jay don’t know ‘come here’ from ‘sick ’em’ about bridge.”
Peach Grove is a hard game to play. Especially since none of us know how to play it. There were some monster pots, and Erik Jensen came back from the brink to cash out even at ten dollars. Ben started big, with a full house on an Omaha with no low, his queen waiting quietly in the pocket next to his seven with two queens and a seven across the center. I came in second on that hand with a pair of sevens in the hole. And for a little bit it looked like Ben was going to win big. There was some complaining that “The Poker Report” has not been accurate in recent months.
“Everybody hates the media,” I responded. The problem is nobody wants me to take notes at the table, so I have to reconstruct things later. I always try to be fair.
Anyway, around the time we moved from Omaha to Iowa, and then back to San Francisco, somebody mentioned Wendy, and Ben started losing. This is a phenomenon that goes back a couple of years. If one were to research the early reports, they would see that Ben was a big winner and was considered the strongest player at the table, a player who was at his best in the clutch, the Kobe Bryant of home poker. Then he started dating Wendy, which was a good thing for all of us. In 2002 (or was it 2003?) Wendy would show up for poker nights with homemade cookies. Everybody was happy when Ben and Wendy got together, because everybody likes Wendy and they both seemed happy. But the side effect was that Ben started losing, and he’s been losing consistently ever since. It’s as if Wendy were some kind of magical pill that made everything better for Ben, with one small side effect. So last night, after Wendy was mentioned, Ben, who, as I said, is currently sporting a black handlebar mustache, watched the two stacks of chips in front of him turn from pink to black to blue and finally to white, like skeleton fingers.
David Poindexter and I went head-to-head on a low hand at two dollars a pop. As the cards turned, it dawned that he could be beat only by an ace-three, which I happened to have. Ben stayed in for the high on the low straight with the three-five, but I also had a three-five, so we split that as well.
The big winner was Andy Miller. He cleaned up to the tune of thirty dollars. David Poindexter lost the most but probably cared the least. He’s a little older than the rest of us, though perhaps younger in spirit. He lost more than thirty dollars, a brutal night when one considers there were only six players with a ten-dollar buy-in and a dime ante. He also sprang for the beer and potato chips, as well as an ice-cream bar for Jensen, putting him down another nineteen bucks in party favors. On the other hand, if he had drunk martinis in a fancy downtown bar, he might have lost fifty dollars anyway, and the company wouldn’t have been as good, and the people he met wouldn’t have liked him as much as we do. And the truth about Andy Miller’s house is that playing poker at Andy’s is slumming for anybody, even Andy. David had with him an eight-hundred-page galley from England, a book he hopes to buy. But during the game, we didn’t talk too much about books and agents and writing. David and I were the only ones in that industry, and when I mentioned earlier in the evening that my agent had sold Italian rights to Happy Baby, Ben reminded me of a time, probably a year ago, when I said that I didn’t like it when writers sat around talking about agents. Then he laughed. Which is why having old friends is not necessarily a good thing. They’re always ready to catch you in your contradictions.
A lot has changed in the three years “The Poker Report” has been running as the major news source for poker players the world over. Ben and Wendy now live together in a building they bought with Jon and Alice just outside the neighborhood. Alice is pregnant and Jon is about to be a father. Donahue and Fox are getting married and Fox is a doctor now. Jensen is looking north to Portland. Andy still lives in squalor and hangs out with junkies. I left the palace on Folsom and was homeless for four months and recently rented a small room on Guerrero. When I started writing these, I didn’t have a girlfriend or health insurance. Then I had a girlfriend and health insurance. Now I don’t have a girlfriend or health insurance again. Cooney has left the world of high tech for a job in construction and shares an apartment with Molly in the Richmond. And next week, on Wendy’s birthday, Chris Cooney will shave his beard for the first time in eight years.
We didn’t know when we started this that our little poker circle would in many ways prove pivotal in defining our generation, and maybe it hasn’t. Nonetheless, despite a handful of defections, no one can say that we haven’t kept it together in the long term and perhaps created something greater than the sum of its parts.
The Poker Report
Read the early, pre-McSweeney’s poker reports at www.stephenelliott.com/pokerreport.html
May 16, 2004
“Sacking Troy Since 2001”
It takes Andy Miller fifteen minutes to wake up and let me in. I used to have the keys to his place, but he took them back after accusing me of stealing three slices of white bread. When I had the keys, I would just come in and knock on his door, and if that didn’t work, I would open his door and go inside and stick something in his ear. But I don’t have the keys anymore, so I can’t do that.
“I should have quit drinking years ago,” Andy says, kicking over a bottle of beer on the kitchen floor and digging in the ashtray for his sunglasses. “Save myself some money. I spent sixty dollars last night.”
We drive south in Andy’s truck. Soft clouds hanging over the hills. I didn’t drink last night and I feel good. I haven’t played in a poker tournament in months. I’ve been hanging out with George Bush. They wouldn’t let me on the press bus, so I traveled parallel to the presidential caravan, along lower Michigan between Niles and suburban Detroit. I’ve seen George Bush in small rooms, in high-school gymnasiums, where he said, “I told those people they have the best seats,” referring to the local Republicans with a view of his ass. I saw George Bush tell a crowd of seven thousand in a baseball stadium in La Crosse, Wisconsin, two days after pictures of horrific abuses by American soldiers began appearing in media outlets throughout the world, “Because our coalition acted, Saddam’s torture chambers are closed.” Don’t ask me why I spend so much time with the president of the United States; it’s what I do.
“Maybe I should get Botox,” Andy says, fingering the wrinkles along his forehead and pulling off the highway onto Oyster Point. They’ve raised the price at the Lucky Chances Casino: fifty dollars plus fifteen to enter the tournament. The fifty goes into the pool; the fifteen goes to the house. “That’s outrageous,” Andy says. “That’s a third.” There are 108 players milling around for the Saturday-morning tourney. They give you $1,500 in fake chips to start. The betting is progressive, starting at $25/$50 and ratcheting up every fifteen minutes you’re able to hold your seat.
I haven’t played in a while, but I’ve played in enough tournaments to know I’m due. I have a tendency to play loose, and that’s not the way to do it, at least not early on, and certainly not toward the end. Sit tight, and wait for the pocket aces or jack-ten suited. When you don’t make your nut, muck it in the felt. Bluffing is for suckers, but you should do it once in a while as a warning. Before the bell rings, I order a Lucky Chances breakfast: pancakes and bacon. Andy has corned beef hash and a hot chocolate. Sweaty and green, Andy wears the same yellow shirt he wore to the bar last night.
“I play better when I’m hung over,” Andy says, but it turns out not to be true.
This is what you’re supposed to do on Saturday morning, when you live in San Francisco: find someone to play poker with, head to a tournament, never waste another sunny day. I play tight from the opening bell. At the break, I’m sitting on $2,900, almost twice what I started with but a third less than I once had. My big hand was a pair of aces, oddly enough, but my really big had was a queen/nine of diamonds that turned into a nut straight, though a full house was possible on fifth street. But not likely.
“I’m a winner,” I tell Andy during the break. The game is $200/$400 and he’s about to be blinded out.
“I used to win these things. Anybody can win sometimes,” he says. “I’ve been on a losing streak. I need some money.”
Across the street is a cemetery, rows of tombstones to the horizon. Colma is a dead city: there are more dead people, buried in the hills, than living. I wouldn’t want to live here. I was in Seattle the other day, and in New York the day before that. I’ve been in eight states in the last month, and I’ve been away from home a lot this past year as I write my book about the American political process. When I was in Seattle, I looked up the phone number of a girl I used to live with. She’s in Kentucky now, with her husband. And for a moment, I want to hug Andy, because I’ve been gone so much. But he’s smoking, and he’d probably light my shirt on fire. And poker is nothing if not patience and restraint.
Back at the table, there are only thirty-five players left and the bets are $400/$800. Everybody’s tight now, and if you bet out of position, someone always comes back on top of you. Small mistakes, like trying to play a seven-ten suited, can cost eight hundred dollars before the flop when the small blind decides to make you pay. By the time I realize I’m too far in, it’s too late.
I raise on the last hand I play with a jack-queen unsuited. Everybody at the table has their eyes covered. A blond-haired college kid sits across from me listening to a Walkman and wearing a tennis visor. I raise when the queen comes, and the big blind raises back on an ace on fourth street, three clubs on the board. I’m a card away from a flush and, with three hundred dollars left, I have no choice but to go all in. Except he’s wearing orange sunglasses, and he already has a flush with the king of clubs. My sunglasses hang from my collar, my highest club is a jack, and I stand up but nobody says goodbye.
Andy sits at the $3/$6 in front of a pyramid of white chips. “I made back my entrance fee,” he says. “The people at this table are soft. It’s all the early losers from the tournament. Easy money.”
“You were an early loser in the tournament,” I remind him.
It’s afternoon by the time we leave and the sun is out in full and Brad Pitt is stalking his love in a dark theater called Troy. “We could go see a movie,” Andy says. “Or we could get some exercise.”
Poker, a movie, a drive along the South San Francisco bay while listening to the Cure on a sunny day. You say, What is the meaning of life? I say, It’s good to be home.
The Poker Report
April 7, 2004
“Accurately Defining Friendship Since 2001”
Well, it was our second game of the year but the first one didn’t really count. I’ve been away documenting the lies of George Bush, which are many, and the flip-flops of John Kerry, which are also many but nowhere near as damaging and mean-spirited. But last night, finally, everyone showed up, and we played a serious game of poker, friends versus friends in the heart of San Francisco’s most vibrant neighborhood, two blocks away from 17th Street Gas and Fried Chicken. And maybe it counted too much. People have gotten married since the last time we had this many people together. Ben and Wendy have bought a house together, which is like getting married, except they’re living in sin. It was an epic poker game, one for the ages. It would be hard to get all of the intrigue and conflict into one document, but I’m going to try.
We set up in Andrew’s kitchen using my poker table and fold-out chairs, barber shop chairs, chairs found on the street, and shelving units. There were ten players at any given time: Alvaro, Eli, Cooney, Ben, Abby, Wendy, Poindexter, Hutchins, Jamie, Andrew, and me. Poindexter brought champagne to celebrate my book review in the New York Times and Wendy made cookies, which were very good. Abby brought three long spring rolls but they were a little bland without the sauce. Cooney brought six ice-cold budweisers and Eli brought tall boys. The girls were effortlessly beautiful, as usual, and the boys were kind of scruffy and lost looking, like people with poor taste who shop in thrift stores. Jamie was late and he brought his dog with him. Donahue didn’t show, he hasn’t showed in a long time now, looking for a more respectable image as he pursues his chosen occupation. Donahue’s engaged now to Dr. Christine Fox so sometimes he looks down on those of us who have less. Eric Martin was somewhere else and Jensen was too. Scott Hutchins, a young novelist from Arkansas, was playing his first game in the city. Earlier, I had recorded the new Britney Spears album on my laptop, but that’s not really what this is about. This is about an accounting of who was in attendance, a list of possible witnesses and deniers, thieves and their victims. A kitchen bathhouse full of motives, but who was motivated to do what to whom? It would be four hours before things turned violent.
The big game for the night was Peach Grove. “Peach Grove is Iowa culture,” Cooney said. He was sitting near the cabinet where Andrew kept his cereal and the chopping table which was covered in crumbs. Next to Cooney, Alvaro sat low on a high backed red velvet chair.
Peach Grove = 9 cards, High, low, four cards down, five cards up, Omaha without the rules and a three card suited run takes a share. Seven is the highest card on the low and three of a kind is the minimum for a high. Peach Grove is a tough game because there’s so many ways to win it’s hard to fold and when you do win it’s never as much as you think it’s going to be, something that would become apparent later in the central conflict of the evening played out with bicycle grease and chains in the Mission District’s dark side streets.
But the early games were friendly. Poindexter, who’s a little older than the rest of us, added a calming presence and gave cigarettes out to people who were trying to quit but had realized that poker night is not the time for that. There was lots of Omaha and Alvaro, Hutchins, and Wendy, lost big, forgetting that they were only allowed to play two of their four down cards. Eli set the mood with an early bluff then took a monster Hold’em pot from Ben Peterson, outkicking three threes with three threes of his own. I was worried about Eli early on. He’s young and he looks to me for guidance but I’m back together with my girlfriend four days now and she’s been feeding me pain killers which make my head kind of fuzzy and so I’m worried I’ll give Eli bad advice or set a bad example. But in the end Eli won $7, which is pretty good when one takes into account the mistakes he made, the biggest one being leaving his safe haven on the east coast, where his mother would protect him, for the wild frontier of the untamed American west.
Cooney lost everything, part of a long-term plan to set us up for the big score he plans on making in the not so far off future. Hutchins lost big trying to take a low pot in Peach Grove with a seven and four low cards showing on the table. It’s an important lesson to learn, that it’s not enough just to make your hand, you still have to win. And you shouldn’t go for a hand that’s not going to take it. Because if you make your hand you’ll come in second place and that’s worse than losing. Most of life can be compared to the difference between a king-nine and an ace-ten. It’s the difference between writing a short story and putting together an advertising portfolio, except in poker you’re supposed to play it safe.
We played scrotum with nine players and the game went on for half an hour but the pot never got past eight dollars and ten cents eventually pilfered by Andrew Miller whose house it was and who is also a liar and a crook on several counts. At one point, in the middle of the game, Andrew handed Poindexter a beer and asked if he would, “Wash the top off for me.” But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Andrew also says he doesn’t write friend’s checks, doesn’t let friends in his bedroom, and doesn’t drink friend’s whiskey. A series of ducks and dodges always meant to lead one further and further from the truth.
The Second Largest Scandal In San Francisco Poker History
The largest scandal in San Francisco poker history happened October 16th 2003 when Andrew Miller tricked a naive Eli Horowitz into going double or nothing on a game of $6.25 high card and then proceeded to take double, instead of the nothing he was owed, swindling the underpaid Eli out of two days worth of lunch money. The complicated setup was first reported in detail in The Poker Report but the story spread like wildfire via internet discussion boards. At the time, that scandal rocked the San Francisco poker community. Public hearings were called for, Andrew Miller was hung in effigy in the streets and several people’s living rooms. What happened last night was not as scandalous as that. But it did involve Andrew Miller. A coincidence at best.
Earlier in the week Andrew tried to get out of a bet we made on the NCAA finals. He said he decided, just before the game, that he no longer felt like he had made a good bet and so he had a right to cancel it. I told him that if he was asking me if he could cancel it, because he couldn’t afford it or because he had been drunk when he made it, then as a friend that was fine with me. He said he didn’t have to ask, it was his right. We went to a third party, a pre-eminent expert in the field of what is true. Ben Peterson told Andy Miller in a three-way phone call to pay up. Andrew lost fifty dollars on that bet but not before showing me two bank receipts while parked illegally after dark on 23rd Street and telling me, poking the receipts with his index finger, " You see these statements? I have money in every pocket. Don’t you worry about my finances."
But that’s not the second largest scandal in San Francisco poker history. What happened was it was late in the night. It was Tuesday, and lots of people had to go to work in the morning. Cooney had to lay shingles in Marin, Ben had to help people maximize their search engine rankings, Andrew Miller had boxes full of xeroxes to hump across an office in the east bay, Wendy would be designing websites for Yahoo and Scott Hutchins would be lying in bed contemplating his next plot. Alvaro had magazines to layout, Eli had books to edit, Poindexter had decisions to make, and Abby had dreams to facilitate among the bay area’s multimedia crowd. So we were finishing things up. It was just past ten. The cookies, which had sat in tin foil on the counter behind me, were gone. The champagne was gone. Abby had one more bite left on her spring roll. We were strolling through our last Peach Grove.
And things went peacefully enough. I took the high, there was no low. Andrew had a middle spade run: eight, nine, ten. There was a lot of raising, it was a monster pot. But we’ll never know how much was actually in the pot because Andrew took all of the chips and moved them into his stack, failing to give me my half and the only reason I even noticed is because I had laid so much in that pot that I was practically broke with less than half a row of red and white.
I know I make Andrew seem dishonest sometimes. But in truth he’s much more dishonest than I could ever make him out to be.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“Oh, here,” he said, laying four pink chips in front of me. “That ought to cover it.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Everybody else was cashing out. Anthony Swofford was waiting for us at Casanova’s on Valencia. Ben was a big winner. Poindexter was busted but he didn’t really care. Cooney was pointing out that he was a rock, a person to be trusted when it comes to showing up with the A game. All of which was true. Honestly, with one exception, it’s hard to imagine a better group of people. Chris Cooney is a particularly honest and decent person. And then Andrew was insisting on cashing out, because even though we were playing in his house, for some reason, most likely laziness, Andrew had asked me to be the banker. So all of the cash was in my back pocket. I was wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a red sweater. I had four beers in me and I didn’t want to give Andrew any money.
“I’ll split it with you,” I said.
“That’s outrageous. There’s no way there was more than sixteen dollars in that pot.”
“How would you know?” I asked. “Did you count it before you stole it?”
“You were right about Andrew Miller,” Poindexter said on his way out.
Then it was just me and Andrew and my girlfriend called. “Did you win me any money?” she asked.
“I won ten dollars but Andrew Miller is trying to take it.”
“You tell him I will burn down his house!”
I cupped the mouthpiece. “She hates you,” I told Andrew.
“Let me talk to her,” he said.
“Don’t you dare put me on the phone with that man.”
After I got off the phone we tried to go to Casanova’s but Andrew was still insisting that I pay him. To make it worse, he kept trying to convince me to give him more. I gave him twenty-six dollars and he was like, “Let me look in you wallet. Give me the whole bank and I’ll give you some back.” Then he would exclaim something patently false like I had only given him ten dollars and when I caught him he would say, “OK, I lied that time, but not the time before.”
We bounced around between thirty-dollars and thirty-six dollars and I’m not sure what I gave him in the end. It was probably close to thirty-six dollars, hardly enough to call a lawyer, but not until after he attacked me on 19th and Capp, trying to push me over my bicycle, and ending up himself covered head to nose in bicycle grease.
“I just had it lubed,” I said. “My rear derailer fell off on Sunday.”
We were on that street for maybe twenty minutes with Andrew growing increasingly violent. We were both screaming, pedestrians crossed to the other side. At one point Andrew’s roommate showed up looking for three slices of white bread he noticed missing and then rode away sensing that things had gotten out of control. We finally agreed on a sum and walked down to 16th and Valencia.
We were OK after that, but we had missed Swofford who was already in a cab back to Oakland and was going to catch a plane from there to Kansas. Swofford was a marine and if Andrew had tried any of that stuff with Swofford around he probably would have snapped Andrew’s neck. But Swofford hasn’t come over to play in a while. So instead Andrew and I stood on the street corner in front of Cassanova’s and across from Truly Mediteranean and Yo Yo Sushi.
“Go sing karaoke with me,” Andrew said, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets and looking for all the world like a villain in some 1940s French Noir film.
“I can’t do that,” I told him.
“Here,” he said, handing me back ten dollars and looking away. It was cold but there was no fog on the peaks. “I don’t even care. I know you’re going to write that I tried to steal money from you.”
“That’s true,” I said, taking the ten dollars and putting it in my pocket.
“Give me that back,” he said. We waited for a cab after that. I was going to go home across from the torn down projects and he was headed to the Mint, which is where people go when they want to sing on Tuesday. When the cab came we did one of those man hugs, where you clasp hands and pat each other on the back. I asked myself, why do I love this guy? But there’s no point in fighting it. Then he got in the cab. Then the night was over.
March 30, 2004
“Compromising Our Ideals — Since 2001”
It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together for a game of poker and mostly that’s my fault. I’ve been out of town, following presidential candidates, pretending to know something about the way politics works. Politics can get inside a person, clean out your insides, and steal your optimism. What I came back to yesterday was the tattered ruins of the American spirit, our morals strung across the rocks of a brutal and unforgiving shore, our dreams torn like sails in a hurricane, ready to vote for anyone electable, our ideals lost below the final wave…
OK, that’s a little dramatic. But once you start looking into the Republican side of this election, you start to decline. Richard Clarke, Hans Blix, Paul O’Neil, David Kay. At some point you have to think there is something very wrong. The best-selling novel of the year will be a Christian fantasy sold to Evangelicals, in which the head of the United Nations is played by the Antichrist. Meanwhile, sadists ring the local theaters waiting to watch Jesus whipped, his back torn and split, his blood flying against the screen.
None of that has anything to do with poker. But like I said, we haven’t played in a while.
When I gave up my honest life in academia to follow the lie-strewn road to the White House I also gave up my apartment. So the Folsom Poker Palace with its magnificent view of the street hookers in front of the chocolate factory is gone. Instead we meet at Andy Miller’s House of Fingers, blocks away from 17th Street Chicken and Gas. There are five of us: Andy, Ben, Cooney, Abby, and me. My poker table is set up in the kitchen; the clay chips in rainbow stacks across the felt. A broken tire gauge with burn markings along its side rests on the countertop near the fridge next to an empty box of frozen pizza. Andy is twitchy and nervous, like he just committed a crime or pilfered an extra dose of methadone.
“Hey,” Andy says to me when I arrive. “Give me back my keys.”
“Yeah,” his roommate Josh says, “give back the keys.”
I tell him I don’t have them, but that doesn’t explain how I came in. Things have been tense between us since he accused me of stealing three slices of bread earlier in the week.
“You’re not looking at this the right way,” I say. While I’ve been homeless I would sleep on Andy’s couch when I was in town. But sleeping is not really the right word, because nobody ever sleeps at Andy’s house.
It’s a short night of cards. Cooney has brought a six-pack of Sapporo and Andy has Budweiser tallboys. We start with Texas Hold’em and quickly devolve into Omaha. The trouble with Omaha is that you have to use two and only two down cards. Which means you need three low cards across the middle to make a five-card hand. Cards talk and Omaha is Chris Cooney’s worst game. He has a hard time folding and quickly loses his ten-dollar buy-in. I brought him a shirt from the Nike store in Portland but it doesn’t fit. Cooney’s a nice guy and deserves better than he gets sometimes but the world doesn’t always work that way.
Andy gets four nines to take down Ben in a showdown but Ben is the big winner of the night anyway. “I need to tighten up,” Andy says. “Anybody got some speed?” Abby suckers Andy with top pair on the board, the whole time playing it like pocket eights.
I start winning big. My twos and threes are holding up. I sweep a monster Omaha pot with a low straight, also known as a wheel. At some point in the evening I take one with four aces. But then Miller, jonesing for a fix, stretches across the table and flips my cards. His reasoning, always deeply flawed, is that he has already thrown his cards into the muck, thereby giving him the right to see mine.
“If you were in Tulia they’d gut you,” I say.
“I need to see a doctor,” Andrew admits.
“What’s wrong?” Cooney asks.
“Nothing, I just want to get checked out.”
Cooney nods. “Ben and I have the same doctor,” Cooney says. And then goes on to explain that their doctor made Cooney self diagnose for testicular cancer, but not Ben.
“That must have been embarrassing,” I say. Cooney nods.
After that I don’t play well. Twice I get wiped out without a high or a low and when Cooney calls Peach Grove I take a third of a two-person pot with a three-card suited run. Abby, who is always stylish and well dressed no matter what she’s wearing, takes me for two thirds in that matchup. But the truth of the situation is that I haven’t seen Abby in a while and I’m used to having Jensen and Donahue around for the easy money to buffer my losses. Neither shows up and Abby presses her advantage. In the end I only lose four dollars; things could have been much worse. We break at ten o’clock. Ben is the big winner of the night with an eight-dollar take and Abby takes five on top of that. Miller breaks even but cadges an extra dollar he refers to as a “house fee.”
In the morning I make a pot of coffee and check my pocket to make sure I still have Andy Miller’s keys. After nine I head over to Andrew’s house, to take a look around and see what I can make myself for breakfast.
The Poker Report
March 17, 2004
“Never Saying Never—Since 2001”
Guest Writer Jamie Berger
So my dad was in town last week, and while he’s not a rich dad, he’s not a poor one either—he’s the kind of dad who can afford to stake his son and himself eighty bucks apiece to play in the Monday 10:30 a.m. no-limit hold ’em tournament at Lucky Chances in Colma, CA, famed city of the dead, knowing full well that not a dime of that $160 is likely to see the dark of his wallet ever again.
My dad’s one of those guys who’s beaten the tar out of his local kitchen game for thirty years (or so he tells me) but hasn’t played much in casinos and had never played in a tournament before. I had played in tourneys three times before, most recently about six months ago, toward the end of my phase that so many of us wannabe poker studs and studettes have had these past couple of years where we’ve watched too much poker TV and seen too many Chris Moneymakers and Jim McManuses and Robert Varkonyis—"regular" guys who make it to the final table or even win the Big One—and so we buy our ultrasuperturbo tournament poker software and all those insanely expensive books and we read and reread and memorize and then rewatch the TV stuff (because we taped it, of course) so that when we sit down at that final table with Jesus Fergusson as we know we someday will, we’ll know just what it means when he tugs at his beard just so. I went through that phase and was caught up in it more than some because I got to go to Vegas and look over the shoulder of my friend Annie who’s one of those poker people you see on the poker TV. But I hadn’t played a tournament or really much poker at all in six months after realizing it was an education I couldn’t even begin to afford and didn’t have the time or even the interest to actively pursue. Then Dad came to town, and the phoenix of my broken poker dreams lifted it’s charred beak once again.
Tournaments work like this: in effect, you pay eighty bucks and you get $2,500 in what amounts to play money chips that could almost conceivably earn you real money later on. You play with those chips until you run out. And you do run out. That is, everyone runs out but one guy, and that guy (and at Lucky Chances, it is 99+ percent guy) wins the biggest piece of the real money. When I played last year, there were 50-70 entrants each time. A lot of middle-aged Asian and white men who play way too much poker. You can see it in their dead glazed eyes and paunchy bodies, in their haphazard clothes, in their left-hand ring fingers where there’s still a tan line where a ring used to be but no more because the car got repo’d again and one mortgage became two and then they lost the house altogether, all for the love/obsession of playing a card game, of gambling. It was Dad, me, those guys and a few baseball-capped, wraparound-shaded youngsters with stars in their eyes where the glaze had yet to form.
The three times I played previously, twice I placed in the mid-twenties—not bad for a beginner, I thought—and once I came in eleventh, one spot out of the final table and the money, which is paid in decreasing increments to the top ten finishers.
Pop and I rolled into the club at 9:30 and signed up. I showed him to his table, gave him the basic rundown of the logistics. By 10:30 start time, there were a whopping 110 players signed up and seated at eleven tables. The floor man called out his equivalent of “Drivers, start your engines”—"Dealers, shuffle up and deal"—and the game was on. My reasonable hope was that both of us would last long enough to feel good about ourselves, have story or two to tell, and that maybe, just maybe, my dad would get a chance to see that I wasn’t the player he knew when we last played: a maniacal eleven-year old punk at my grandparents’ condo in Ft. Lauderdale who wanted to play “Black Mariah” (it’s a wacky seven-card stud game, don’t ask) every hand and would bet like a lunatic and lose all his pennies but not really because Grandma Bea would keep sneaking him more whenever he ran out. I wanted Pop to see that I was a man, a solid player. I’ve watched too many cheesy movies. Of course, my wilder fantasies were a bit more involved and ranged from one or the other of us making the final table to both of us making it to the two of us head-to-head in a fantasmic Oedipal showdown.
I started off well, getting no cards and patiently folding hand after hand. Pretty soon, though, I found myself in the big blind and nobody raised and I snuck in with 10-8 offsuit. The flop came A-10-6, with no betters, a terrific hand to lose a lot of money on when you’re sitting with second pair and some smartass with a pocket ace is setting a trap. A king came on the turn, everyone checked to me and I made a fairly substantial bet, trying my best to represent a pair of kings. Everyone sensibly folded and I was feeling pretty good about myself—first hand played, first hand won, and on a semi-bluff to boot. Before the first break, I won another hand, with some actual cards this time.
At the first break, I checked in with the old man; we were both doing well. At the second, the Berger clan was still hanging tough. By the fifth round, we were both still alive but the competition had only dropped to seventy-some, still a long way to go. But then, all at once, players started dropping in bunches and before we knew it we were in the top 35. The next time tables were consolidated, I was top dog at mine and my dad was moved in two seats to my left to fill the spot of a solid player who had just gone all in and had his pocket aces busted by kings and eights on the river, giving him something almost as good as a win, a great bad-beat story.
The deal went once around the table with Pop and I folding like the rocks we are. The numbers dwindled, now down to the mid-twenties. Then I was dealt QJ offsuit in the big blind. My dad and another guy called and I let it ride. The flop came A-K-10 rainbow and there I was, first to act with the nut straight. Up until that point I was just dreaming of making the final table and was playing more and more like what’s sometimes called a farmer—a patient, passive player who waits for a solid hand and then plays it solidly but who rarely gets to final tables because of lack of aggression or willingness to take risks. But the blinds and antes (which progress throughout the tournament) were getting monstrous, and it was starting to look like I might indeed get to that last table but with almost no chips to play with. So I figured it was time to check-raise for the first time all day. I checked, and, tragically, sublimely, M. I. (a.k.a. Mark) Berger went all-in with what I later would learn was a pocket ace to match the one on the table. The other guy folded, and I called and knocked my own dear father out of the tournament. We both laughed, smiled, shook hands, and then he joined the growing crowd of railbirds.
Suddenly I was sitting with a pretty nice stack o’ chips and eighteen players left. Eighteen dropped quickly to thirteen but then seemed to just freeze there forever as I folded and folded and folded. I even folded pocket nines in pretty late position, and if you knew anything about my superstition/obsession with the number nine, you’d be more impressed than I’m sure you already are. And still there were thirteen of us and the blinds and antes went up again and my pile kept getting smaller, and then, with six players left at my table and a still medium sized stack in front of me, I was dealt QJ again, this time on the button. Two players went all in, and I was stuck with a big, unwelcome decision. If I called and won, I’d go to the final table with a huge stack. But the two players already in had been pretty steady all day, so they either had high pocket pairs or ace-something, making my QJ very foldable. The odds of winning were against me but the pot odds were incredibly juicy. I called time, took several deep breaths, looked at my cards, then at all those chips, then my cards again (thinking maybe they’d grown) and decided that, dammit, I was going to that final table, and threw away my pretty pictures. I think it was my best play of the day; I would’ve thought so even if quad aces hadn’t ended up winning the hand. And then, just like that, at the other table, two players went belly-up, the floor manager called a break, and we were down to ten and on to the final table.
During the break, Dad seemed more thrilled than I was, advised me to loosen up, get a little more aggressive, and then set himself up on the rail after recruiting me a little rooting section that consisted of himself and a couple of linebacker-huge, grinning 25-year old guys wearing gold chains and Niners jackets. I felt strangely calm
I was in about middle chip position as the final table began and decided to stay stonelike for a while—with each player that folded I’d make more money, and at that point, that was my plan, to sit tight for some cards and move up that payout ladder. Luckily, the first five hands or so I got nothing, and quickly three of our final ten were gone. Then things started to happen in a hurry. I’m so, so sorry to say the adrenaline simply wiped out any memory of my actual hands, but I quickly started getting pretty nice cards, and I’m pretty sure I won three of four hands in rapid succession for medium to substantial pots. We were now down to four. My opponents were a young soft-spoken guy who I later learned was an orchestral conductor for a local girls’ chorus of some repute; a friendly, middle-aged jokester poker dealer named Walter; and a tricky player who’d been sitting to my left all day who I’m almost positive pretended not to speak English in order to mess with his opponents (space prohibits further elaboration) and who I’d been in some big hands with and really wanted to beat the crap out of. We proceeded. I beat my nemesis out of a hand that he was weakly bluffing on, then he beat me out of one when he acted the exact same way he did with the transparent bluff but then, smiling mutely, turned over pocket queens. Walter went bust, and then we were three, with me the overwhelming chip leader.
Then, all at once, adrenalized focus gave in to panic and dread as I realized I was in way over my head. Playing short-handed is a very different game from playing at a full table. It requires experience that I have absolutely none of outside of a simulated computer version. It requires spot statistical analysis that I am just not built for. It requires cojones as big as bowling balls. As the number of players gets smaller, the number of hands you should play gets correspondingly larger, and I suddenly lacked all confidence in knowing what those hands could possibly be. I was sitting pretty, with a pretty substantial chip lead, but felt like I was ready to crumble at any moment, to start giving it all back to the real players who deserved to win.
Then soft-spoken conductor guy turned to me and said the most beautiful, unexpected words: “You wanna make a deal?” This often happens in tournaments, but I had forgotten all about it. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, the difference between the payouts for first, second, and third is great enough, and the time it might take to finish is long enough that it’s often worth just splitting the winnings proportional to chip count. We looked over to the silent sharpie, who, in third place by a ton, seemed to understand the word “deal” quite well and nodded and smiled. And so we all agreed and the floor manager worked out the details of the cut and my little fanbase was clapping, people were shaking my hand, and the floor man was handing me a crisp pile of hundred-dollar bills while his cohort asked me how to spell my name and told me to smile for the camera. I smiled, big, the flash flashed, and that was that. I had won. I had won a no-limit hold ’em tournament, with my dad rooting me on. Over a fancy steak dinner, we giddily recounted the day, and for once in my nearly twenty-year adult life of going out to meals with him, I eagerly picked up the tab.
Once the elation faded (and don’t get me wrong, a week later, it’s not gone yet, just faded a bit) the most important thing I learned and that the TV and the books and the software don’t want you to think about is that, especially in tournaments, where pros can’t just go buy more chips to come back and smack the dead-money rookie back down after a bad beat or two, luck is a huge factor. And that’s why a Moneymaker or a McManus will sometimes get to the final table of a tournament, maybe even win the damn thing, once. (You may notice you usually don’t even see those guys at a final table a second time.) But people like Howard Lederer, T. J. Cloutier, Chris Fergussen, Doyle Brunson, and, yes, my old pal Annie Duke, that top one-tenth of one percent of one percent, are the geniuses, the rocket scientists. They have the discipline, the math brains, the game theory brains, the psychological insight, the intimidation factor, and a few of them (especially John Hennigan, I’m told) Š well, some call them psychic—they just seem to always know what cards you have. The rest of us just fight for our little pieces of the middle and hope for some luck. That’s why there’s no card club called “Psychological Acumen and Statistical Reasoning.”
While I didn’t get the best cards on earth that day (Monday, March 8, 2004, by the way)—never had a pair of pocket aces or kings dealt to me, never rivered a flush or a full house or even a set—I did get dealt ace-king four times, and each time it came through, large. I played just fine, if a bit too passive, until I was the big leader, and I did properly push my opponents around with my stack once I was that leader, but the cards supported me every time. Solid play, a good chunk of luck and not a single bad beat. I can live with that. Heck, I can retire with that—maybe. Yeah, right.
December 30, 2003
“Politics As Usual”
Presidential politics being what it is, a game of spite, ambition, and global consequences, I don’t write as many poker reports as I used to.
I was hoping to get Howard Dean in a game, but he doesn’t interact well with reporters and anyway he’s too busy. Dean travels in four vans, or three vans and a truck, or two vans, a truck, and a car. Either way, the press is kept in two vans in the rear of the procession and we have no one to talk to but one another. The young hacks, the traveling reporters, are friendly, wide-eyed. The big guns, the pros, parachute in for one or two days and keep to themselves. I’ve heard Dean likes to play a card game called “Oh Hell” on the press plane, but the press plane is strictly off the record from takeoff to landing, just like Bill Bradley in 2000. For all I know they’re traveling naked.
While John Kerry was giving a talk in a library forty minutes from Des Moines during a snowstorm, I picked up a poker set at the Wal-Mart. By the time we arrived at the Motel 8 in Clareton, everyone was too tired except for Jim Rainey from the Los Angeles Times.
I did get one game of poker in at the Foxhead in Iowa City where they play cash money at a table in the back of the bar. But after four days on the John Kerry Real Deal Express I wasn’t thinking so well and I lost twenty-six dollars to the locals playing what should have been an easy round of fifty-cent/dollar Texas Hold ‘Em. If Saddam hadn’t been captured I might have kept it together, but I couldn’t figure out Kerry’s position after that. It seemed to me he was being intentionally misleading. And Vanessa Kerry, with her innocent smile and cheap little questions…
In fact, I haven’t won a game in a long time.
I’m back in San Francisco for the holidays, relaxing. Andy Miller and I drive north and east across the bay to the Pacheco Card House for the Monday night tournament but the tournament is cancelled and they kick Andy Miller out of the club almost immediately.
“What was that about?” Andy asks.
“Maybe it’s your face,” I tell him.
“I’m going to go back to that place with a thirty dollar coupon and sit for two hours and only play the nuts,” Andy says.
“That’ll show them.”
The city is lit with white lights over the dark shapes of the buildings. I can make out Coit Tower above North Beach as we pass through Treasure Island.
“They had no right to treat me that way,” Andy says. “I’ve never been treated so poorly in my life.”
Rumbling back across the Bay Bridge in Andy’s truck I remember the first time I came to San Francisco. I was with my fiancée; we had gotten engaged over the phone two months earlier. I had been living in Los Angeles doing temp work for Matador Records and she was in Houston living with her parents, trying to kick a cocaine habit. We were driving back to Chicago together and we ran out of gas in the middle of the Bay Bridge. When the tow truck arrived, the driver wanted to know if we had a death wish.
“The gauge isn’t working,” I told him. I remember it was very windy. We had a difficult breakup and I didn’t see her again for years.
Last time I saw her she was with a new fiancée, a friend of mine from college, and we all sat in a bar on the north side of Chicago. The roof was leaking and buckets were everywhere catching the water sprouting from the ceiling.
“This place is a metaphor,” I said.
They told me they were looking to buy a house in North Carolina where there was less crime. They must be married by now.
I love San Francisco, and I wouldn’t mind driving forever back and forth over the various bridges in and out of the city and through the Marin hills and the fancy areas north of the city, then walking through Golden Gate Park, all the time listening to Andy complain about things. Andy’s complaining is like music; you could make a tape and listen to it while you do yoga.
We finally find a game at Artichoke Joe’s in San Bruno, but it’s too late. We sit at the six/twelve and I get beat from the moment I sit down. I play things that are small and suited and close together. My big hands don’t hold up. The table is tight. I get rivered with over a hundred dollars in the pot when the guy next to me goes all-in with an ace-nine.
“You guys are a bunch of rocks,” a lady says, clutching three hundred dollars in her fist and heading toward the three/six. I should have followed her.
The fried rice costs less than a bottle of Heineken but nothing costs more than two red kings in the hole and four spades showing. Folding two kings in third position is like telling a friend you can’t see him anymore. It’s not that you don’t care; it’s that you care too much.
I have to sleep on Ben’s couch because I gave up my apartment and everything else when I joined the presidential caravan. At midnight driving north from the South Bay I’m wondering if two mistakes don’t equal a good decision; I’m thinking in terms of downwind consequences.
“You play too many hands,” Andy says, steering onto the 101, then riding Cesar Chavez into South Van Ness. “You’re loose. If I saw a player like you at a table playing that many hands I would raise every time, try to isolate you, get you alone.”
The Palace Steak House is still on the corner. Five dollars for meat on the bone, half a slab of mad cow, courtesy of G.W. Bush.
“I could tell you what you were doing wrong,” he continues. “We could get online and discuss how to raise with a pair of tens in the hole. I could break it down precisely. Those two eights you had. That was a bad bet.”
“It’s easy to talk when you’re ahead,” I say. I don’t say the other thing. I let Andy have his moment and tune him out after that. People like giving advice and there aren’t enough listeners in the world. I hear chattering down Bartlett and I decide I must be a good person for the nice way I treat Andy sometimes. Most people would get angry being told what they did wrong after it’s too late. It reminds me of the time I crashed my motorcycle taking the turn on Sheridan Road past the cemetery.
It was raining and I was sprawled out near the curb and my motorcycle was on its side leaking gas near the rock barrier. I wasn’t hurt too bad, just my hip, but I didn’t know that at the time. A guy pulled up in a small Honda hatchback. He was an old guy and there were bits of green in his beard and he was wearing a padded blue coat.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I left my kickstand down,” I told him. I thought he might offer me a ride or some money.
“That was the second stupid thing you did,” he said. “The first stupid thing you did was ride that thing without a helmet.”
The Poker Report
December 1 2003
“Looking Back Since 2001”
We played poker four days ago and I don’t remember what happened because I have some kind of flu. I probably got it from Ben Peterson. It was Friday night, the day after Thanksgiving; my fifteen-year-old brother was visiting and sleeping on my yellow couch by the windows.
He lost everything: his last ten dollars. He didn’t know when to fold or what the cards were worth. He talked a lot of trash as his chips slowly disappeared from the felt.
“You must feel pretty good taking money from a drunk fifteen-year-old,” he said the next day, bleary-eyed, half-naked, a bowl of cereal in his lap.
“The mark of a good player,” I replied.
Saturday I got a note from Tom Kealey. Friday was his first poker game, though he’s been promising to stop by for years. He’s one of my best friends in the whole world. A reclusive novelist, he lives in a secret bunker on Bernal Hill, his window facing the fog.
The note said: “Where’s my fucking poker report?”
Like I said, it’s all fuzzy. I know Tom lost twenty dollars, more than he makes in a week. I know he stayed to the end on a game of Hold ‘Em, four hearts up across the center with ten-four of clubs in the hole. I know he writes carefully and budgets his time, but he’s never folded before and the lesson a person learns is that there’s a time to back away.
The game ended early, maybe 11:30. It was our last game at the poker palace. I’m moving on December 7. Ben said, “Don’t forget my flush. The readers of the poker report will want to hear about that.”
Mark Levy, a doctor from Los Angeles, won fifteen dollars. Geoff Brock brought Adam Johnson’s famous T-day gumbo.
When I move, there’ll still be games in hotel rooms and on buses. I’ll play with strangers in train cars: cigar-smoking old men, Midwestern housewives who keep secrets from their husbands and children. I’m not moving anywhere in particular, just giving up everything and joining the campaign caravan that crisscrosses this country every four years. I intend to play Scrotum with Howard Dean.
At the front door on Sunday we found a dead fish wrapped in newspaper; a light blue sticky note on top said: Remember Tom Kealey. A shuttle was coming to take my brother to the airport, where he’d catch a plane back home to his parents.
“I have strange friends,” I told my brother.
“Why do you think that is?” my brother asked. He had my stereo under one arm and my purple shoes in his hand. I had to buy him a sandwich to take to the airport with him because he’d lost all his money at the card table. “I’ll be taller than you the next time,” he said. He’s got a face like a cherub and a small nose. He’d never survive a year in prison. Of course, there’s no reason to think he’s heading in that direction.
“Practice your game,” I said, trying to impart some brotherly wisdom as he climbed into the van. It suddenly occurred to me we hadn’t done that much while he was here. “Turn them over if they aren’t worth it. Play tight but strong. Learn the difference between a full house and a flush and two pair. Remember three of a kind isn’t worth as much as you think it is. Don’t be an optimist. Don’t be hopeful. If you have two there’s only two more left. The road to hell is paved with inside straights.”
That’s the last thing I said as the van door slid closed. Back inside, the Drano Gel was still sitting in the basin at the top of my clogged kitchen sink. I undid a clothes hanger and pushed it into the drain, where it poked through the bottom of the pipe; chemical goo sprayed across the floor. I opened the windows and closed the kitchen door, figuring I’ll be leaving soon anyway.
November 20, 2003
“Calling a Spade a Spade Since 2003”
I’m Leaving Soon, But I’ll Be Around
I wrote a poker report this morning but I’m hungover and found myself not making sense, trying to draw lines between Omaha played with four cards in California and the Massachusetts ruling on gay marriage and John Kerry’s strange response to that. It wasn’t working, so here’s the gist of it.
There were eleven players last night. Four were writers; two of those writers worked other jobs, three if you count the fact that I teach. Five writers if you count the children’s author. There was a publisher. There were no book reviewers, though some of us had reviewed books, but we didn’t look at ourselves that way. Among the rest there was Andy Miller, a known conman, wanted in every state except his own. Also Erik Jensen, a rock climber, and Chris Cooney from the great state of Iowa. There were no Republicans at the table. I won’t lie and pretend that I let Republicans into my apartment; I’m not that inclusive.
We played Texas Hold ‘Em, Omaha, Night Baseball, five card Roll ’Em, and Guts. When you’ve got eleven players, straights are crooked and Guts is a big game that never ends. When you’ve got three fives and a queen and you’re playing house-rules Omaha and a queen flops on the board and people are afraid to fold, and Eric Martin is across from you matching every raise with a wheel, then you stand to make a good pile of cash. And if deals are being cut in the corridor, careers made in the strange Mission wind the day before David Poindexter flies to the backwoods of Louisiana, and Abby is kicking over beers and mopping them up with a small orange towel becoming her fair complexion, and you polish off a pint of Knob Creek and two cases including a six-pack of Coors tallboys, then in the morning your apartment will smell like a formaldehyde plant and there will be nothing to do but cover your face with the pillow and wait for it to go away.
This is what matters last night. I won twenty-five dollars playing tight. I gave away many of the books that have accumulated on my shelves the past five years because I’m moving out in two weeks and I will be homeless as I follow the 2004 campaign trail back and forth across this nation writing a book for Picador. At one point in the evening Jamie slipped his hands into Eric’s chips and then they were sharing chips, one of them getting a worse deal than the other. Ben won money, or he said he won money. No matter what Poindexter won he lost in the end on a seventy-dollar cab ride back to Marin County. Poindexter tends to lose money on me, except for one time in Las Vegas when I turned $1,500 of his into $15,000 on the craps table at the Hard Rock Casino. My friend Rob was in town last night, an old friend from college; we took mushrooms once in Arizona and climbed a pile of rocks behind the trailer park looking for rattlesnakes. Deanna was with us then and we visited her grandmother in Southtown and her grandmother made it clear to us what would happen to our souls when we died. But that was ten years ago and I don’t see Deanna anymore.
Last night Anthony Swofford came over for the first time. Some of the house rules seemed to give him a hard time but we were all in agreement that he was a good sport and had written a great book and we were willing to teach him our ways if he was willing to learn. He won a big hand at the end that maybe brought him to even, and maybe didn’t, we can only each speak for our own.
And when the recycling was bagged and brought to the front of the building for the bums and junkies to redeem at Cal Foods, we turned over the poker table and tucked the legs away. I threw the clay chips back in the shoebox and placed them on the lowest shelf of my wicker stand. It was past eleven and Shannon came over, and Jamie, who had said something, tried to explain to Poindexter what he meant but Poindexter was maybe a little drunk by that point, and not so interested in what Jamie meant as what he thought Jamie had said. Because meaning is only as good as intent and intent changes when you get caught and often depends on what you know of yourself and who you think you might be. And there are two sides: what you think, and what somebody else thinks you think, and maybe a third side after that for poker players. Poindexter would apologize later, because Jamie loves small publishers and Poindexter would have to recognize that. And I would apologize too, and Poindexter and Jamie would be good friends for a long time to come. Because this is San Francisco, and we live here.
The Poker Report
November 11, 2003
“Tying Each Other’s Shoes Since 2001”
On Saturday I popped two pills, RU-21s found on the Russian black market, used to block acetic acid and prevent hangovers. I spent the night looking for my girlfriend only to find out that she wasn’t my girlfriend at all, she was somebody else’s girlfriend, and that was fine too, except by three a.m. the city was a slanted star-filled sky and Mission Street a long scream to my studio apartment, which I could no longer afford.
In the morning I felt like someone had been running carbon paper against the inside of my veins. Is this how they feel in Russia? I woke up Andy Miller because we hadn’t had a home game in a while and wouldn’t for another week still. I told him I thought we should go to the casino in Colma, just to get my head straight. I felt wired and dizzy and maybe a few hands of morning poker and two cups of bad coffee would force me back on the rails.
He said he was going to shower first. I said I doubted that but I’d wait anyway and twenty minutes later we were rolling down the 101 listening to Obie Trice, ready to get into a game. We played for three hours. I got killed with pocket aces at the $3/$6 table when the corner pulled triple jacks. It was an unfortunate hand but I pulled in with eight-ten of spades, everyone missing the flush draw, pair of eights paying like a nut flush on Boardwalk.
“You play loose,” Andy said, as if to intimate I was a bad player or I was on tilt. I was up $100 and he was down $290. We were sitting at the $6/$12. Andy was up $1500 for the week playing online, but he’d forgotten how to play with people.
“I play loose strong,” I said. “Like Doyle Brunson.”
Andy shook his head, but I didn’t care what he thought. Taking poker lessons from a loser is like hiring a fat personal trainer. Anyway, I was depressed and lonely. I was going to have to leave my apartment soon and I wasn’t sure where I was going to live. I ordered a chocolate shake and spare ribs with cabbage from the players menu.
Andy continued his losing streak. It came down to the two of us twice. The first time I raised pre-flop with a low pair. When my third six came I bet and Andy made me for two kings and stayed with two pair in late position. I bet on the turn but not on the river and Andy slid $12 onto the felt. I couldn’t help myself. I smiled and came back over the top. “I got you now, bitch.” I don’t know why I said such an awful thing, but I did; I was smiling ear to ear and Andy sheared off $12 more before tossing his cards into the muck.
On the ride home Andy told me the guy next to him had the worst breath he’d ever been accosted by in his entire life.
“That’s because he was putting Pepsi in his coffee. I saw him do it.”
I spent the rest of the day lying on Andy’s yellow couch and watching football. “I can’t go home anymore. I’m just going to come over here from now on,” I said, and Andy said that would be OK. Andy won $90 back playing on the internet, and later some friends of his came over with a twelve-pack and then we all went to a bar near the BART station. Andy wore a new jacket with a black wool collar, which he found in the thrift store. He looked like Superfly.
Before the night ended we met the girl who has been writing letters to me on her website. She lives in New Hampshire and was visiting San Francisco to research her thesis. I argued with her over cranberry vodkas. We couldn’t agree on anything. Maybe it was the pills from the night before, or the replay of a mental video from years earlier when I walked out of a restroom in Seattle and saw my fiancé standing by the pool table with her hand in another man’s back pocket. Who knows where these things come from? Anyway, I was up on the day.
“This is Andrew,” I said introducing her. “The guy I write about in my poker report. He’s one of my favorite people in the whole world.”
“You’re one of my favorite people too,” he said, putting down his whiskey. He looked almost dapper.
The Poker Report
September 26, 2002
A classic Poker Report from the archives.
“Promoting Free and Ridiculous Speech Since 2001”
Guest Writer: Geoff Brock
The Fall of Steve
It happened to Rome. It happened to the NASDAQ. It happened to Steve. I arrived late, but not too late to witness it. The players were the host himself, Monica (a poet from New York), Ben (sporting an A’s cap), Donahue (who would do anything for Fox), Cooney (sporting an A’s cap), David the Publisher (who loves Steve’s books but wishes they’d sell more), Erik Jensen (who is gaining a rep as an early leaver), and myself (who as of yet do not figure in any local poker mythology). The cheerleaders, Tina and Padma, shook their pom-poms with gusto and nibbled Steve’s and my ears, respectively, every chance they got.
The turning point for Steve came when, after a long and sweaty summer, we left Texas and went north to Omaha. At first he looked like the Steve of old, the self-described Victory-Channel Steve: all victory, all the time. But then came the defining hand of the evening. I don’t remember what I had because what I had didn’t matter. But Steve had something that mattered, and he started shedding blue chips like it was 1999. He drove me out early. He knew he had the cards, I knew he had the cards, we all knew he had the cards. But still he didn’t drive everyone out. And then at last it came down to him and Jensen, going mano a mano for the low hand—I’m a newcomer to this game, but even I know how that matchup is supposed to end.
Somebody, maybe Ben, maybe Donahue, won the high hand, but that was the featherweight bout on the undercard—all eyes were on Jensen and Steve. When the last blue chip clattered into the heap on the green felt, Steve flipped his cards over—it was a brisk fall morning, and he was up early and eager to rake his nice green lawn. Jensen, though, was in no hurry, turning his cards over one by one. He was calm and deliberate, as if there were—indeed, as if there had never been anything other than world enough and time. He even held onto his high card, the six, for a few seconds longer than was sporting, daring anyone to doubt him. The rest of us then were carless fifteen-year-old Midwestern kids drinking Pabst, smoking Kools, and mixing our metaphors by the parking meters, and there was Jensen crawling down the main drag of Omaha in his ‘64 muscle car, going so slow that you knew he must be fast, while Steve’s bright-ass ‘65 sat on the side of the road, hood propped open, smoke gushing from the engine. Steve himself looked like a kid whose dog had just been fucked by his best friend’s dog—he was never the same after that hand. Oh sure, for a while he kept pushing his chips in like before, as if the economy hadn’t undergone a fundamental shift, as if the NASDAQ were still a $5000/night Manhattan call girl and not a crackwhore working the corner of Sixteenth and Folsom in the Mission District. But no one was fooled, and even he eventually started to play a little scared.
It was a new day, a new century even, and Jensen was up $4. And what do you think he did? He cashed out, of course. We all wanted him to stay, in part because he was at that moment the coolest of us all and we needed him so that we might see ourselves reflected in his coolness, but mostly because we wanted a shot at his fat stack of blue chips. But it wasn’t to be—he mumbled some crap about having an early morning, and since he knew I was writing the poker report he quietly reminded me that he was up $4 for the night. Then he left. And it’s hard to blame him really.
I myself got good cards and had a good night—in fact, I won a dollar more than Jensen, despite losing hard in the biggest hand of the night to David. I could write pages about that hand, a heartbreaker of a hand, the kind that could make a man like me turn his back on a town like Omaha forever—but it wouldn’t matter. Little mattered by that point: the cheerleaders had become players, and Steve was shaking their forgotten pom-poms and nibbling softly on David’s ear. And someone else, I forget who because it doesn’t matter, won even more money than I did. But his winnings and mine were all form and no content—Jensen’s was the only win that mattered.
Guest Writer, Mean Guy
The Poker Report
October 16, 2003
“Living With Locusts Since 2001”
Scandal Racks The San Francisco Poker Community!
I don’t invite the literati to my house anymore. They call me. They send me flowers. They ask if they can swing by. The cancellations this week would fill up half the bestseller list. The people that came: old friends, good friends, the ones that have been here from the beginning, and finally some new faces, looking for light in an otherwise dark city.
“This could be our last night,” I said. I was drinking Sam Adams. A fresh box of galleys was at my kneecaps. My new novel will be out in exactly four months. Shannon was coming over later. The presidential election has been heating up.
“What do you mean, our last night?” Ben asked.
“I’m just kidding,” I told him. “I was being dramatic. We’re going to do this forever.”
That’s what it looked like early: Ben, Abby, Long Tall Cooney, Andrew, Jensen. Good friends. Abby with her dimples. Cooney with his rock-like dependability. Jensen always half-strapped with climbing gear. Ben with his loveable bad taste in films. They’ve all been coming over since we started this crazy adventure back in the spring of 2001. Call it the spring of our lives.
And I was feeling warm, and good. It’s different, the way you can love people that you’ve known for a while. It’s the shared experiences, the lobbing of memories. The night would get ugly yet. Things were going to happen. Bad, prophetic things, mostly on account of Andrew Miller. But they hadn’t happened yet. It was the beginning of the night and we were still friends.
It’s important to mention at this point one of the newer faces at the table: Eli Horowitz, a young, fresh-faced editor with the world at his feet and the beginnings of a gambling problem twitching near the edges of his eyeballs. Noam Cohen, in the midst of his PhD in contemporary literature, stopped by, searching for the source. Also Alvaro and Leland. Finally Jamie Berger, a book reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle, a bartender, a bachelor, a friendster, breezing into the abyss as the Red Sox were bleached once more from the history books.
What I’m getting at here is that the pot was simmering. I’m not sure I could ever present what happened in a clear enough light to make it comprehensible. I’m not sure if I understand what happened myself or if it’s a story that was meant to be told or if I’m the right person to tell it. Wendy wasn’t there; she hasn’t come over in a while. I could leave it at that. But I won’t.
I’ll try to be brief. I lost early but I won it all back and then some. There was a hand of Scrotum with eight dollars in the pot. Eight people shook their cards over the felt as if we were witches and warlocks and the table was about to turn to wood nymphs and lox plates. We looked from our drink holders and chip trays and Chris Cooney’s hand was hovering two inches above the edge, his hat brim low on his brow, four of something clutched between his pinky and thumb.
Ben and Jensen played quietly. Abby was unusually kind. Beer was continually being knocked over, kicked, poured intentionally on the wooden floor. From the moment Jamie walked in there was something between him and Andrew. “I’ve seen you,” Andrew said.
“You don’t know me,” Jamie told him.
“I know you,” Andrew reiterated.
There were so many people; I’m losing my thread. They sat on steel carts and couch cushions. I dragged a new chair up from the street, bought from a bum’s shopping cart for six bucks. We played high-low Omaha until we were sick and yellow. This is what’s important: With two aces, a king, a jack, and a ten on the board, Noam Cohen rode the bus to the end of the line and lost everything in a simple Hold’em match-up with Andrew Miller. Andrew had three aces and Noam had seven eight in the hole. Noam had nothing. He bet on things that had no chance of winning. He’s a PhD student. He followed a mouse of the edge off a cliff, never once stopping to ask himself what he would do if he actually caught the mouse. There was no exit plan. Later, when almost everyone had left and only the saloons remained open, he asked if he could join our high stakes game. Andrew, Jamie, and I had settled into a one dollar, two dollar and I said no way.
“What are you doing?” Andrew asked.
“He’s a fish,” Jamie said.
“You’ll lose ten dollars in one hand. You can’t afford it,” I told Noam. So Noam left. But that’s not what this is about either. Noam will do fine with his degree and his ivory tower. He’ll be rewarded for his life of hard work with a small stipend and a parking spot. This is not about Noam.
This is about Eli. His lost innocence. What passed between Eli and Andrew. What Eli gave and Andrew stole. How Andrew ripped Eli off and nobody noticed. How Andrew still owes Eli six dollars and twenty-five cents. How Eli can never go back now, because once you’ve given it away for free you never get paid again. That is what this is about.
And it’s partly my fault. Mostly it isn’t. If somebody asked me if I blamed myself, I’d say yes, and then no. The thing is, I’ve already told most people that the first time I was in Las Vegas I spent three days in jail. I’ve also mentioned many times the evening I lost my last six hundred dollars in West Yellowstone, Montana and how that broke up my would-be marriage and ruined me for several years. I would have told Eli these things but I guess I figured he knew already, since everybody else does. But he didn’t, and he was looking to learn his own lessons. And there are people in this world, like those cowboys outside of national parks, or the old men who lured Jon Berry into a basement and taught him how to play poker when he was six years old, or Andrew Miller. There are people like Andrew Miller waiting to offer a ride to a young buck like Eli Horowitz and skin him to the bone.
I’m trying to be brief. It was Eli’s last hand of the night. Ben and Leland were sliding their backpacks across their shoulders. Jamie and Andrew had settled into a kind of quiet violence. Andrew had a thin layer of shine on his skin and young Eli was grinning ear to ear as he tried to cash out for sixteen dollars and twenty-five cents—six dollars and twenty-five cents ahead of the curve. Andrew looked up at Eli, who was standing at the time, and said, “How about we draw high card for that six dollars and twenty-five cents of yours.”
It needs to be pointed out that I was halfway drunk. Also, I had cleaned the apartment. Eli had given himself a haircut recently, while the hair on Andrew’s face, head, and neck was essentially the same length. At any rate, Eli said, “Sure. I won it. I’m a gambler.”
So they drew cards and Eli took six-dollars and twenty-five cents from Andrew Miller. That gave Eli Horowitz twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. Are you following this? Because this is where everything turned. Eli Horowitz could not bring himself to walk out of that room. I had my palm sunk in a shoebox full of clay chips. You have to understand, I live in a studio. There’s a chocolate factory across the street. I don’t even own a television set. And Andrew Miller stared out across the ridge of his knuckles at Eli Horowitz and said, “Double or nothing.”
But I did tell Eli not to do it. “Cash out and go home,” I said. “School’s over. You don’t want this.” But by then the addiction had settled on his cornea like a small lightning storm.
Fine, they drew cards again, a six and a three, Eli lost, cashed out for ten dollars, and went home an adult. Andrew, Jamie, and I played for a couple more hours. Shannon arrived at 11:30. By midnight we were done. Fair and square, right? Wrong. Follow the math.
Double or nothing on a six dollar and twenty-five cent bet is still six dollars and twenty-five cents. At the time of the double or nothing Eli had twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. When Eli lost double or nothing he paid not as if he had bet double or nothing but as if he had bet double, as in, double the bet, make it twelve-fifty. Do you see where this is going? When Eli lost the second bet, he should have been back down to where he engaged the shark, sixteen dollars and twenty-five cents, but he wasn’t‹he was down to ten, and Andrew had six dollars and twenty-five cents of Eli’s money. Nobody pointed it out, particularly Andrew Miller.
I woke up this morning and the knowledge of what had happened was screwing its way through my head like a surgical drill. Sometimes sickness and insight wear the same dress. Does it matter, you ask. Can’t Andrew just pay Eli the money? First off, Andrew is very unlikely to pay Eli the money he stole, if that was even the point. It isn’t. The point is Eli, and what happened to Eli in the moments between the time he turned in his chips and when he left the house. That is what this is about. That’s what matters.
“You sure you don’t want to grab one more drink?” Andrew said to Jamie as I followed them into the hallway. They were both leaving ahead. All three of us were up on the night. “It doesn’t feel like the night is over.”
“It’s over for me,” Jamie said, as I locked the door twice behind them.
The Poker Report
October 4, 2003
“Getting To Know You, Since 2001”
For Lee, Another Lucky Chance
Last night was Lee’s going away party. He wasn’t going away just yet, but he was going away soon, for sure. I thought I would miss the little guy but I guess I won’t know until he’s holed away working on his novel in the Catskills, the American Dream I suppose. Sometimes it takes me years before I realize I miss somebody. He was the one who saw the potential in this report. I was just writing it; he brought it to the masses.
Because Lee was leaving, I drank too much and at the end of the night I was huddled next to the Latin America Club with my head on some girl’s shoulder. She was making promises she had no intention of keeping and I was guaranteeing her she’d get nothing in return. “There’s nothing in it for you,” I kept mumbling like a mantra. Her friends were rushing her off for pizza slices, pulling on her collar. “Ignore them,” she told me, as I tried to pull away, the street lamps like disco balls. I hadn’t done anything wrong.
This morning the sky was dirty and oval. The popular diner was empty because it was early and cold so I ate outside with my jacket on before going to Andrew’s house and waking him and his roommate and demanding we make our return to the Lucky Chances Casino in Colma for the Saturday morning poker tournament.
“Why do you want to do that?” he asked, peeling his corduroy jacket off the doorframe, his face the color of spinach pasta.
“I have manuscripts to read,” I told him. “I’m teaching a novel writing course at the university. This is the only way I know to avoid it in good conscience.”
Andrew doesn’t have a license, but he drives a big truck. We buy in just at the starting bell. We only missed one hand.
There is glory in life, times when beauty comes in unexpected packages. Moments worth living for even on the worst days of the year. There are people who love you even when you doubt their affection. There is a happiness that runs like a vein of gold below certain hills, a clarity of intent, and a straight, unambiguous answer to every question. My first big hand of the morning: king queen of clubs. I had two pairs and a flush draw on fourth street. Can you imagine what that feels like? It feels like everything else is supposed to feel like when it’s finished, but so rarely does.
Outside the casino, it was the intermission, and Andrew was having a cigarette. He was about to get blinded and he knew it. You can’t buy back in the tourney once your chips are gone and he was already talking about the six-dollar/twelve-dollar table, wondering if he would be able to find someone to watch the new Quentin Tarantino movie with him this Tuesday. I had given him two free tickets because he’s such a pal. The fog on the mountains was unmoving, like it was painted there to diffuse the sunlight over the cemetery. The tournament had been running an hour, sixty dollars gets you fifteen hundred in chips. I had already doubled my stack. “Look at it,” I said to Andrew, who was scraping the tobacco from his boot. “You couldn’t paint that if you wanted to.”
Back at the table there was a five hundred dollar chip in front of my stack. I had won a card split without even being there. This is how tournaments work. This is what it feels like to be alive. It can look the same here every Saturday: tennis visors, golf shirts, Vietnamese waitresses. It’ll look the same until you decide you’re ready to see things differently. I was ready to do that. I had a king and a jack unsuited. I had thirty-five hundred in chips. King jack nine came on the flop. Everything was diamonds, hearts, and spades. There wasn’t a flush for miles. The only pollution left in the valley of gods was an open straight. I slow played. There was fifteen hundred dollars on the table, but I didn’t take it. I walked my greed the way some people walk their dogs. And though the money isn’t real it matters. It matters so much I could cry. I could have picked up fifteen hundred dollars without even leaning forward. But I checked and on fourth street he bet two grand and I came back over the top with twenty-five large and he knew with a fierce certainty that he had been made. In my life to this point I had never done anything quite so perfect and clear of purpose.
With twenty-four players left from a hundred I had eight thousand dollars. I’ve never placed; I’ve never come close. With the tourney getting smaller I felt what it feels like to want something so bad that even having it could never be enough. When it’s $1,000-$2,000 your money isn’t worth anything. When the blinds are going up you can get knocked out just for not getting the cards. And even if the money isn’t real your fist tightens and your heart pumps deep in your throat. Andrew got knocked out a long time ago. He is like a super-hero sometimes, my poker partner, the guy I can count on no matter what, the one who gets out of bed when everyone else stays sick and asleep, as if Saturday morning was some clean excuse for not living, for giving-up. Not Andrew. He was at the six/twelve now, his cape bunched around his crumpled shoulders, the guy next to him slurping soup from a ceramic bowl, the clock just passing noon.
So close, so close. It was all so unfair. If evil were two words those words would be pocket nines. I was third off the button. Back down to thirty-five hundred. I pushed two thousand into the green and got called. I was three hours deep. A kid across from me raised on the flop and I went all in. What else could I do? I was one blind away from being knocked out. What were my odds on a better hand? I had a pair, dammit, and just one overcard. There was a king showing. He probably had it. But maybe not. Maybe he had an ace queen? I knew he had a king, and probably a wife and a child he’d abandoned somewhere. I never doubted for a moment. I saw him sitting there, his fat red face, all that acne, and pushed the last of my chips off the board, into the abyss. Why not trips on the river? I had two chances for two cards; I was finished.
You don’t pull a nine when you need it. Not when you’ve bet all your money already. Not even when you’re number seventeen and if you can make in the top ten people will look at you with respect and whisper after you in the hallways, “That guy right there, he’s a player.” I watched; I waited. I didn’t need to. I had nowhere else to go.
On the ride home I told Andy about my pocket nines. “You have to bet that,” he said. We were listening to a band he played in, the one that never made it. He still looked chalky and green, like a Sprite can left at a construction site a week later.
“I think I played it right,” I told him, but I didn’t feel that way. I had tasted greatness and now my hangover was coming back. I didn’t kiss her last night; I just put my head on her shoulder. Nobody believes you when you say you want some mothering. They always think it’s a pickup line. “What else do you want? What would we do after that?” My book went to press yesterday. On the cover there’s a picture of a man pushing his face against a hand. There’ll be a home game soon, in my apartment, a week and a half from today. Looking for action in a casino is like taking a prostitute to a baseball game. I don’t even like baseball. Next week I’ll tighten up. Tight and strong, that’s how you do it. That’s what all the books say.
Andrew and I were quiet for a while then. We were on the highway, listening to his music, to the band he used to play in. The fog burned away as the truck rounded the airport, the windows open, the planes dipping toward the runways. Andrew’s backup vocals came piping from the speakers, just like they were supposed to.
The Poker Report
September 30, 2003
Guest columnist: Jamie Berger
The night started out auspiciously enough. I met Eric Martin for a quick drink at the Uptown, a pre-poker night joint if ever there was one, and then we hoofed it the three blocks to Steve’s. I was wearing my “Lucky” shirt. I just got it recently, so I don’t know if it actually brings any luck, but the name Lucky is embroidered onto the breast pocket, and that fellow Lucky on the cable TV plays good poker, so I thought what the heck. When we got there, a further omen of my coming fortune was that Steve lives in apartment #9, which has always been my number. So things were looking rosy for the rookie.
The two of us, along with the host and the legendary Ben and Donahue, made five, and we got right down to it. The radio was playing the A’s going into extra innings trying to clinch the division. We all took turns imitating A’s announcer Bill King, who was rapidly losing what was left of his voice. The game at the table was hold ’em, the cards were the George Bush deck, and I was getting way too many Jebs and Elliot Abramses and not enough royalty, Rumsfelds and Cheneys and the like. Kind of odd to want Don and Dick on your side, but that was the name of the game. Ben was playing lots of hands to the end and winning a few. Eric was taking a few, and I snuck one in there when my Ashcroft (ace) met a Rumsfeld (ace) on the turn.
Another Steve showed up with beer and toilet paper, and the talk turned briefly to Friendster and a woman I’d managed to meet thereon by pointing out that I have a similar cat to the one she’s holding in her online photo. I’m not sure what I was thinking bringing that one up, and the spate of unquotable feline wordplay and abuse that followed threw me way off my game for a while and left Steve E. in hysterics.
Host Steve was bleeding dollars to Eric, at one point saying “Another bullshit Eric Martin move” when the man sometimes known as Redcoat tried to push him around with a massive fifty cent bet on fourth street. Steve folded, Eric won the hand, and suddenly it was like Groundhog’s Day with Eric winning just about every hand he played. He took back all of Ben’s winnings in a hand of roll ’em, then played two-five suited, flopped a flush and never looked back. In the high hands, he got all Condy Rice (queen, of course) and up. In the low hands, he was always in the sweet little undersecretary numbers.
From then, maybe 8:15, until around 11 when we called it quits, Eric “forget Redcoat, call me ‘Moneymaker’” Martin remained aflame. Donahue offered the brilliant, and maybe a tad bitter: “It’s really easy to make a lot of money when you have the right cards.” Eric sheepishly shrugged and kept right on winning. To his credit, his cards were insane, but he played them properly every time.
And then came the hand. It was hold ‘em. The board paired fours and threes with a nine on the river. A couple of fools stayed in as Eric bet the max to the end, somehow still imagining that he wasn’t holding a four or a three, or maybe hoping he’d have a three for a smaller boat to their four or even pocket nines and they’d take him for a big one. In the end, of course, no one else had much of anything and Eric turned over a four… and another four. Homeboy had hit quads!
We kept rebuying, Eric kept winning. The A’s clinched in the eleventh. At around 10:30, and bearing Bud and Fritos, the big money arrived in the persons of MacAdam/Cage publisher David Poindexter and Jeff “I just wanna make the poker report” Edwards. Ben and Donahue hit the bricks and we upped the stakes. Doe-eyed, how-do-you-play-this-game-again? Jeff took us for a couple hands, one high, one low, then quickly started contributing to the Feed Redcoat fund. I managed to take half a hand with a low when I realized at the last second that everyone else was going to go high. I won it with my zany king low, a kind of booby/consolation prize that semi-salvaged my night. Soon enough, though, Eric was back in the driver’s seat and the fatcats were reaching for their wallets.
There was a cig break out on the back stairs and talk of books and writers and writing and the many ways to spell success therein, then back inside for one more round o’ whoopin’ from Mr. Martin. When it all was over, Eric counted out $67 in profits. I asked if that was a record, and Steve quickly said no, he’d had some slightly bigger nights, but that was pretty damn good. Then Eric noticed a fat pile of black ($1) chips he’d neglected to tally.
After the recount, Eric’s $95 take was indeed a record-breaker for Steve’s House o’ Poker, and out of graciousness and guilt he even bought himself and me a copy of the current Believer with Steve’s Howard Dean piece in it. It was hard to begrudge Moneymaker his big day—Eric’s a Red Sox fan, after all, so he was probably just getting an early payback from the powers that be for the Sox imminent, hapless demise in the playoffs to come. I think my twelve buck loss was good for third place, and that’s actually some solace.
September 24, 2003
Live From The Lucky Chances In Colma
Andy is tight and hungover when his truck stops in front of the Folsom Poker Palace, where I’ve lived for the past four years, but where I’m moving from soon, just past ten on Saturday morning. At first he doesn’t want to let me in the truck because I’m wearing sandals. “Dude, you’ll make me look bad.” But we’re already late, the tournament starts in twenty minutes, I haven’t played poker in a month, and the readers of the report are angry. I couldn’t get a game at home so we’re making a special trip.
I’ve been in Asia touring Nike factories since August. I’m one of two writers on the sponsored Nike Writing Team. All of my liberal friends think I’m a sellout, but I’ve been gone so long I’ve forgotten everything.
In the elevator, Andy brings me up to date on the basics. The first thing he says is he’s voting for Wesley Clark. The second thing he says is don’t play low pairs or low-suited connectors in early position. He says he’ll play anything when he’s on the button. He says fold ace ten after a raise in late position unless you don’t like the look of the man doing your math. Andy’s got a drinking problem and a new haircut. I tell him I’ll check in with him after the bell.
There are 106 players in the tourney today. A third of them are in late position at any given time. The grand prize is $1,650, but you only have to come in the top fifteen to finish in the money and make it a Saturday morning worth talking about. I’ve never finished in the money. I’ve never said anything Saturday afternoon. But I know I have it in me to win, though I haven’t yet, ever since I first stepped in Caesar’s Palace, full of dirt and dust from six days on the interstate. I was fourteen years old, a runaway, and hitchhiking across country with my friend John. The waitresses wore short skirts and long tights and gave us glasses of water on gold plated trays with free matchbooks on either side. Then the police showed up and I spent three days in the Las Vegas juvenile detention center. But that’s another story. The point is I’ve known since that time that I could be a winner in a place like this.
The game is Texas Hold’em, the betting is progressive. Andy gets the last spot and I’m the first alternate so I bide my time on the rail. The coffee’s the worst I’ve ever tasted. It tastes the way something tastes when you’re ready for action but you’re not getting any. I consider getting warm at a one dollar/two dollar, but the best players there average four dollars an hour. I like to think I’m worth more than that. I stare across the sea of card players. Give me your bald, your troubled gamblers, your Saturday morning lonely, those who bore easily, still dressed in fashions of the night before. I’m ready to sit with the khakied masses, sights set tennis visor yellow.
Before I found poker I played euchre and spades. I once fell in love at a blackjack table at three in the morning in Atlantic City. It was before I knew any better. She was wearing pink taffeta; her skin was the color of New Castle Brown Ale. I had a hundred dollars I couldn’t seem to lose and I was sleeping on the boardwalk when I was sleeping at all. She worked in a car repair shop in New York, I remember that much, and the Taj Mahal had given her a free room. She said she always spent all she had, didn’t like to hold on to things. I told her I was engaged but it wasn’t working out. I was tired and I thought she was wonderful; I thought there was something romantic about two gamblers meeting far away from home. She was a big woman with big dry hair, and an air-conditioned suite with a view. She was dressed like she was going to her high school prom but that must have been thirty years ago. She might have had a bow in her hair. I was twenty-three years old and you can’t win at blackjack and when I figured that out I never played again. I never went back to that wretched place.
It’s just after eleven when I’m called to my seat.
“Nobody is always a winner, and anybody who says he is, is either a liar or doesn’t play poker.”
By the time my name is called I’ve been blinded out of $125 in fake chips, nearly ten percent of what my $60 went for, so effectively six bucks. I play tight and wait for a round and watch the blinds getting stolen by a frat boy wearing headphones.
I don’t know what I have when I first enter the pot but I know it doesn’t hold up. A pair of eights third from the dealer gets mashed by two jacks. My straight draw loses to a full house and by that time small blind is $75, big blind is $150. I’ve got $300 left and I need to pick a hand before the button comes back around and I get blinded out.
I pick eight nine unsuited and go all in on the opening bet. Everybody folds except one and he turns over a pair of tens. The flop comes queen jack six. It’s ironic, I could straight draw with a ten but he already has two of them. The next card is a four, then another six. I’m done early.
It’s good when people think you’re a bad player. It means they’ll chase you when you pull aces in the hole. It means your flush is good. The last thing you want when you’re sitting with the nuts is respect from the rest of the table. But none of that does you any good in a tournament when your money’s gone and there are no buy-backs. At that point you can only stand up. Everybody else has a piece of something that once belonged to you. I could have said something like, “Actually, I’m a good player,” which is what my editor said to me once after losing eight games of chess to me. “Actually, I’m a good chess player,” he said. And I remember my response to him. I see my face reflected in the sunglasses at that table, sucker written underneath like a marquee. But that was fake money. I buy a chocolate shake and make my way over to the six/twelve.
It costs two hundred dollars to sit at a six/twelve table but three hundred to play a nine/eighteen. You could sit at a one/two all day with fifty dollars in your pocket. For your trouble they give you three dollars off a ham and cheese omelet in the cafe when it’s all over and you’re through crying.
The table is beyond my income level and possibly my skill, though more expensive tables do not necessarily host better players. Still, if you don’t have the money to back it up, you won’t play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I blame Ben for this. If he had showed up to play poker at the palace on Wednesday I wouldn’t be here today. No Ben no poker, that’s the way that game goes. Anyway, I don’t have much money, but what I do have I didn’t work very hard for and that makes it easy to spend. Plus, I don’t have kids or a wife, no one in the world is counting on me for anything, so what else would I do with it? Buy a bookshelf?
But you know what, the players are soft today, and the hands pay. After all, I wasn’t the only loser in the tournament. My first big hand is a monster queen seven of hearts followed by a jack two of clubs. My flushes are paying triple. Every deal gets six callers even if you raise before the flop. The river is good to me and delivers a three on my ace. Fourth Street is for busted straights. And when I get queens in the hole (known in the industry as Siegfried and Roy), Alice gets aces and we cap the pot first for twenty-four dollars, and then for forty-eight. A third caller stays. A queen lands on the flop but that doesn’t stop her and I win over a hundred and fifty on one hand.
Because the table is paying I’m playing loose. I decide everything suited is good, unless I’m first after the big blind otherwise I stay. A shark sits to my right and criticizes me for making three bets on a king jack of clubs while he’s waiting for a seat at the twenty/forty. “I beat you,” I tell him, “So maybe you’re not so good.” I wink at Alice who has started to win her money back. She looks away.
The last woman I dated, a demon from San Leandro, took my poker winnings when I broke up with her a month ago. I had won $280 over the course of our three-month relationship and she had said that everything I won while we were together was hers so I had pinned it to my wall in a white envelope with her name on it. It was my own fault. I broke up with her in my apartment and she ripped the envelope down before she left. I’d like to ask her back out but I think it’s too late now. I wouldn’t tell her about today. She understood me perfectly.
Andrew hit a streak at table thirty-two and is walking the floor with three concave plastic trays and a dull look on his face. He says we have to go because he’s afraid he might pass out and asks me not to forget to tell everyone in the report that he’s a winner. I say, “Don’t worry man, you’re my poker partner in crime.” And I throw an arm around his skinny unwashed shoulders, the scent of vodka still steaming off his clothes. “Who could ever read my reports and think anything else?”
At four-thirty in the afternoon it’s still sunny out south of San Francisco and I have three hundred and fifty dollars I don’t deserve. We’re in a truck and we’re going back to the city. Casinos are dark, climate-controlled places that never close and often serve good Mongolian Beef. The future is glorious. I’m going to see Michelle Tea tonight and spend quality time with people I love. I have all these great memories and money in every pocket. I’ve never felt so good in my life.
Editor’s Note: Stephen Elliot is traveling, and unable to host his regular game, so this week, we bring you this “classic” poker report.
February 26, 2002
Basketball With Midgets
A little guy, 5’4" tops, with a long torso, small, skinny legs, tiny arms, elbows close to his shoulders, pale flaccid skin, a square helmet of thick brown hair almost to his eyebrows and wide rimmed specs. We played two on two. He motioned to his teammate. “Cut to the hole,” the little guy said. They were beating us six nothing. The midget was a hack, grabbing my arms, leaning against my hip. And his partner was a steamroller. The midget shot two handed, favoring neither side, launching the ball from behind his ears.
It was a nice day, but it wasn’t that nice of a day. “I know you,” the little guy said, holding the ball where his fingers ended just above his waist.
“No,” I said. “You don’t know me.” Sweat was pouring over my nose. I had been hoping to see Fox later. Bicycle out to the Sunset, have a cup of coffee. She always makes me feel better. And after that our weekly poker game, seven o’clock. I could see the little man was going to ruin all of that.
“You’re the poet,” he said. “I saw your reading.”
“Which one?” I asked, though I could guess.
“The one for the magazine. WatchWord Press.”
He passed the ball in but I stole it from his partner and lobbed it to my teammate, a marketing executive from San Diego, who layed it in easily.
“I know Danielle,” the human torso told me, waddling along on his stumps. “I’m a poet too.” His shorts looked monstrously heavy for the weather, thick woven corduroy hanging an inch before his little ankles. He stole the ball from me and popped an easy shot from beyond the three-point arc. It was uncanny. The little guy had a global positioning system locked into his skull.
I was being creamed by a poet the size of a hubcap. I’m not a very good basketball player. “I know Danielle,” I said. “So what do you think of those?”
He looked at me like he didn’t understand. Some poet. We continued playing for another thirty minutes. I gave it everything I had and when it was all over my feet hurt and I had scored a total of three points. It didn’t seem fair, the lost youth, the long Tuesday afternoon, basketball with spectacular midgets. The little bastard. I had a looming deadline for a book review. Things were coming due. He knows Danielle, right, that’ll be the day.
“Good playing with you man,” he said. I was packing up my backpack. Planning to stop and see the Arabs, pick up my mail. I think I burned my face.
“I’ll stretch you,” I whispered through my teeth.
“What?” he asked balling up his little fists.
“Good game,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, relaxing his hands. “And I really liked your poem.”
It was a warm Tuesday night and there was a lot of screaming on the street. There was a quiet violence snaking its way through Sutro Towers, drifting past Bernal Heights, thin fingers of angry fog blowing slowly to the open windows.
Ben was in a foul mood. He got mad early because I turned over his cards and Andy walked in with a Street Sheet and declared that Cornfed Cooney would be bumming money on Ceasar Chavez by the end of the night. Andy Miller said Cooney was working for him now. Donahue called me a fuck. I told him to go back to Utah. My editor showed up just past seven with a twelve pack. Abby came closer to eight. Jensen stopped by, quietly lost thirty dollars, and left.
There were cookies. Wendy with the thin mints dealt me five queens playing baseball. Abby walked in with no beers but two boxes of Peppridge Farm assortment. Why are women so much nicer than men? There was a big game of 7/27, but the sevens went three ways.
Ben said that the more I talked the more he won, but it wasn’t true, because I talked a lot and Ben broke even. It was actually the opposite, every time Ben laughed I won the hand. He chased eight four suited, and rubbed Wendy’s small row of coins. I was stacking chips with two hands, tight and aggressive. Wendy and Ben left when Wendy had nothing, two hours after Fox called to tell me she was mad at Ben too, that Ben should be a better person. And he will be, if he thinks about things. But that was after the incident.
My editor played well but drank too many beers too fast. When my editor gets drunk he remembers things that didn’t happen and forgets things that did. When he got drunk he started harping about two games of chess he had won for twenty dollars a game. It was a lie. My editor is a terrible chess player, one of the worst. I had to point out that he had never beaten me in two games of chess, that I would have thrown myself from the sixth floor window if he ever beat me in two games of chess. That of the many games we played he had beat me only one time. And the last time I played him for a hundred dollars I beat him easily and he still owed me twenty dollars for taking back a move. He called me a liar. He wanted to round up on his poker winnings and split. He had a baby at home and a drunken, skulking face. He thought twenty-four fifty equaled twenty-five. I told him to give me my twenty and get out. He said he wanted all of the books back he ever loaned me. I said I never had any intention of reading them. He said he didn’t owe me twenty dollars, all his debts were paid in full. I said I was going to take everything he had, his truck, his home, everything, to the last penny, until he finally admitted to himself and to the world that he was a lousy chess player. I was going to do it for his own good.
Looking back on the violence of the night I remember hanging out at Boone School on the north side of Chicago. There was an Andy Miller there too, a different Andy Miller. A big kid, fresh out of the military, still wearing cami jackets with beefy, hulking shoulders. Andy Miller in Chicago once told me he could beat up anybody in our group. We were younger and listened to heavy metal but we had numbers and I said I didn’t think he could beat up Nicko. The next day Nicko showed at the schoolyard sporting a black eye and wanted to fight me. I told Nicko I was sorry, but I had thought he would be able to take him.
“Are you going to let him come back,” Jon asked me. The five of us kept playing after my editor left, Andy, Jon, Abby, Cooney, and myself. I poured vodka greyhounds for the remaining players. I had fresh grapefruit juice in the fridge. Jensen was gone. Ben and Wendy had left. My editor was out of the picture. The greyhounds were refreshing and we played Clue. It was nice to see Abby again. I hadn’t seen her in awhile and she was playing like a champ.
At one point in the night I was up sixty dollars. I lost a big hand to Jon, twenty-five dollars, and he cashed out even at 11pm after buying in for thirty dollars. I still pulled up thirty-five. I was sober most of the night. Steady-play covered me on my big mistake. The vodka was going to my head, there were midgets dribbling basketballs across the cement court in my mind.
“Are you talking about my editor,” I asked Jon, and he nodded his head. There had been a lot of Omaha and I had won a lot of high hands. But I had never taken a low. You can’t play better than an eight when you do that. If it was another night, or a different city, a place where thirty-five bucks could go a little farther. Or a different game, like the kind rich people play, with safety nets. But I didn’t care about anything by the end of it.
“No,” I told him, getting up to change the music. Life isn’t like chess, it’s not a gentleman’s game and you can’t take back any moves. In chess you force your opponent into a place where he can only lose. Life is more like poker, you lie and you fight and you win anyway you can. Life is ugly, only the women make it worthwhile. “No,” I told him. “Not until he gives me my twenty bucks.”
August 26, 2003
The Architecture of Loss
It would be hard to say when and where my losing streak began, but if forced, I’d guess it came yesterday at 2 p.m. at Artichoke Joe’s casino in San Bruno.
I had been working already for twenty-four hours on the first chapter of a novel that was heading to the printer shortly. We’d just decided the other day to tell the story backwards, so what was the last chapter became the first chapter and things were messy. My editor summed up the problems as having to do with pacing, dialogue, and plot. He seemed certain I could fix it and asked me not to call him at home with anymore breakthroughs. Anyway, I couldn’t see how things should turn out; I’d been up since before sunrise. I haven’t been sleeping well. Earlier, a doctor had run an extension down my nose looking for nasal cysts, and I was cranked out over the recall election, still deeply uncertain if a certain movie-star Republican wouldn’t make a better governor than the one we’ve got.
San Bruno is like a frontier town in the early afternoon: sparsely populated, too sunny, and hot. The wind like a dry laugh caught in your throat. The dominant views are the hills beyond the highway painted South San Francisco, the industrial city. It’s the worst place imaginable; the kind of place where a Starbucks would be an improvement. I sat and lost three hands for eighty dollars in less than an hour at a three six. I lost two of those pairs to full houses on the river. I bet hard straights and then I got up and went for a walk. I asked them to save my seat, then I asked how to get to the Bart station, then I left.
Ben showed up first tonight. Followed by long tall Cooney, who arrived on a tiny motorcycle, his knees buckling against his helmet. Komal and Andy and Eric Jensen, then Wendy. “There’s a lot of testosterone here tonight,” Wendy said.
“Many of the best poker players secretly want to be women,” I told her. Then a friend of Andy’s, Mona, and Mona’s friend, arrived and we had eight players plus one sitting on the sidelines watching, waiting to go to a concert in Oakland.
I forgot to go to the cash station before the game and nobody would loan me any money until Andy Miller agreed to cash a check for me. People have become bad sports over the last couple of years. We’ve lost our camaraderie.
There was a lot of trash-talking and my losing streak continued. Pairs kept flopping before the turn, and I just couldn’t quite accept that anyone had trips. Cooney, who never wins and always bluffs, pulled a nut clubs straight sinking Komal in an early route. “I’ve been setting you up for that for two and a half years.”
Ben, who had insisted nobody loan me any money, lost fast and furious, while Wendy raked chips, never raising, only calling when she had it, quiet and clean. Cat Fox, my traveling partner and circus performer and former gold-medal Olympian, stopped by briefly to pick up her ticket to Hong Kong and nodded toward the half-finished mural she had left on my wall. “I’m going to finish that one day.”
Andrew, as usual, mucked his cards and then demanded to see the cards of the other player, a move that is strictly against house rules.
“We play casino rules,” he bellowed drunkenly.
“No,” I calmly told him, “We play house rules.” He said he was going to smoke. I said he was going to go outside or pay five dollars a cigarette. Then there was this other moment—I forgot what or why—when I told Andrew he was about to have his membership revoked. But I don’t know what that was all about.
Jensen brought tall boys and shared them with Komal, a guy used to losing money on a larger scale than the rest of us; a guy made half-wealthy by starting and leaving failed corporations.
Wendy told Ben when it was time to go. After one too many games of night baseball and scrotum-sticky fingers it came down to Komal and Andrew and myself. We upped the game to one dollar/two dollar, small blind/big blind, standard low stakes Texas Hold’em. But the pot kept eating my money, and I began to wonder if another drink was really the answer to what was happening here. I had to write Andrew another check at the end of the night. He wanted to cash out for $40.85. The place was strung with empty beer cans, like a demented Christmas tree. The leg on the poker table was busted; we had been reduced to savages. Nobody takes out the recycling anymore, nobody pays a rake, everybody wants something for nothing, everybody wants to round up, which is exactly how California ended up in this mess, spending money it doesn’t have, sending people to jail and keeping them there long after their sentences have been served. It’s the politics of inconsideration; it always comes back to that in the end, who paid what to whom, when. I was drunk.
“I’m not giving you eighty-five cents, you greedy bastard,” I said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Fine, here’s a quarter.”
“Fuck your quarter. I’m giving you forty dollars.”
“Hey,” Andrew said. “Some of us work.”
“You told me last week you only work fifteen minutes a day.” I wrote him a check for forty dollars and eighty-five cents. I made it out to Andrew “cheap bastard” Miller. I gave Komal and Andrew two sacks full of waste to take with them to the curb; they’d still be there come morning. When they left, I mopped the beer Ben had spilled out of the plastic drink holders. Losing is hard. On the fire escape, there’s a plant I left to die; pigeons come there now to lay their eggs.
August 20, 2003
It was a short, quiet night at the poker palace.
Ben was out of town this week and when he’s out of town most people won’t show up at my place to play poker. Basically, Ben is the draw, or the glue, or the rake, depending on what you’re trying to describe and why you’re trying to describe it. If Ben isn’t there then Wendy isn’t there. And if Wendy isn’t there then there’s no free cookies. You can forget about Abby and Abby’s brother Eric. Donahue won’t even return my phone calls if Ben’s not in town. It’s like, when Ben’s gone, people aren’t even nice to me.
So it was Tuesday, and Andy and I had what could have been called a stroke of genius, if it had worked out. The idea was we would have a ladies night at the poker palace. We would schedule a poker game and invite only women. We’re both recently single, (I broke up with my girlfriend when she called her other boyfriend from my apartment), and the idea was that we would get eight women to come over and play poker with us on Thursday. Genius, right?
Anyway, it just didn’t work. The response of every woman we invited was the same, a sneering kind of “what’s in it for me?” thing. It’s a complicated question with a lot of possible answers. I guess what we were going for was the old maxim of Nirvana, where after hours of fantastic sex the woman turns into eight guys at a card table, except that we were trying for that in reverse. But where there’s cards there’s beer, and sometimes chips or salted almonds. I mean, would you really want to follow a card game with romance?
Only if you win is probably the answer to that question.
It ended up with Jensen, Andy, myself, and two newcomers. Komal has long hair, but he’s definitely not a girl. Or if he is a girl then we’re all in trouble. And Jane Ransom showed up, which should have been a pretty hot event, since she wrote perhaps the best erotic novel of the 1990s. But, you know, four men, well I mean, just look at us.
Jane pulled a full house early but bet soft. Andrew retold the story from last week of how Eric Martin once killed a cat that was dying on his stairs after being hit by a car. A mercy killing with a baseball bat if you believe in such things. “But if the cat was dying,” Komal asked, “how’d he make it up the stairs?” The whole story hinged on whether or not you believe Eric Martin’s version of things.
Komal, playing here for the first time, lost everything, ten dollars, in two hours. Despite that he’s been playing hold’em for years. I didn’t really see what was wrong with Komal’s play. He played tight/weak, which is to say close to the vest. He only went in when the cards were worth something and he got blinded out and then once he was on the felt he didn’t know how to get off. Komal has twice started companies that have gone bankrupt. I decided I wouldn’t let him start a company for me. Jane lost fourteen dollars, slowly. “I’m here to lose,” she said.
Jensen almost broke even. It was the end of the night, he had ten dollars and twenty cents on a ten dollar buy in. “I’m cashing out. I’m even”
Jensen never cashes out even. “One more hand,” I said. Jensen lost four dollars on the last hand and cashed out for six bucks, more bitter than when he arrived. “Your poker game sucks,” he said.
Andy does low tech work for a high tech company and is waiting for the day they pin an envelope full of sawbucks to the side of his small cubicle and ask him to go home for the rest of his life. He won two dollars for the night, despite the fact that he spends thirty hours a week playing poker online. “Do you think you’re a better poker player than me?” he asked, because I won twenty dollars. I laughed, and said I definitely was. “You don’t really think that,” he said. I looked into his sad addicted face. It’s a trick of poker, since the best thing for a player is if other people don’t think he’s a good player. In theory it’s what you want. But in practice, people’s feelings get hurt.
“No,” I said. “You’re definitely a better player. Definitely.” Everybody laughed, except Andrew. “You’re up two dollars,” I said. “People like you. Your future is paved with opportunity. What more do you want?”
August 14, 2003
Guest columnist: Todd James Pierce
I arrived at Stephen Elliott’s apartment slightly cocktailed, but toting a cold six-pack of diet Coke in the type of thin plastic bags doled out in ghetto liquor stores. Steve’s digs are in a tall warehouse building that ten years from now will probably be lifestyle condos or lofts, but right now appeared to be a prime location for Cops. As we walked up to the outer steel security gate through a group of overly-pierced teens, my buddy Adam Johnson said, “Talk to no one.”
Steve’s place was on an upper-floor, a painted cinderblock studio that immediately reminded me of the post-masturbatory shame and thrill of being thirteen: a stained mattress slanted up against a wall, some vaguely pornographic paintings hung above a desk, a CD jukebox thumping out Junior Mafia, a group that Steve would later explain some high-school students told him was cool. There were six guys at the table: Eric, Eric, Andy, Ben, Doug, and Steve.
Steve’s opening salvo: “Andy was just telling us he was going to lose again.”
“No,” Andy said, “I was saying, it’d be kind of cool to be known in the report again as the big loser.” He tipped back his lager. “Said with irony.”
The last time I played with Steve I got fleeced for twenty bucks and, worse, got tagged in the Poker Report as “the fool who never folds,” which was okay except that I did fold a number of hands. After the report was posted, Steve explained, “Well, you gotta make things sound good.”
The table had a mid-thirties feel to it: expensive beer, clay poker chips, felt tabletop. Unlike the poker games of my twenties, during which we would burn an occasional joint and chow down on Cheetos, this game was smoke-free, low-carb, but intensely competitive. After losing two pair to trip kings, Doug Dorst pulled a bag of carrots from his backpack. “The buffet is open,” he announced.
“Dude,” Adam said, “what’s with the carrots?”
“Baby carrots,” Doug corrected, “and they’re pre-washed.”
I wrote this line on the back of a postcard.
“You aren’t putting this in the report,” Doug said.
“Of course I’m putting this in the report.” I made a show of reading from the card. “Baby carrots,” I quoted. “And they’re pre-washed.”
The game was mostly Hold’em with a little seven-card thrown in.
I made sure to fold a lot of hands. There’d be no misunderstanding this time. I kept only pairs, suits, maybe a good high card or two-to-a-straight, at least until the flop. I played tight controlled hands because what I’d learned at Steve’s last game was this: though I could clean up at a game where half the crew was a little stoned or drunk or just plain feeling bad from junk food, focused sober people could easily roll me for twenty bucks.
By 10 p.m., I was up about ten bucks. Steve was down seven. And Andy was down twenty, ready to buy in for another ten. “Write this down,” Steve told me, “Andy is buying in for another ten.”
Slowly the rhythms of the game became clear. Ben never bluffed, neither did Doug. But Steve would stay in with insane crap—a high card or a low pair—and try to buy the pot. Once when Eric pulled a lucky inside straight, Steve said, “Traditionally with a six and an eight in the pocket, you’d lose.”
“Whatever,” Eric said, “just keep pushing the chips my way.”
Steve bitched about his love woes. His girlfriend had just sent him an e-mail about her upcoming birthday.
Steve: “So she CC-ed it to all of her ex-boyfriends.”
I ended up down four bucks. In the last hand I’d bet the farm on a full house (sevens over fours) only to be whooped by Doug’s full house (kings over tens). Andy predicted it—he was down twenty and change. Doug lost two bucks. Adam, five. Ben cleaned up, and Steve was sitting pretty, up ten.
So it was true, Steve was still the better player. But I’d like to think that my play had improved and that in a certain self-delusional light, a four dollar loss might be seen as “almost even.”
Unlike the games of my twenties that stretched to dawn and then to Del Taco, we cleared out at midnight. Adam had a one-year-old. Doug had papers to grade. I had to drive to Squaw Valley, where I had yet another reading.
I left with Adam and Doug, walking down the hallway, over what in Steve’s building passed for carpet. Before we made the stairs, Steve said, “What, you bastards aren’t even going to take the recycling?” Steve’s idea of recycling is to put bags full of empty bottles in front of the building and hope the bums take them away.
Adam: “You got our cash. What more do you want?”
Steve smiled. “Don’t put that in the report,” he said.
July 31, 2003
MacAdam/Cage vs. McSweeney’s
The sky was a blanket of grey last night, the clouds so thick you couldn’t even see the fog. There had been rain earlier, my girlfriend woke to thunder and flashing lights at 3 a.m. “Why won’t you let me sleep?” she said. “You’re selfish.” Later, in the cab to the train station, she would ask me why I was going to the train station with her. “You don’t have to, you know.” But it was the kind of joke she makes. We were already halfway there.
But she was gone, and I was mostly healed, and coming in her place were legions of McSweeney’s employees: editors, proofreaders, fact checkers, webmasters, and interns as well as Ben and Shady Andy and David Poindexter, the owner/publisher of MacAdam/Cage, and his trusty, well-dressed sidekick, JP.
Because it was a special occasion, I picked up a case of Budwieser at my local liquor store and on the way out a bum threw a beer can at me and hit me in the stomach and apologized. That’s the kind of neighborhood I live in. I didn’t bother to change my shirt.
Ben came over first, he’d been ripped off on the BART, and he was missing Wendy who he hadn’t seen in more than half a day. I made him an avocado sandwich to calm his nerves. Then Andy showed up, fresh from winning eighteen dollars playing poker online and maybe slightly angry because the world has yet to give him his due. And he wanted to know when the suckers would be showing up and I said they would soon, and soon they did.
Most of McSweeney’s crammed into my small studio. Noticeably absent were Barb and Yosh and Eggers, who says he prefers to win when he plays. I had sent Yosh emails begging her to stop by but she ignored my entreaties. There were too many people to seat, so Richard and his girl hung out on the couch drinking from forty ounce Miller bottles.
Early on, young Eli went all the way to fifth street two cards off an inside straight flush. “If I had gotten my card,” he said, “I would have won all that money.” Eli’s only twenty-five, the editor for a prestigious literary journal. He’s used to being treated like a king and making big decisions, the kind that affect lives. But he’s spent all his life learning his trade, there was never room for anything else, so now, when he’s out in the world, it’s like he’s starting from scratch.
Lee loves sixes and followed them in pairs around fourth street. Rose, who requested we play for M&Ms instead of money, sat next to Ben, and Ben taught Rose the finer points of Hold’em. “This is when you push and this is when you call,” he said, pouring his heart out between hands, telling Rose how much he missed his girl.
There were a lot of hands won by aces high and curiosity was king. Low pairs were taking huge gains. There were ten seats, there were six calling stations. Poindexter kept a lot of money in the pot. When Andy raised you knew it was a bluff, when Matt called he just wanted to see what was there, and when Ben went in it was time to go out. And it was ten at night when Lee, Gideon, Matt, Eli, Richard + 1, and Rose gathered themselves and their literary journal and huddled out into the Mission night to scavenge for food.
“To think,” I said. “We’ve been playing this house game for two and a half years and I haven’t even gotten any furniture. Think of all the people that have come and gone and how we haven’t gone anywhere at all.”
“Let’s raise the stakes,” Andy said. So we did. One dollar two dollar, fifty cents small blind.
“Here we are playing small money, and the pentagon is taking wagers for terrorists, pulling a five percent rake on who gets bombed next. It’s a strange world. The governor’s being recalled, I got even money on Gray Davis or better.”
At this point Andy asked if he could smoke inside and I said no, because we live in California. Andy said he would give me three dollars and I agreed to let everybody smoke inside my apartment for a dollar a cigarette.
Ben left, eleven dollars up, mostly Dave’s money, and we kept going. “You’re not going to smell it in the morning,” Andy said when I complained about the smoke. He kept pushing me blue chips, a lit butt balanced precariously on his lower lip.
“You’re not paying me enough for me not to complain.”
I’d had a tremendous night, fifty dollars to the good and to my God. Dave was winning big and Andy was saying to Dave, “I know you have more money than me, man, but you have to play the game. You have to play the game like it means something to you. Even if it doesn’t.” Dave was sweeping Andy’s chips like an enormous dustbuster, as if each of Andy’s chips had a metal plate inside and Dave had magnets on his fingers.
“I know,” Dave kept saying, lining Andy’s chips in stacks and rows, then shuffling them together in rainbow piles. “You’re right. I’ve got to play like I mean it.”
The wind was blowing hard through the open windows and ash was swirling through the studio, beer cans rolling across the floor. “Andy,” I said, “You’re the shadiest guy I know.”
He tried to backpedal. “I mean, bluff if you have to, I understand that. I’m not trying to tell you how you have to play. But make an effort.” Andy was on tilt. You read about it the manuals but you never expect to see it in your house. It was like watching a friend overdose, except it wasn’t like that at all, it was only money Andy was losing.
It came down to five dollar ten dollar. “Come on man.” Andy’s eyes were yellow and bloodshot. “Let’s go big.” Dave just smirked. Dave has gone big all his life. JP and I sat out and Dave and Andy went at it. Dave took the first two hands but Andy couldn’t fold. On the third hand Andy won thirty-five dollars but not before losing it, screaming at the room about the new math, the unfairness of it all, and I had to call the game. I had to say it was over, Andy was ready to cross the edge.
JP and I gathered all the empties. “I just like it,” Andy said to Dave at the door. It all reminded me somehow of George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but I’m not sure why.
“When are you going to make some money and move somewhere I don’t have to worry about my car?” Dave asked, his pockets stuffed with Andy’s billfold. Of course, it was his advances I was living on, that was the funny part of it. But Dave’s company alone is worth a small fortune, if looked at from a certain angle.
“I belong here,” I told them, the smoke alarm going off in the crack hotel next door. It was both sad and true. I’d fold the table up, move the couch, lay the mattress down before going to sleep. I gave JP three bags of recycling to take with him to the curb. Dave, Andy, and JP left for home.
May 31, 2003
“Live” From The Book Expo America 2003!
Los Angeles is a soot-filled busted flush. Quiet clouds hang over your paradise here, the evil remnants of some notion you had when you were a child, something about being famous, something about your name in lights. At night, in downtown LA, the buildings are tall and sturdy and the streets almost wide. There are never too many lights on in downtown. Hollywood, Tinsel Town, the celluloid dreams that built this weigh station over a pile of scorched sand, they still exist on Melrose, and you can pick up a hooker there and buy her something to eat at Astro Burger, once you option your first script.
The Book Expo journeyed west this year and I journeyed with it, to play poker on top of the Biltmore Hotel. We set up a table with stolen chairs from the Mezzanine. Pat didn’t want me to steal the chairs. He said there was a man guarding them with a walkie talkie and a broken lip. “They’ll catch you,” he said, quivering like a wet bird. “You don’t know me.” Pat was wrong, the way he always is when he’s scared, but he wasn’t scared the rest of the night; he played the evening like a pro.
Outside the weather was so temperate you couldn’t feel it but when you came in you had to wash your face. I filled garbage cans with ice and beer. Buy in was ten dollars a head. Dave and Pat and Scott paid double and Scott won half of it back. Todd Pierce was sitting across from me, his new book, balanced precariously across his thighs. Craig Clevenger, the only living underground classic, bought in on the strength of his first book. Avril wore a blue shirt and shared my chair, and Dorothy paid in full and danced against the steel edge of the table, gyrating madly for eights over sixes.
“Dialogue is what makes a good story,” Scott said.
“Shut up and play,” I told him.
Pat won with three sevens on the river, a straight draw, and a pastoral duece kicker. He had two in the closet, three in the hole, trips and pairs and kings stomping puddles and plunging swords straight through their temples. We changed the deck and he made it on fifth street every time. He won every hand. He had forty in dollar blue stacks in front of him before the next star was born.
We played baseball, threes and nines were wild, fours cost a quarter, and Todd Pierce showed us a man who wouldn’t fold and then showed us what happens to that man. Todd is a writer determined to lose everything he has. Dave won big, twelve large, except he was cheated on the buy in and had to spring for the beer and the whiskey and the cheap plastic chips. He lost eighty on the balance but made new friends and friends is something that’s hard to price. He’s an honest publisher, and as such, is destined to die poor. The girls from the marketing department arrived at eleven, eyes spinning and smelling of ocean; they hovered on the other side of the television. If AOL knew about Amy and Tasha, lounging on the second bed in khakis and innocent shirts, would the jackals have flown through the windows? Would they have shut the hotel down? They were both young and married at the beginning of the evening, and still married before the game was through.
An agent named Stephanie showed up at witching hour. A little color in her hair, thick black glasses perched on her symetrical cheekbones. I was drunk by then and I had the ability to see through things. I told everybody Stephanie was my new agent.“Negotiate with her,” I told them mucking my hand. “Let me know when we got a deal.”
Like book publishing in general, and also the world, the cards were unforgiving last night. Pat proved once and for all he’s a better player than me and always has been and if I had listened to him closer than I have these last three years I might not have made such a mess of things. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and sometimes I call Pat my hindsight. Sometimes I call Pat my “double-two-oh.”
Authors make dirt, unable to quit their day jobs. Editors are unappreciated geniuses. Bookstore owners sweat when they’re not crying, a labor of love and love is also misery as every jealous husband knows. Over the sick Los Angeles skyline, an amalgamation of suburban villages funded and fueled by need, nine of us threw Hold’em and held scrotum, and bellowed in the voices of savages. Wendy, a relative outsider, freshly published by Random House, held her hand with three nines while sharing a wild, the scrotum pot at seven and a half bucks. She hadn’t listened to the rules and she hesitated to pay and so we waited and watched until she pushed her blue chips into the center of the pile and announced she’d be quitting. “That’s what the authors are like over there,” Craig Clevenger said. And Craig knew, his own novel slugging its way from the outside walls while counting inventory at a Borders in Santa Barbara.
It was before dawn and the radiation outside was at a minimum when I left. By then there were only three authors, two publishers, and an agent. You can’t trust agents, but some things are better than trust. Outside the air was warm with time passing and bits of polution. I took a good look at the girders in the city of angels before asking the desk clerk what room I had slept in the night before. I wondered if those steel beams would always hold the city up this way.
April 16, 2003
A Quick Poker Report and a Note on the State of Things
The big money rolled into Folsom at about 7:30 Pacific time. My publisher and his CFO stood outside my building, pitching stones to my window from the ghetto streets below.
Scott and Andrew brought beer. Dave brought whiskey. Noticeably absent were Ben and Gideon, who were lost somewhere along with America’s moral compass, poised as we are at the gates of Damascus, the muzzle of our tank cannons titled toward the Golan, the paved-over corpse of Hama, and the occupied ports of the Levant. Wendy brought cookies.
We started with Hold’em, a small Texas game with small stakes, two down, three up across, then one, then one. Wendy was winning huge, pairs below, five diamonds before fourth street, wrapping her thin white arms around large stacks of red and white chips, sliding them noisily across the felt into her trays.
“Everybody loves me because I’m a winner,” she said. The cookies were exceptional.
Betweens calls and raises and cashing out four dollars down, Jensen showed us short films of a woman he had met in Italy last week.
But Jensen left early, and Wendy also left after not too long. Her boyfriend never arrived, but called her throughout the game until she left to return to him. And then there was just Scott, Andrew, Dave and I. And we were bored and drunk. We thought maybe we would do something. The lights were off across the city. We thought maybe we would do what Ben did that one night in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Casino. Then we thought we better not do that. We thought maybe we would raise the stakes.
Andrew won a poker tournament recently and felt ready. He won a thousand dollars, and told us the stories of what it felt like to be famous, to come over the top with a pair of kings on the flop and a pair of queens in the hole, how a crowd of people watched him play every hand, and they came up to him after the tournament and paid their respects to him as the reigning champion. And how a young Spanish woman had asked him to bless her baby, and how he had to explain to her he was not a priest. But in real life, Andrew doesn’t make very much money, and sometimes has to supplement his income by selling his body on Polk Street to old men in light blue Hondas.
Fifty-cent ante, two dollar max raise. Dave poured Andrew a glass of whiskey. We played Omaha high-low. Andrew pulled a wheel and my pair didn’t trip. Scott asked if he had to play three cards. We said no but it was already too late. I swept thirty dollars with a pair of tens in the hole with three sixes shining in the flop. I accepted cash from Dave with an 8/7 straight while he held out for a busted flush. And by midnight I was forty dollars richer than I had once been and Andrew was fifteen dollars richer and wondering still about paying the light bill. Scott and Dave returned to their black Mercedes, slightly lighter than when they came in. They would drive across the quiet water of the bay to their wives and rolling hills of the Marin headlands. Dave left a plastic bag full of towels on my floor. Good people like Scott and Dave are always welcome at our poker game in the Mission.
“You want to go to the Right Spot?” Andrew asked. “Spend our winnings on cheap beer and disillusionment.”
“No,” I said. “I have to be up early in the morning. And I’m already disillusioned. They’re lifting the sanctions on Iraq and running pictures of President Bush waving at crowds of schoolgirls in pleated skirts.”
“Have it your way. We should get those guys back over here.”
“I know. They’re good people and I’m always lucky just before and after a war.”
March 15, 2003
Guest columnist: Eric Martin
In America’s 42nd largest city, the Omaha World Herald was reporting that someone, somewhere, wanted to go to France, dig up our veteran dead, and haul their corpses back to patriotic soil. We didn’t know that at the time, we were just poker players, playing Texas Hold’em because that’s what we thought real poker players played, and it seemed like we could go on like this forever, barely talking about midgets and whores and chocolate until suddenly France and Omaha were on everyone’s lips. There was a connection there somewhere—dead soldiers, beaches, Texans—but nobody could make it. A storm inhaled deeply outside, as electricity gathered over the flop, the turn, the river. Five cards stared up at us from the middle of the table, eager to make fate.
Freedom poodles, someone said. Freedom ticklers. Freedom kisses. That was Steve. He flushed suddenly with clubs and pride, taking everything, kicking Ben’s straight curvy, guillotining kings, bulldozing the low road with a dismissive sweep of hand. Eights or under or you can forget about low. Two from your hand, no more, no less. We argued. On the radio that afternoon they’d talked about soldiers in Kuwait unwrapping the plastic off their chem suits, and how that meant they had to be used in 30 days. Steve won it all and worse, he was right. There is always a most important moment, in every poker game, in every life, in every story, after which nothing, not even Omaha, is the same.
The game changed quickly. Omaha lost the rule of eight, then gained the rule of flexible four. Egalité was out but fraternité was in. The place was lousy with brothers, flown in from far away to play games they’d never played before and might never play again. Steve and his apartment looked the same, like they never changed, no matter how many brothers you threw at them or which flavor of Omaha you picked or what France finally did. It was a place of liberté, the way liberté is everything but lonely. Someone had forgotten that the French invented freedom too.
Ben’s brother Andrew was enormous, careful never to rise from his chair to dwarf us all, shyly releasing chips into the pot as if he couldn’t just break us all in two. He lost slowly, with a large man’s grace, breaking his silence to tell a single story of a time between wars, a terrible incident with horses, and his insensitive laughing brother. Ben loved him, you could tell from the way he said trifecta, they both loved each other, but when Ben later splayed four twos in Texas, the rest of us hooted and hollered while Andrew quietly glanced away. We all missed my sister, although nobody said so.
Jon and Jensen were in every hand, it seemed, drawing and quartering one another with gusto, never folding, never seeing a reason why, even when you’re dead, some asshole might try to come and dig you up. But Jon’s little brother Denny was the one you kept thinking about, sitting like a happily coiled spring, having started the night with an unforgettable revelation: three queens, two kings, and two children, out there in the republic. No one could beat that. After that he struggled, the way parents do, but twice Denny fought back from the brink, pushing his last chips all in, winning because he had no choice, then buying back in because he did. As I biked home through the pouring rain, the sky shaking me by my shoulders, I thought about those queens and kings and kids and admired him immensely. I wondered how and when the rest of us would have the guts to play those cards.
February 25, 2003
Earlier this week the owner of Cyber Copy accused me of stealing a woman’s purse. I told him I didn’t steal a woman’s purse. He asked me if I would bring my bag into the store, so he could see for himself. I’ve been getting my mail at Cyber Copy for a year. I asked him if he had lost his mind. He said he just wanted to see my bag. I told him if I had switched bags I would know. The lady would have gotten the better end of the deal, since I had my laptop with me. Just bring in the bag, he said, so he could see for himself.
Wendy shows first with Donahue. Donahue seems happy, which is ironic, when viewed in the light of what would happen later. Wendy brings nine homemade brownies with her, which are very good, and she tells us each to have only one until everyone has arrived. They’re really very good brownies, and it’s hard to have only one of them. John Stassen shows up next, seven on the dot, eager for his first night of play. Stassen has a baby and teaches school in Menlo Park to developmentally disabled children so none of us see him enough. Ben shows up next, followed by Abby, who brings vegetables and hummus instead of beer and then promptly asks if she can have a beer. At 7:21 Jensen rounds out the table. “Cooney’s not coming,” he tells us. “I was over at his apartment. He was eating dinner with Molly. I saw the whole thing.”
We start with Texas and Omaha. Donahue says he’s an Omaha genius. Donahue is one of my favorite people in the whole world. Later in the evening, Wendy will reach across to his place and push his lone black chip and ask if that is all he has left, just a dollar. We will all laugh, and this will remind us of the time Jon Berry said he was taught how to play poker by old men in a basement when he was ten-years-old and I had said that wasn’t poker they were teaching him.
But before that, before Donahue loses everything and something happens to his face, something like an X-ray, flashing demonic features across his landscape, I go on a losing streak. It started when I chased a full house with two aces, two kings, and two twos. We were in Omaha, and I had two chances to pull six cards from 45 possibilities and all of the chips in the pot were blue, which means something. But I didn’t draw my card, and my two pair lost to Stassen’s high straight. And I would lose again to Stassen, when his king of spades ambushed my six for no good reason except spite and meanness and a cold calculating cruelty, the mind of the hunter that’s already been fed but can’t stop hunting, such is his insatiable thirst. I lose so much that I stagger to my feet, knocking over Abby’s Boont Amber, beer spilling down my shirt and jeans and pooling at our feet below the table. I wash in the bathroom, change clothes, my drenched clothing left in it’s own wrinkled mass. I stare into my small shower stall which has no curtain. I take a good look in the mirror and ask myself if I can continue this way, pushing my fingers through my hair. I hear laughing from the other room. New pants new shirt, a new beer, I sit back down, ready to play.
While I was so busy losing I hadn’t noticed Donahue switching into tilt, but saw it now. I thought about trying to help him, but I had my own money to win back. He had lost any ability to fold. Mucked three cards on the third round of Clue. Followed Omaha into Texas with no chance of highs or lows but a prayer that someone would fold, like a soldier marching into war without guns, under the leadership of a man who has never been to war himself. Donahue lost pot after pot, a victim of his own myth. He was up $35 for the year, the big winner by far. Family members in faraway climes like Vermont had been calling to congratulate him on his smooth playing, his finely honed skills. He was trying to live up to himself, and no one can play against their own myth. He was like Samson, without the hair, shaved bald, a Hare Krishna dancing in an airport, a shadow of someone he may never have been.
There were snaps. Donahue said things, then smiled to show he didn’t mean it. Then threatened to pee on my floor. I told him to take it easy, it’s only a game. We’re all friends here. But let’s face it, friends and poker are different words with different spellings. He got burned bad in Scrotum holding three tens against Abby’s beneficent four aces. He got caught again and squirelled his fingers deep in his pockets searching for green. He bought in three times. He lost forty dollars. It might have been the biggest loss ever. Not counting one Sunday afternoon that we don’t count anymore or ever talk about.
At the final count, Ben was up for the first time in awhile. And Abby, who had been steady all night, had Wendy’s five dollars, the two butting heads on a red-chip catfight played on green felt. Stassen, who insisted all along he didn’t know what he was doing, was the big winner with twenty-five large to ferry back to the South Bay. And Jensen finished even, even tempered, even played. I’d say a good time was had by all, but good times and memories, who am I to utter truths as universal as these?
February 18, 2003
Guest columnist: Gideon Lewis-Kraus
As street corner headlines shouted about global unrest in letters three inches high and televisions and radios blared about the end of the end of the Korean armistice and the possibility of a sun-bloody conflict on two distant horizons, it felt warm and good to walk into Steve’s apartment, the air thick and brothy with the smell of roasted garlic. I coughed twice. “You look sick. I was just going to have some homemade chicken soup,” Steve said with a soft smile. “Want some? It’ll make you feel better.”
Jenson, Ben and Donahue came in; it looked like last week’s “sugartits” comment had chased the fairer sex away for the evening. “Your old lady said she’s coming at eight,” Steve said to Ben, hinting to Ben that he knew a thing or two about whether or not his old lady was coming, and when. “But Abby’s not coming.” Ben called Steve’s opener: Wendy, in fact, was not coming, but Abby was, he had just spoken with her. Steve raised: I just spoke with her, too, twenty minutes ago. Ben backed down, murmuring something about 25 minutes ago, but it looked like Steve came out on top in the game of who knew more about ladies and their plans.
Then the real poker began. One of Donahue’s only losses came early in the night, when he folded to a buried two of clubs in a game where the smallest club in the hole threw a wrench into the game’s slick machinery. “I had to fold. You’re too sincere,” he told me, as I scooped up handfuls of plastic.
But the next hand saw the first slow rumblings of the evening’s big reversal. “Why don’t we make it a buck?” Steve asked Jenson, check-raising before the flop for the second time. And with that display of unwarranted brashness, some higher power took an interest in the game, and our money started streaming across the table to Donahue.
“Donahue never wins,” Steve said, and laughed a tinny laugh. Donahue chuckled softly, and showed a quiet flush against Steve’s two-pair to take yet another game of Omaha.
Steve tried to defend his karmic slide with invocations of purity. Ben, having had a similar experience last weekend, chimed in, “You would’ve won that hand if you’d been a worse poker player, Steve.” But poker’s a game where the puffed-up tiddly-winks are the only currency, and Donahue’s corner of the table was bowing under the weight.
I went all in against Donahue in a long hand of Omaha, but my flat tire blew out beside his high-low wheel. Steve, a paltry and still-dwindling pile of chips before him, finally awoke to the situation and snapped.
“Somewhere on the South Side of Chicago, there’s an accountant cracking it up,” Steve said. And we did not understand.
We exhanged puzzled looks. But there was really only one explanation: the engineer from Vermont was finally getting his due, and Steve’s fragile brain—long accustomed to the idea that all is forgotten and nothing is redressed—just couldn’t take it. We shook our heads in silent pity.
Donahue swept up all the money, beamed for a moment, and left with Ben and Jenson. Steve and I walked to my car, on the way to a birthday party. Sara called; Joe Millionaire’s top choice stuck by him despite his shocking revelation, and Fox came through with a cool mil of its own for the happy couple. I told Steve, who was still shaken, whispering mad warnings about Donahue and Donahue’s money.
Steve smiled, broad and warm, like when he offered me the hot soup. “I guess there are still some things in this crazy world that work out okay, after all.”
“Yes, Steve. I guess you’re right.” I could tell then that I was going to learn a lot from this guy.
February 11, 2003
The Return Of Jon
It’s been a year since the last time Jon Berry has come to play poker. He was one of the founding members of the poker night back in March, 2001, when Jon, Ben, Cooney, and I, took a razor to our palms and clasped our bloody hands, and pledged always to gamble, to live our lives like an inside straight, to square up to the table and declare threes and nines are wild, never mind the cost. That was before Jon married Alice in a southern Chinese province, a ceremony attended by members of the Chinese Democracy party and Falun Gong. Alice has applied for U.S. citizenship since that, and Jon stopped going outside.
Jon showed up with long, shaggy hair and a goatee. “Doesn’t matter how I look now,” he said.
Young Gideon didn’t show so we were short a sucker. Cooney doesn’t come by much since he smacked his head on a low steel beam. Ben’s been losing since he started dating Wendy. Geoff, the poet (really), showed up late and with six beers and a losing strategy. He raises fifty cents on the river with nothing but a high card king and it costs him a bundle. But he makes a living as a poet, has a sheaf coming out in the New England Review, was recently awarded an NEA grant to follow his Stegner Fellowship, so odds, the rules of the game, the easy road, all of these terms mean nothing to him. Donahue arrived in a bright red shirt, shiny like a school boy. He was looking toward the usual path until he took a sick game of Clue, hammering Jenson for twenty dollars. Jenson who never did a mean thing to anybody, beaten senseless by his old college roommate.
Everything was going great. I was winning like crazy. I had rainbow stacks to my collarbone. Mostly I took yards in Omaha. I went high and low, the cards talk. I swept pots like my arms were vaccuum cleaners. Blue chips, black chips, pink chips. I knew Geoff was a poet, and I knew Donahue doesn’t fold. And I knew Ben wasn’t the player he used to be since Wendy started dressing him. And I knew that China had done a new and horrible thing when they sentenced Wang Bingzhang to life but I wasn’t going to think about that until the morning. I was drinking fast, and having a good time. And then I called Abby “Sugartits” and everybody kind of stopped and looked at me funny. I’m not sure where “Sugartits” came from; at first I thought Ben had said it. She was the only girl at the table. And I knew I had done something wrong, and that I shouldn’t have opened my mouth. I had, perhaps, been feeling a little bit too good.
Abby turned away from me. She had been losing big all night. I looked down into the felt. I thought I would wait until later and then I would apologize. But instead, Abby ran out of dough. So I started pushing money in her direction. After all, I was flush, and what good is money if you can’t buy friends. A few dollars later Abby said she forgave me and that I shouldn’t worry about it. So I stopped giving her money and she left shortly after. And so did everybody else; they all wanted to get home to watch Real World. Except for Geoff, who stuck around for a bit, and explained to me how it was one makes a living as a poet. A strange formula, that I can’t repeat here.
January 31, 2003
For a week when President Bush declared a two front war on Iraq and the environment the poker game was strangely even. Both long tall Cooney and Gideon escaped without winning or losing. With the exception of Ben, who lost a whopping nine dollars, nobody lost more than a buck. I was the big winner with five dollars for my trouble. But the real story of the game was filled with more intrigue and drama then the final outcome would suggest.
In a precursor of what was to come, Wendy and Cooney went head to head in a steely hand of roll-over. Wendy, both prettier and smarter than Cooney, unveiled three sevens while Corn-fed turned a hard straight out of a short flush. This was after Cooney had already announced to the room that anyone that bets high out the gate is a bush league player. He let the world know he never bets fifty cents, never has, never will.
Gideon, representing the new generation of well-educated suckers, lost in a blazing crash of wasted potential, walking Martin and Jenson to the edge of the infield with nothing but a straight on an ugly game of Baseball. Both Martin and Gideon were new to the game and didn’t know that when threes and nines are wild you better have something crazy in the hole if you’re gonna pay the rent.
Gideon was the only player to buy back in. The poor kid makes his money working in a bookstore in Berkeley and it looked for a bit like he would be supping on Ramen for the first half of February. Then he made a comeback. On the final hand of an expensive round of Clue, Gideon pulls three trump, winning a six dollar pot. It could have been an eighteen dollar pot, but Gideon decided to let me win one of the three hands, cutting me in for a third rather than forcing me to double. There could be no explanation for this other than charity. A charity so clear and good that Ben, who is allergic to anyone being nice to me, broke out in a rash. Other pundits were quick to point out that I would not have done the same for Gideon. A charge to which I declined to respond.
Jenson, Gideon, and I finished the night at the Uptown, pondering Ben’s losses and Jon Berry’s mysterious disappearance. “I wonder why Berry never shows up anymore,” I said, sipping quietly on a small glass of whiskey.
“He was losing too much money and not bringing anything home to his wife,” Jenson replied. “He wants concessions.”
“Well, we’re not going to do that,” I said. “We’re not going to negotiate until he lives up to his obligations. He has to first start playing poker again, then we’ll talk about what we’re willing to do for him.”
“Sometimes you have to negotiate with people,” Gideon said. “Even if you might not want to.”
“You’re such a child,” I said, and Jenson and I both laughed at young Gideon. “It’s a good thing you’re not in the White House.”