The story was supposed to begin here at an illegal poker hall in Queens called The River, but The River ran dry and I’m left staring at a blackened door with a mailbox next to it that says, FISH. It must have been a marker or tag for new players to locate the building. Fish swim in the river, right? Fish, in poker terms, also means chump, which is how I feel when an entire casino packs up all its cards and plays an invisible hand of 52 pick up on me. More than likely, The River is flowing somewhere else, but I have no idea where to look.
Everybody loves to gamble,” says Peter Dunn, a professor of Criminal Justice at the Katharine Gibbs School and retired NYPD lieutenant. According to Dunn, the level of interest an illegal gambling activity generates from the law is based upon its organization. “We weren’t concerned with the office Super Bowl pool or the five doctors who got together to play a few hands,” he says, recalling his years working vice in Manhattan South. “Our primary concern was any organized game where the house took a percentage. Some guys, if they’re smart, can get away with it for awhile. But sooner or later, everybody gets popped.”
My contact at the casino in Queens isn’t old enough to buy beer, yet he’s been sinking and swimming in The River for over a year. He wears an ace of spades charm around his neck and has been counting the days until his twenty-first birthday since he was sixteen. “I just can’t wait to get to Vegas,” he says, toting the latest poker bible around and quoting random passages. “It’s a game of skill,” he insists. “I could make a living off this if I didn’t have to go to school.”
‘Ace’ just completed finals at an area college and was willing to take me to watch a tournament. He said they’d have a few games running at once and that there would be no problem getting in. If there was then a guy named Pretzels would tell us. Pretzels ran the house at The River and worked the door. Pretzels was a problem solver and I couldn’t wait to meet him. I was actually en route to the place when I got the call from Ace. “No good,” he’d said. The casino was dark and no one was returning calls. “They must have been shut down. Sorry.” Ace said he’d try to find another game, but I haven’t heard back from him. I decided to take the drive anyway.
The River was situated among a row of interlocked storefronts tucked neatly behind an upscale Italian restaurant and a strip mall. Other than the quizzical FISH marking on the mailbox, there was nothing to distinguish the place as a den of iniquity. Completely hidden from the workaday world of Queens yet right out there in the open, it was perfect. The River had it all and I wanted it back. I needed to see how a tournament was run. I wanted to see how Ace handled his action, picturing him as a character from that old Scott Baio, Jody Foster movie, Bugsy Malone, where the kids all dressed and spoke like old-time gangsters, shooting cream pies at each other. I wanted Pretzels to size me up. I wanted to make him a star. But without Pretzels and Ace, all I had was a door and a mailbox.
I started to see the city as a map with an enormous deck of cards flexing over it, waiting to burst across five boroughs, one enormous hand of fifty-two pick up with me chasing down the cards. Then I got an idea.
It didn’t take long before I stumbled on the right website. Once there, I simply picked the state; NYC popped up within the New York listings then I was on my own. Each location contained a box for sponsors to describe the level of play at an upcoming tournament and what the buy-in was to enter. Buy-ins ranged from $100 to $1000. It’s typical for subcultures to absorb innocuous, every day words into their jargon to put minds at rest. Many of the locations described their atmosphere as ‘friendly,’ which meant I could probably visit their club or tournament with an excellent chance of not being robbed or murdered.
I made several picks based on proximity to home and a desired buy-in range ($300-$500). Having no immediate urge to see the trunk of an El Dorado from the fetal position, I steered clear of the contact who called himself ‘Goodfella,’ then admitted total beginner status to everyone. At this time, two popular Manhattan poker clubs had just been raided and closed so my first week of trolling brought little results. I needed to sweeten the bait, stating how I had no problem with losing just as long as I learned a little something. I had a half dozen games to choose from by the end of the day.
The clock on the wall says eight-thirty, but the time here is always NOW. I’m somewhere in the heart of Queens seated at a poker table in somebody’s basement. There are precautions and alerts the body goes through whenever entering the unknown. I’m absorbing my new surroundings, still waiting for the goose flesh to settle. The internet may be an extremely helpful tool, but it will always be a bit creepy. One minute you’re on your way to play poker with total strangers, the next you’re hanging up side down in someone’s dungeon. Upon entering I was not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. The inside was decorated like any other basement in Queens, wood paneling on the walls and support pillars, a pool table opposite the wet bar, with pictures of Marilyn, Elvis, and Dean swooning and sneering from every conceivable angle. I could have had my first kiss in this basement. I could have gotten drunk here in high school.
“Relax,” the dealer opposite me says. “We play a friendly game here.”
The dealer is a big guy in his early forties who we’ll call Mike. This is Mike’s house, Mike’s basement, and everyone here is his guest. Mike runs the game from his wheelchair and pays himself five percent of every hand played–all night long. His guests, in return, get to play poker until their money runs out, drink as much beer and coffee as they like, or wait until Mike’s wife serves her chicken parmigiana in catering tins warmed over a Sterno flame.
I pay my buy-in to the dealer and he slides me my chips. The chips themselves are a minor miracle in seduction. I just handed Mike grocery, gas, and rent money, but now I’ve got all these wonderful chips stacked before me and anything is possible. There are seven other guys at the table thinking the same thing, only they’re totally serious about their chances. The conversation revolves around the evening’s possibilities, all possibilities of the past, and any possibility in the near future. There are tales of going bust in Atlantic City, beatings taken at Foxwoods, and last minute winnings in Vegas, baby, Vegas. Someone mentions the remote chance of a casino being built on the Island’s East End by the Shinnecock Indian Reservation and the room falls silent with possibility.
“Hey, you gettin’ a job for the summer or what?” a heavyset lifer asks the fresh faced twenty-something to my right.
“Me?” he says. “A job? Why would I do that when I can be checkin’ and raisin’ people all summer long?” Laughter spreads across the table like a free round of chips, the type of guffaws shared by people with similar addictions. A cell phone goes off three heads to my right. A deeply tanned guy in his early thirties answers, tucking his chin into the phone and turning from the table.
“Yeah,” I hear him say. “You knew this is where I’d be…I told ya I was workin’ tonight.”
It’s probably time to admit that I’ve never played a true hand of poker in my life. I showed up here looking for a story and have more interest in the players than the game. My subjects, however, are into winning money, my money, the way I’m into stories. I’ll get what I want eventually–and so will they.
There is one thing that I did do in preparation for my first card game. I created a poker starter kit for myself. Since my knowledge of the game began at zero I went with the obvious choices. I bought a copy of Poker for Dummies, rented Rounders with Matt Damon, then stumbled upon a decent memoir/how-to book on the underground game called Poker Nation by Andy Bellin. My kit was heavy on atmosphere, but details on the actual game were still whizzing past me. Damon loses the girl, but comes to terms with what he is, a card fiend, then heads out West for The World Series of Poker. Bellin introduced me to the underground life and taught me some important jargon, and chapter one of Poker for Dummies is just plain hysterical:
“Poker has always been a microcosm of all we admire about American virtue…Call it the American Dream–the belief that hard work and virtue will triumph…It is an immigrant’s song, a mantra of hope; it is an anthem for everyone.”
Back in Mike’s basement, the first hand is about to begin. I’m peering around the room, taking in all these proud Americans, the sons of immigrants reaching for their slice of freedom pie and realize the true hunger of the place. Mike shuffles the deck and lays down the button.
My first two cards come sliding toward me. I have two pair of something or other, but I’m not sure where it falls in rank. There’s a crumpled piece of paper in my pocket that lists the hands from lowest to highest, but I don’t dare pull it out. Mike quickly realizes my ineptitude by the way I hold my cards right out in the open like some Hollywood cowboy. He picks up on my ignorance by the way I repeat the phrase, “hit me,” like Danny Devito’s character during the poker scene in Cuckoo’s Nest. Mike understands poker like a second language and he silently agrees to become my interpreter. He lets me know when I’m up, and when it’s time to check, raise, or fold. After each hand’s been played, he tells me whether I made the right choice or not. Through some fluke of nature, I end up winning the first two hands. Then the razzing begins:
“What kinda beginner’s luck is this?”
“He ain’t no beginner. This guy knows exactly what he’s doin’.”
“I know. I think I seen him at Binion’s last week.” (hardcore, no frills casino in Las Vegas).
“He’s probably a mechanic.” (slang for professional cheat).
“Yeah or he’s workin’ undercover for the bunko squad!”.
“Hey, what exactly do you do?”
I identify myself as an English teacher and the table immediately does its best to mind its grammar and syntax. When one of the younger players, who had been shoveling chicken and pasta down in between hands, announces with a full mouth, “Yo, these freakin’ meatballs are retarded!” another player looks him over. “Is that supposed to mean good?” The kid wipes his mouth and nods. “Well, maybe you could speak English from now on so the teacher over here doesn’t have to shoot himself.”
I’m learning the game, making fast money, and winning new friends. I start to relax, settle into my seat, then proceed to lose $350 in approximately one hour and ten minutes. My chips disappeared at a steady rate, the other players’ stacks grew high, and Mike clinked another five percent for himself after every single round. I took my beating quietly, thanked the table for the evening, then left Mike’s basement for good.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I had shown very little patience, even with Mike’s guidance, and often stayed in the action just for the excitement despite having junk cards. There’s a cherished quote that veteran players often repeat. It was used in the movies I watched and the books I read, and goes something like this: If you look around the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is then the sucker is you. But what do you call someone who volunteers for the job? I’d kissed that money goodbye long before I ever stepped through Mike’s door. It was story money, a well spent investment. Mike, for his part, turned out to be a very good host. He was good at his work and seemed genuinely pained after I’d been wiped out. So much of the night revolved around men trying to win something, reaching for some kind of victory until it became an obsession. I wonder if Mike or any of the others could understand a guy who set himself up on purpose, someone who actually wanted to lose. I wonder if their psyches would even let them entertain the notion. “Well,” they’d probably say, studying my empty seat, “every deck has at least one joker…Who’s in?”
JB McGeever’s stories have appeared in Hampton Shorts, Confrontation, $pread Magazine, and The Southampton Review, with nonfiction in The New York Times, Newsday, City Limits Weekly, and Family Circle.