Date Night At The Gambling Den

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02/15/2012

Neighborhood: Midtown

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                My husband has figured out a way to play poker round the clock, save when he is at work, in the shower, reading a book or in bed sleeping. He plays it on his phone against other poker enthusiasts in round-the-clock online tournaments.  It doesn’t bother me – he’s not the type to bet or lose a lot of money.  In the morning, from the street, if you look up to the fourth floor window of our Morningside Heights apartment, you can see him working out on an elliptical machine while playing poker on his phone.  He calls it “pokercise”; it’s the only way he can get through a workout without getting bored.

We used to sometimes go to Atlantic City.  Neil would play at the low stakes table while I wandered around with the baby strapped to my chest and poked my nose in the shops.  I liked the colorful lights and sounds.  I found some of the people fascinating, particularly the women who stayed all day and played with the same quiet intensity as the men.  I was particularly enamored of anyone in unusual hats or sparkly outfits or giant earrings or long, gaudy painted nails or leather fur-trim designer clothes – I would love these people for dressing the part, for wearing things that told me how important it all was to them.  I would usually vow at some point or another to learn to play poker myself but, to this day, have not gone through with it.  Too busy to learn, to busy to play, always too busy.

                When our second child came, it became impractical to go to Atlantic City so my husband contented himself with the faceless opponents he found on his phone.  But there was no reason for this, he realized – the city is full of underground gambling clubs.  After nosing around a bit among friends, he discovered one in midtown that was a good fit.  And so, one night a week, he would leave me with the kids and venture out at night to go and play poker for a couple of hours.  But one night, to satisfy my immense curiosity, he took me with him.  We called a babysitter for the kids and made it a date night.

                I don’t know what I was expecting, Guys and Dolls, some sort of swanky mobster affair.  Men in fedoras with guns tucked in holsters.  Curvy women in velvet and lipstick.  Cocktails and cigars.  Gangsters.  Or maybe James Bond.  Roulette wheels and blackjack tables.  Men in dinner jackets, their women dripping with diamonds.  I had my best shoes on, Tory Burch boots with four inch heels, and wore a tight skirt and my hair down in cascading curls.  We took a cab to midtown, then wandered around for a bit because we were lost.  I was beginning to regret wearing those shoes.  Then we found it, a non-descript office building that was easy to miss.  We took the elevator up and got off at a floor that looked like any other floor in any other office building in Manhattan, one with old, linoleum floors, peeling paint and noisy, grit-laden radiators in the bathroom.  Our destination was off to the right.  We pushed right through – the door was open.  No secret knocks or nefarious looking men guarding the front.  I saw my mistake as soon as we walked in.  My perception of what I would find had been a complete fantasy.  I shot my husband a look – he had been encouraging it.

                The “underground gambling den” was really just one dark-walled room that served as a small business during the day.  Office equipment had been pushed to one side.  The windows were covered with drapes, the lights bright.  There were three large oblong tables that seated about 10 – two tournament tables and one cash table.  There were about 30 people in the room, almost every seat filled.  They used rolling office chairs.  There was a single screen mounted near the ceiling that showed a timer that counted down the minutes left in each tournament.  The guy who runs the poker club greeted us -  he couldn’t have been more than 25 years old.  He was tall and bean-pole thin and wore glasses and had a bit of a moustache that looked like it might have taken him days to grow.

                “Jordan!”  My husband clasped his hand.  “This is my wife.”

The young man looked at me appraisingly but respectfully and with obsequious interest.  Neil had told me that Jordan was very excited about his fledgling business and took it seriously and wanted it to succeed.  I could see it all in his demeanor.

“Welcome.”  He said.  “Can I get you a drink?  Water?  Soda?”

                “Water.”  I said.  “Thanks.”

“You have a cash game going?”  Neil asked.

“Of course.”  Jordan gestured to one of the tables.  “Do you want to play?”  He asked me.

`               “No, thanks.”  I said.  “I’m just going to watch.”

Jordan pushed two chairs closer to the table and I set mine away from the table, behind Neil.

The dealer cut the deck, flipped the cards and began to throw them to the players.  I looked around the table.  It was composed almost exclusively of young single men in their twenties.  They were white, black, Asian, Indian – all American, all dressed in jeans and sweats.  There were only two other women in the room besides me, both of them in their sixties, both heavy and dressed in pants and big sweaters.  “Regulars.”  Neil whispered to me.  “They’re here every night.” 

                There was only one person dressed in any way that was interesting to me, a young man in his twenties, enormously overweight, who wore a dirty baseball cap with a Ron Paul pin in it and a Ron Paul sweatshirt.  He had large jiggling cheeks and smooth-shaven white skin and gigantic dark eyes that made him look like a very intense, overgrown baby.  After his cards were dealt, he put a lucky charm on top of them – a small chess piece, a knight, made of smoked glass.  He did it every time.»

                “So do you think Ron Paul’s going to get it?”  Neil asked him.

                “Nah.  I wish.”  

                “What about Romney?”

                “Nah.”  He said dismissively.  “Might as well vote for Obama.”

                Neil had only put in for $40 worth of chips but the young men on either side of my husband and the young man in the Ron Paul hat each had at least $300 or $400 worth of chips before them.  As time wore on, it became clear that, though there were 10 people sitting at the table, the contest here was between these three people.  My husband held his own for awhile but, in the end, was no match for them.  Seeing him flounder was a new experience for me.   He is a decade older than me and always seemed to know things I didn’t know.  This is probably why I’ve always seen him as the kind of guy who, in every situation, wound up holding the reins.

Jordan sat down across from us.  “So what do you think of this?  Monday is going to be ladies night.”  He was not looking at me when he said it but I could tell it was for my benefit.  “I thought I would offer a prize for the best player that night.  Maybe, like, a gift-certificate for a mani-pedi.  And I’ll offer a prize for best female player in any quarter – like maybe a full day at a spa.  So what do you think?”  He still wouldn’t look at me.

“I think Monday should be strip poker night,” said Ron-Paul-hat, grinning in his fat cheeks.

People snickered but Jordan ignored them.  Then everyone fell quiet.  The cards had been dealt, the players now taking it all in.  I sat and watched, understanding little.  I had been sitting there for over an hour watching my husband lose his chips bit by bit.  I was getting bored and was ready to go but then he won a moderate-sized pile and so we decided to stay a bit longer.  More chips to play.

                At one point, a buzzer rang out.  The poker clock up on the screen near the ceiling, set for ten minutes each time, had, again, run itself down to zero.  The three dealers, one at each table, all young men, collected their chips and stood up and new dealers, also young men, took their places.

                “They are all taking breaks?”  I asked.

                “Yes.”  The young man to my right said.  “It gets, mentally, very tiring.”

                Jordan stood up then and addressed the room.  “How about pizza.  Anyone want pizza?”

                “Yeah, pepperoni.”  Said Ron-Paul-hat.

                “How many for pepperoni?

                “No, wait!  Anchovies!”  Ron-Paul-hat, grinning again.  He had little, corn niblet teeth.

                “You’re buggin’”

                “Put up your hands if you want pepperoni.”  Jordan said.  “Okay.  Pepperoni it is.  Anyone want anything else from the outside world?”

                “Hookers.”  Someone called out from another table.

                “Coke!”

                “Yeah, aw right!  Hookers and coke!  The Friday night special!”  Laughter.

                “It’s Wednesday.”

                “Wednesday is meth night.”  Jordan cracked.  More snickers all around.  The dealers kept dealing.  Everyone fell quiet.  Calmly, the young men flipped up their cards at one corner and took a look.

 Elioutte Green is the pen name for a writer based in Manhattan. She holds a MFA from Columbia and her work has been published in various small journals. She is presently completing her first novel.

 

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