Las Vegas, Nevada – July 28, 2013
“Since I got here – even before I got here – I’ve been trying to figure out what’s different about me this trip. Older, more prosperous, less comfortable with being uncomfortable, yeah, yeah, yeah. But it’s more than that. I’ve never felt connected to Vegas, but I’ve never felt so disconnected from it until now.” I said that. My hand was in the muck, so I had plenty of time to talk.
“I totally get that,” said Larry. Not his real name, of course. I don’t waste a lot of worry on names. I had started the day thinking of him as Larry the Loveless Lush, but by now we were on friendlier terms.
“Do you ever stop talking?” Captain Queeg demanded – and not for the first time. He was in the hand, and he should have had his mind on the cards, but he had too much to prove.
The Ice Princess drew a finger across her eyebrow. “He wants you off balance.” She said this because she wanted him off balance. She had check-raised him on the turn and Captain Queeg was bitching at me because he wanted to bitch at her.
And, yes, Uncle Willie was playing Poker in Las Vegas. When my friend Doctor Marvin said goodbye to me at the airport, he made me promise I would play at least once, and that obligation has been preying on me even as I console myself with thoughts of blowing this burg. Truly, I have had enough gold dust in my lungs for a while, and I need to be gone from here.
But while I might have been done with Sin City, it wasn’t quite done with me.
If you’re like most people, when you play Poker, you can just sit down and lose without much preparation. You might object that you certainly do not intend to lose, but that doesn’t really matter. You’re going to lose anyway. Here’s why: When I sit down to play Poker, I am in the seat I want to be in at the table I want to play at in the game I want to play in at a Poker Room I know down to the last dead cockroach lying neglected in a corner. I can see your down cards in the way you react to them, and I will spot you every courtesy as you gracelessly ship your chips my way.
It’s never been anything personal. To the contrary. It’s money and nothing else. My actual style of play is tight-aggressive – I don’t play crap cards out of position, but I will punish you for staying in when I do have a hand – but my table image is tight-passive – a Rock. I layer a good bit of country-dumb on top of that, and, as Captain Queeg notes, I don’t shut up at the table. I don’t run at people, I don’t taunt them when they come up short and I don’t have anything but sympathy for you when I bust you and push you to the rail. I want to be the guy you feel really good about losing to.
And all of that takes preparation. Ring games – normal Poker games – are where the money is, but going for the money that way requires a lot more commitment than I’m willing to make these days. I wanted a small tournament, big enough to offer a decent return but small enough to be over in something less than half-a-week. So on top of everything else I’ve been doing, I’ve been studying Poker rooms.
I would do that anyway. I can’t walk a casino without railbirding the Poker room. I can see the money in a glance – or, more usually, the absence of money – but it can take a while to figure out how to make it flow my way. But it all starts with the room, specifically who plays there. The Poker room at The Mirage used to be wonderful, but by now it’s nothing but Rocks and Mooks. The MGM Grand is a berry patch, big-bankroll blow-hards from California and points south, but the space is awful, open to everything against a wall of emergency fire exits. The Venetian’s room is sweet, but it’s packed with aging tight-passives. And Aria is what The Mirage used to be – a wonderful place to find out how much you still have to learn about Poker.
If you just want to practice riverboat psychology at its finest, I’m thinking the $1/$2 No-Limit Hold ’Em game at the Excalibur might be your best low-roller investment. Low-limit is suck-out city, but you can punish punters with the nuts. Saturday and Sunday noonish tourneys are ripe, too: The other players will be hungover at the start and they’ll be harried by mom and kids at the end. You make your money on the other guy’s mistakes, so game selection in Las Vegas consists of figuring out who is most likely to make the richest mistakes.
And that’s what brought me to the Sunday noon $200 buy-in No-Limit Hold ’Em tournament at The Venetian. Working from a two-axis grid – richness of return against ease of extraction – that game seemed like my best opportunity. Take note: I do not gamble, not ever. If you think Poker is gambling, you’re a donor and you should find a less humiliating way to waste your money.
And that word – humiliation – is part of my problem. I have never liked hurting people at the Poker table. Some people really get off on it, and I don’t love being around that kind of a person. But there is no way to take a man’s money without causing him pain, and I’m too aware of that to find much joy in Sin City Poker.
An everyday tragedy in a card room is to see mom perched in a chair behind dad’s seat, ‘watching his hard-earned money go.’ And there again: Poker is no game for a married man. I have eaten felt-pudding for dinner more times than I want to think about, but any money I lost was mine to lose. Now my-money is our-money, and I don’t feel quite right risking it. But the truth is, I didn’t feel quite right at all.
“I went to the movies at South Point the other day,” I said. “How suburban is that? Paid for my ticket with my debit card, had lunch at Steak ’n’ Shake and paid with my debit card, then I went to the race book to lay down a bet for a friend – and guess what?”
“We know where this is going,” said Captain Queeg. “They wouldn’t take your debit card. They don’t take cards for gambling. You have to go to the ATM and pay the stupid fee. Get over it.”
“That’s not what I’m getting at. The ATM scam is cheesy and stupid, but I was just floored that I couldn’t pay for everything with that card. In ten years’ time, I haven’t paid for anything any other way. And that was what got me, the realization that I’m just not that guy any longer.”
“What guy?” Larry was clueless but reliable. The tournament allows re-entry for the first three hours, and in that time I had put him on the rail three times. He was surviving his fourth buy-in by limp-calling almost everything and showing down well in the check-check-check-fest that is a Poker tournament on the bubble.
But he was short-stacked and I wasn’t too far ahead of him. The Ice Princess had chips, and Captain Queeg had the big stack and the swagger to go with it. Whoever finished fourth – my plan was for it to be Larry – would go home with nothing, and the top three players would split the prize pool.
“I’m just not that guy,” I said. “I’m not that rake, not that rounder. When I get in my car – it’s practically a mini-van for heaven’s sake – I can’t get far enough away from The Strip. I drive until I get to real suburbs, and only then do I start to feel at home. And do you know the suburb of Las Vegas I love the best? It’s Blue Diamond.”
The Ice Princess snorted, and I know why: Blue Diamond is a little nothing-burger of a burg in mountains south and west of The Strip. It consists of about 300 souls living on a few sleepy streets deep in the heart of nowhere. It is the most un-Vegas place you could ever imagine in Nevada. I haven’t shopped the – count ’em – two retail establishments, but it’s good odds there is not a single working slot machine in the whole town.
The game had turned into a cold-war of the big stacks, with The Ice Princess running at Captain Queeg again and again, pushing him off his blinds. Larry was happy to do anything or nothing, with or without cards, but he was living on luck. And the progressively increasing blind and ante bets in tournament Poker were forcing my hand, as it were. I needed cards to play, because, practically speaking, my only remaining move was to push all-in before the flop. This is a good way to steal blinds, but it’s also a good way to go home early if someone calls.
I caught Ace-Queen on the button, a good hand in great position. Larry raised the blinds and I raised him all in. Captain Queeg and The Ice Princess both got out of our way. Why risk chips when one of the two weak players was about to become a former player? I flopped the nut straight, and I busted Larry the Lush for the fourth time in a single tournament. I stood up to shake his hand but he came around the table and give me a big bear hug. In my ear he murmured, “Kick their asses.”
And because of that, I waited until he was out of earshot before I said, “And now we chop.”
The Ice Princess smiled knowingly, but Captain Queeq was having none of it. “I came to win, damnit, and I’m going to sit here until I do.”
I shrugged. The trick to being a Carney is to sell the Mark what he’s buying. I said, “Or until you lose. If we split the prize pool now, by negotiation, you get the win and you get to go do something else with your time.”
Nothing, but I could all but hear the gears grinding.
“Or… You can let The Ice Princess here keep picking at you until she busts your kings with trip-sevens, until she rivers a flush, until you go home in second place. There’s a street in Phoenix named Second Place, but I don’t know how anyone could ever stand to live there. And what’s worse than second place…?”
He answered this like it was a hard question: “Third place… What about her?” He tilted his head toward The Ice Princess.
“She doesn’t care. She’s planning to tell her friends she won no matter where she finishes. That’s been her plan from ‘Shuffle up and deal.’”
The Ice Princess shot me a dirty look, but she didn’t deny it.
Through all this, the dealer said nothing. Both she and The Ice Princess were of that strange breed of Vegas local, a sort of an hispanafrasian blend of everything that ever blew into Sin City and never found the way out. It’s a strange and exotic and hypnotically beautiful look that appeals to everyone and frightens no one. She was waiting stoically for play to resume, and I suggested that she might take this opportunity to take a break.
“Now, hold on there,” said Captain Queeg, “we’re only a few hands from the end.”
This was true, but I had other plans. I said, “Go on. Tell the brush we’re dickering over the chop.” To Captain Queeg, I continued, “How about we do it like this? You give forty percent each to the lady and me, and you take home the rest.”
“But the prize pool splits fifty-thirty-twenty. I read the rules. Why should I take hind-tit?”
“Because you want to win. Are you absolutely sure I can’t put you out in third place?”
He leaned around to take a look at me. My car looks like a mini-van. I pay for everything by debit card. I dress like a ’Zonie – sneakers, shorts and a tee shirt with an unbuttoned beach-comber shirt over that. I look like a Fish or a Rock – anything but a threat.
“If you’re just getting around to looking at me now, this will be the first and last Poker tournament you’ll ever win.” And that shot stung, I could see it. This was a guy who had cashed before, but never won.
“Why so much for her?”
Score! When they change the subject, you won. “Try to talk her down. You can do it, if you can figure out what she wants.”
I shrugged. “She wants to feel that she’s one up on you, that she’s in on the real score and you’re just a clueless Mark. But you’ll have a hard time giving that to her, because she’s already got a full tank.”
“Why so much for you, chump?” So said The Ice Princess, in a rare display of any emotion other than disdain.
I smiled, which only served to bring the blood to her ears. “It was my idea.” To Captain Queeg I said, “You want to win. I could be more circumspect, but I’m trying to be respectful of your time. You want the win, and this is how Poker tournaments get decided at the end, by chop. If you insist we go on playing, The Ice Princess is going to keep coming at you and I’m going to steal your blinds every orbit and you’re going to go home with twenty percent in third place. I’m offering you twenty percent and first place, and my belief is that I could talk you down to fifteen if I felt like it.”
And I swear to god, that speech gave The Ice Princess the tingles. My interest in her was substantially less than zero, but that’s why god gave me a Poker face.
“You understand that this is just a marketing problem, right? Just a Carney problem. You’re playing for status, for prestige. You’re a big wheel back home, and you want to regale the boys with the story of how you took on this town and beat it to a pulp. I’m playing for money. I’m offering you a chance to make sure we both get what we want.”
The Ice Princess had regained her naturally charming composure: “Fat chance, loser. You’re the short stack.”
“‘All it takes to win is a chip and a chair.’” That’s a sucker-bait slogan, but I’ll bet neither one of them saw it that way. To gamblers, it’s an admonition to re-buy – thus to lose another rack of chips.
Las Vegas lives and dies on the fear of loss. Everything is sold that way. The best things in life are free, and the people who actually have a good time in Vegas – as opposed to accumulating more and more devastating regrets – are not to be found on the floors of the casino, not on the Sucker side of the table and not on the house side of the table. But the very best future a Mark can pray for, when he steps up to gamble, is to lose slowly. He knows he’s going to lose, no matter what bullshit he spews, and his big play is to make his pain last as long as possible.
Some fun, huh?
The Ice Princess was pretending there was something interesting about her fingernails. She works as a concierge at a very spendy hotel, so she will have had a lot of practice holding her tongue. Captain Queeg just stared at me, glared at me, tried to intimidate me with his down-home big-dick dance – but I’ve played Poker before.
I said, “If you think you can take me, bring it on. I’m already in the money, I’m just looking to improve my position. But if you don’t get first place, you will not have won anything in your own eyes. It’s not kind of me to be so bald about what drives you, but I’m not wrong, am I?”
Captain Queeg looked at his big stack of chips, then at my little stack, then at me. He held the glance for a beat, then another, then another. Finally he turned and called, “Floor!”The Ice Princess let out a sigh of relief, but I knew that was faked. How did I know? Because everything she does is faked. She said, “Thanks. You did me a solid.”
“Are you sure? You could have won fifty percent instead of forty.”
“Forty secure is better than fifty at risk.”
I nodded. “And that’s what keeps you coming to work every day.”
Another hurt look, but my guess is she was two drinks away from doing the Dirty Vegas with either one of us. And if you think that sounds like an choice opportunity, Sin City knows all about you. And here’s the sickest part of that whole tableau: I’m sure the only thing she found attractive about me was my too-obvious contempt for her.
We each did our tax paperwork at the table, then Captain Queeg had to go up to get his picture taken for the video Wall of Fame, where his notoriety will last for thirty rich, full days.
The Ice Princess muttered, “What a loser…”
“You’re wrong about that. He’s a winner everywhere but here. Almost everyone is. And everyone here is stuck, so desperate to win the easy way that all they can do is lose slowly. Every single day.”
“You know I’m right, and I’ll tell you how I know. No matter how much money he leaves behind, one day very soon he gets to go home…”
She glared at me spitefully, but, really, what could she say?
And what could I say, for that matter? I can talk to anyone who is willing to tell me the truth, but liars can’t hear anything I have to say. And her problems are quite a bit worse than anything I want to take on, anyway.
But I sat, I cashed and I came away with double my expected-value, with the added increment coming strictly in the form of value-added by salesmanship. How Vegas is that?
And here’s the best news of all: I get to go home, too.