The story was supposed to begin here at an illegal poker hall in Hicksville called the River, but the River ran dry and I was left staring at a blackened door with a mailbox next to it that said Fish. It must have been a marker or tag for new players to locate the building. Fish swam in the river, right? More than likely, the River was flowing somewhere else, but I had no idea where to find it.
My contact at the casino wasn’t old enough to buy beer, yet he’d been sinking and swimming in the River for over a year. He wore an ace of spades charm around his neck and had been counting the days until his 21st birthday since he was 16.
“I just can’t wait to get to Vegas,” he said, toting the latest poker bible around and quoting random passages. “It’s a game of skill,” he insisted. “I could make a living off this if I didn’t have to go to school.”
“Ace” just completed finals at a college in the area 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 were, 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.
“No good,” Ace 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.
The River had it all and I wanted it back. I needed to see how a tournament was run. I wanted Pretzels to size me up. Without Pretzels and Ace, all I had was an idea.
I started to see Long Island as a map with an enormous deck of cards flexing over it, waiting to burst across two counties. It didn’t take long before I stumbled on the right Web site. Long Island popped up within the New York listings and I was on my own. Many of the locations described their atmosphere as “friendly,” which meant I could probably visit their club or tournament without being robbed or kidnapped.
I made several picks based on proximity to home and desired buy-in range ($300 to $500), steered clear of the contact who called himself Goodfella, then admitted my total beginner status to everyone. I had half a dozen offers by the end of the day.
The clock on the wall says 8:30, but the time here is always now. I’m somewhere in the heart of Suffolk seated at a poker table in somebody’s basement. I’m absorbing my new surroundings and waiting for the goose bumps to settle. The Internet may have changed the world, 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 upside down in somebody’s dungeon.
I’m not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. The inside is decorated like any other suburban basement: wood paneling, support pillars, a pool table opposite the bar with pictures of Marilyn and Elvis swooning back at me. 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.”
Of course you do.
The dealer is a big guy in his 40s who we’ll call Mike. This is Mike’s basement and everyone here is his guest. He runs the game from his wheelchair and pays himself 5 percent of every hand. His guests can play cards until their money runs out, drink as much beer and coffee as they like, or wait for Mike’s wife to serve her lasagna in catering tins warmed over a Sterno flame.
I pay my buy-in to the dealer and he slides me my chips. 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 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 Indians and the room falls silent with possibility.
“Hey, you gettin’ a job for the summer or what?” a heavyset lifer asks the fresh-faced 20-something to my right.
“Me?” he says. “A job? Why would I do that when I can be checkin’ and raisin’ all summer long?” Laughter spreads across the table like a free round of chips, the type of guffaws shared by men with similar addictions. A cellphone goes off three heads to my right. A deeply tanned guy in his 30s answers, tucking his chin into the phone to speak.
“Yeah,” he says. “You knew this is where I’d be. . . . I told ya I was workin’ tonight.”
It’s probably time to admit I’ve never played a true hand of poker in my life. I came looking for a story and have more interest in the players than the game. My subjects, however, are into winning money the way I’m into stories. I’ll get what I want eventually — and so will they.
There is one thing I did in preparation for my first card game. I made 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, and found a decent memoir on the underground game called “Poker Nation” by Andy Bellin.
My kit was heavy on atmosphere, but details of the game were still whizzing past me. Damon loses the girl but comes to terms with what he is, heading 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 and sons of immigrants 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, lowest to highest, but I don’t dare sneak a look. Mike realizes my rawness by the way I hold my cards out in the open like some Hollywood cowboy. He catches my ineptitude by the way I repeat the phrase, “Hit me,” like Danny DeVito’s character in the poker scene of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Mike tacitly agrees to become my interpreter, letting me know when it’s time to check, raise, or fold. After each hand is played, he tells me whether I made the right choice. 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” (a hard-core casino in Las Vegas).
“He’s probably a mechanic” (slang for a professional cheat).
“Yeah, or workin’ undercover for the bunko squad!”
“Hey, what exactly do you do?”
I identify myself as an English teacher and the table automatically does its best to mind its grammar and syntax. When one of the younger players, who had been shoveling pasta all night, 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 and proceed to lose $350 in approximately 70 minutes. My chips diminish at a steady rate; the other players’ stacks grow high. Mike clinks another 5 percent after every single round. I take my beating quietly, thank the table for a nice evening, and leave Mike’s place 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 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 had watched and the books I had read and it goes like this: If you look around the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, then that 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 job and seemed genuinely pained after I’d been wiped out. I wonder if he 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 allow such a notion.
“Well,” they’d probably say, studying my empty seat, “every deck has its jokers. . . . Who’s in?”
J. Bryan McGeever’s stories have appeared in Hampton Shorts, The Southampton Review, and Thomas Beller’s “Lost and Found: Stories From New York.” He lives in Brooklyn.