Take me to the river

A poker story, with glossary

Photo By Tom Angel

I have known clergymen, good men, kind hearted, liberal, sincere, and all that, who did not know the meaning of a “flush.” It is enough to make one ashamed of the species

—Mark Twain

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense

— Bob Dylan

If you’re a poker player, you know the name Daniel Negreanu. Negreanu is a poker superstar, one of dozens of mini-celebrities poker has recently created, people like Annie Duke, Phil Helmuth, Minh the Master, and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. There’s also Fossil Man, the Grinder, the Professor, and dozens more, all people who have become famous in the last five years or so, and whose nicknames are instantly recognizable to most poker players and fans.

For some reason, nicknames are ubiquitous around poker tables. The roster of local Butte County players features its own cast of characters, many with nicknames to rival the more famous TV players. There’s “Bones,” who works at Feather Falls, and there’s Snake, Bosco, Bullet, Super Joe, Big D, Legend, Hammer, Poker John and a bunch of others. Poker generates its own mystique wherever it’s played.

Part of that mystique is traceable to its specialized jargon, a language all its own. (Because not all readers are likely to be familiar with that language, this story comes with an abbreviated glossary. When in doubt, consult the glossary.)

Negreanu, a Canadian, recently returned to his home turf to appear at a charity hockey game where he was mobbed at his Toronto hotel by fans while the hockey stars he was with were virtually ignored.

“I’m with some of the most famous hockey players in the world,” he said, “and nobody recognizes them, and I’m bombarded. And I’m like, ‘Wow, poker has arrived.'”

Poker has arrived, indeed. Google the word “poker” and you’ll get access to almost 20 million Web sites. That’s a lot of poker by anyone’s measure. There are nearly 2,000 books in print with the word “poker” in their titles, and both The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle have begun carrying a regular poker column by writer Jim McManus, whose book Positively Fifth St., about his experiences in the World Series of Poker, was a best seller last year.

Rounders, a 1998 Matt Damon poker flick, was in on the ground floor of the poker fad, both exploiting and helping launch the meteoric rise in interest in the game. And the oft-repeated ESPN broadcasts of Hold ’Em games at various resorts and casinos has created a legion of poker celebrities, almost all of them busily hawking their books and their poker camps and their Web sites. Some two million people are playing in online cash games each and ever month, most of them dead money.

Gold Country Casino dealer Ger Yang, right, does his thing under the watchful eye of General Manager Harry Taylor.

Photo By Tom Angel

Poker has been popular with me for more than 30 years, and I trace that love to a game I played in regularly, up in Quincy, when I should have found better things to do. It was a lo-ball game dealt by a guy named Red who wore a green eyeshade and who claimed to have played poker with Wyatt Earp down in Oakland. I don’t know if anyone believed him, but I did the math, and it was surely possible. Earp lived in Oakland for a time near the end of his life, and he didn’t die until 1926. Red looked older than the peeling wallpaper in the back corner of the Capitol Club, easily old enough to have been in a card game in the 1920s that might have included the legendary gunman.

Poker was still a fringe activity then. Home games were fine for suburbanites, but anyone who frequented card rooms tended to be thought of as fairly seedy and low-rent, a reputation sometimes deserved, as on a night when an old guy sitting next to me pissed himself because a) he had bladder control issues, and b) he didn’t want to be dealt out of a hand, especially after he’d run his last $4 up to almost $50 on two successive hands in which he caught a wheel both times.

Lo-ball is not currently the poker game many people want to play. Texas Hold ’Em is the hot game these days, and poker is no longer a fringe activity relegated to the back rooms of saloons where incontinents, lowlifes and seedy con artists congregate.

There are three poker rooms in Butte County—Angie’s, Gold Country and Feather Falls. Combined, those three rooms offer 21 tables, enough to accommodate more than 200 players at any one time.

I get started with my on-the-felt research into local games at Angie’s Poker Room on Park Avenue in Chico on a sunny fall day when most people in their right minds would choose to be outdoors. Ten of us cluster around an oval-shaped table in a somewhat dingy room watching the cards come up. Angie’s is celebrating its eighth year of operation, and the recent increase in interest in poker has made it feasible to extend their hours of operation to include regular daytime games.

Lynn, the only female in the place, deals Texas Hold ’Em to 10 men of varying ages, from 18 to well into retirement. I’m on the older end of that spectrum. At most tables where I play, it’s likely that I have more age and education than the people I’m playing against, but at most tables those attributes are almost precisely useless; I can still have my head handed to me by a 20-year-old frat boy who has spent the last six months playing on-line poker every single day.

Lynn is a practiced hand at what she does. Each player’s cards slide into place exactly in front of him. There is no wasted motion in anything she does at the table. When a player wins a hand and flips a toke her way, she spots the tip in the toke cup without interrupting the shuffling of the next hand.

It’s just a little $2-$4 game, but there are players at this table who supplement their principal income from playing in games like these. I’ve bought in for $40 and in less than half an hour I have had a couple of good hands, bringing my chip count to just over $100. Now I’m sitting on the button, and on a pocket pair of 7s. Six players ahead of me have bet or raised. There’s about $30 in the pot pre-flop, and I raise $4 and everyone calls, bringing the pot to somewhere near $80, a sizeable pot for a $2-$4 game on a midweek afternoon.

Lynn deals the flop. 7-2-7, and I have the nut hand. I’m also in great position to make the most of it. In poker, the only way for me to be in a better spot is if I were in a higher stakes game, say $200-$400 no-limit, the kind of game a small-stakes player can only dream of getting in.

My only worry is that I won’t get much action on the hand. But much to my surprise, everyone bets around to me, just $2, and I slow play a small raise, $2 more, and again, nobody folds.

On the turn, Lynn lays down an ace, a card I’m glad to see. At least one of the other players has surely paired aces now, and that will bind them to this action. Because of the deuce on the board, one of them may be wedded to a straight draw now, and in a hand like this, I’d love to see someone make a straight to the 5.

The bet comes around to me again, and this time I raise it up to $4, and again the bet goes around without anyone folding. I am in the catbird seat. The pot is now close to $200. It may be a beautiful fall day in Chico, but there’s nothing prettier outside than the quad 7s I’m looking at as Lynn deals the last card, turning up a 5 on the river.

ROUNDERS <br>Left to right: John Malone, Larry Swars, Dustin Edwards and Dave Logan playing a hand of poker in the Gold Country Casino card room.

Photo By Tom Angel

The player next to me is the first to bet, a college kid with a “Jackass” T-shirt and a barbed wire tattoo on his bicep. He bets $4 so I put him on two pair—aces and the two 7s on the board. Or maybe he’s got a set of aces if he was wired to pocket rockets. The guy next to him folds, but he gets a call from the next player to bet, a jovial fat guy who likes to narrate the game—almost every card room has someone like him. Two more players call around to me, and I raise another $4. Everyone left is virtually pot committed by now, so I get called by the four remaining players, and I take down a pot that has grown to over $250 in a little afternoon $2-$4 game.

I play another hour before I have to leave, and when I cash out, I’m up $176.00. Not bad for a couple of hours’ work. Life is good.

Outside Angie’s, Lynn is taking a cigarette break. I ask her how she found her way to dealing. Like most dealers, she was a player before she was a dealer, and it was love of the game that finally took her to the other side of the table. She’s been playing for 28 years, and dealing for eight.

Her best hand as a player was a hand she folded. She was holding a pair of aces in a game of Omaha and there was a third ace on the board and over $5,000 in the pot. Unfortunately the board also showed a probable straight A- K-Q-. She folded her aces and the river turned up a fourth ace, meaning that she would have beat the two straights the cards had made, and she would have won the spirited round of betting between those two players, both of whom would have lost to her … if she hadn’t folded before that last card was turned.

That happened a long time ago, but Lynn still remembers the hand. Most poker players remember the big hands—the big wins and the big losses—and I remember my pocket 7s all the way home, and now, three weeks later, I remember them still, as I commit that hand to words on the computer screen.

Perhaps it’s the element of risk always present at a poker table, or maybe it’s just the romance of “the sporting life,” but poker players are, among other things, inveterate storytellers, and the stories they most like to tell are stories of better players, bad beats, big wins and big losses.

The poker pantheon is deeply embedded in American folklore, a rogue’s gallery of stories and characters from Doc Holliday coughing up his lungs at Tombstone’s poker tables, to Wild Bill Hickok, his life’s blood oozing out onto his “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights in Deadwood.

Lots of American politicians were poker players. Richard Nixon was, by all accounts, a fearsome poker player during his stint in the service during World War II, and Harry Truman held a regular game in the White House, as did Warren G. Harding. Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy, the guy who gave anti-communism such a bad name, was also an inveterate poker player, as well as a lush.

Bullshit, wide and often deep, is never absent from a poker room. Bullshit fertilizes the game itself, nourishing it with the mystique that gives a night’s winner more than cash. A strong night on a poker table endows a big winner with dozens of affirmations of how canny he was, how cleverly he detected tells, how shrewdly he read the cards, and how profoundly he read the other players. On a good night, the player was a wizard; on a bad night, the cards just weren’t there. It’s mostly bullshit, however it gets interpreted, but it’s the kind of bullshit that can get reapplied endlessly and in as many combinations as the cards can make.

According to Hoyle, poker isn’t much more than a couple of hundred years old, probably with roots in a Persian game called As Nas. A game similar to As Nas, called “Brag,” was being played in England about the time the obstreperous American colonies were raising the stakes in a much more serious game of bluff with the Mother country. The German equivalent was called “Pochen,” which means “to bluff.” The French then called the game Poque, and the Americans corrupted the French word to give us “poker.” With dozens of variations, that is the game we play to this day.

A few days after my win at Angie’s I’m on my way over to Gold Country casino in Oroville to meet with John Malone Jr., the card room supervisor, and Harry Taylor, Gold Country’s new general manager. If you were a Hollywood producer looking to cast the part of a casino manager, you’d come up with someone who looked like Harry Taylor—slick, handsome, meticulously groomed and tailored.

Harry’s first day on the job at Gold Country was Sept. 24. New he might be, but he is completely sure of himself and at ease, coming to the job from managing the Union Plaza casino in Las Vegas. He’s been around gaming as a professional for more than 20 years, and his love of poker is evident in the way he talks about it. “You can’t be a better crap shooter,” he says. “You’re either going to lose, or you’re going to lose a lot. But poker’s a game of skill,” he says, “and in a game of skill, you can always increase your odds of winning.”

What are those skills? Harry doesn’t hesitate for a second: “Knowing the pot odds, figuring the percentages, being patient, and having the ability to read the players. Get good at those skills, and you don’t have to lose.”

Nine dealers work the Gold Country poker room, and a similar number work at Feather Falls. Dealers make a base salary that hovers around minimum wage, but their real earnings are the tokes, averaging a buck or two a hand on the smaller games, and more on the bigger ones. That comes out to $40 or $50 an hour.

Harry Taylor genuinely likes gaming. He is himself a poker player, and despite the time all of these people spend around cards, they still watch poker being played on ESPN, all of them drawn to the World Series of Poker and the other games now being broadcast with such regularity.

“Now,” John Malone says, “poker’s a social game. All these people playing on the Internet and watching poker on TV, it whets their appetite for brick and mortar games where they’re playing against other people face to face.”

John, who’s been around Butte County poker tables since the ‘80s as a player, dealer and manager, is anxious for me to mention all the special promotions the casino runs—the $50 for $40 buy-in night, and the Monday night shot at winning a free pool bet on the NFL football game. There are special jackpots for high hand, and worst beat, and a half dozen other bonuses designed to attract players.

Though the card room is a minor part of the operation Harry Taylor oversees, he wants to make sure I’m not there to do a hatchet job, so he monitors the interview I am here to do with John Malone.

What’s the worst spin I could put on a story about poker in Butte County? That some people turn a pleasurable pastime into an obsession? That some people do harm to themselves by gambling more than they can afford? Might the story suggest the obvious: that the Indian casinos, in particular, run poker games not because they’re particularly profitable for the house, but because poker draws gamblers, and few poker players manage to limit their gaming to the poker tables. Do they drop money they may not intend to lose into slot machines and on blackjack tables on their way to and from the poker game? Yes, many do, and many lose more than they can reasonably afford to lose. But whether it’s chocolate, airplane glue or poker, if there’s a way to turn a good thing bad, human beings will find it.

“There are 600 cameras throughout the casino,” John tells me, “and those cameras are here primarily to protect the players. If you drop a chip in here, chances are the cameras caught it.”

I’m pleased to know about all the trouble the casino is taking to look out for my interests, but I’d gladly forego their kind protection for just a few minutes alone with that chip tray with the cameras off.

I stick around for the Friday night tournament, buying in for $45, along with 33 other players who draw lots for seats at four tables. Top prize is $745, and I make it to the final table, finishing seventh, out of the money, but the experience confirms what Harry and John were telling me. It is a social occasion, with people interacting who would otherwise have little occasion to speak with one another. Next to me as the game began was an 18-year-old kid who looked about 15. Since he turned 18 just eight weeks ago, he’s been driving over to Gold Country from his home in Lincoln every week to play poker. I ask him why he doesn’t play at Thunder Valley, and he informs me that Thunder Valley doesn’t have poker, and he wouldn’t be legal there if they did because they serve liquor in the casino. That means that he can’t play at Feather Falls, either, but he’s legal at Gold Country, where alcohol is confined to the bar. There are six or eight other under-21 players in the room on this Friday night. It’s an odd anomaly, the fastidiousness of a law that protects Chico State students from the demon rum over in Oroville when they’re drowning in the stuff in Chico, but there it is. Sometimes cards make more sense than the world at large.

The young players attract experienced players hoping to cash in on their youth and inexperience, and that sometimes happens, but lots of younger players have racked up experience in Internet games, and they also are more likely to stay in with bad hands, then suck out on the river to win with hands that shouldn’t, according to the odds, have been played at all.

A sweet grandmotherly woman named Ann finishes ahead of me in the tournament, as does that 18-year-old kid from Lincoln, even though I was playing poker for a couple of decades before he ever drew breath. Still, I do manage to bust out Siggy and Legend, and two or three other off-duty poker dealers who are, almost certainly, better players than I am.

I leave Gold Country down another $45, the amount of the tournament buy-in, and I’m back at Angie’s for another go the following week. Phil, Angie’s brother, manages the place, and today he is dealing. I’d introduced myself to him on my previous visit, and he remembers me. He’s an affable guy—an unfriendly dealer is generally an unemployed dealer—in his early 40s. We exchange small talk, and I ask him about a guy notorious among local poker players, a guy who once ran a poker club on Broadway in Chico that featured a regular high-stakes game. Phil knows who I mean, and he remembers the night when the guy lost a big hand and then, enraged, flipped over the table, scattering players and chips in all directions. Poker rooms tend to be a place where stories get told, and where incidents become legendary in the retelling.

Because of the money, and the potential for volatile human behavior, card rooms are heavily regulated and monitored. Watchdogs from the state gaming commission regularly drop in at Angie’s and at the other poker rooms in Butte County. Card rooms are a source of revenue for the state; the so-called “sin” taxes are always popular with politicians, and as poker increases in popularity, it is also increasing in the generation of revenue, and state government wants a piece of that action. Once the fees and taxes get added in, for example, a deck of cards that would cost you or me a couple of bucks winds up costing poker room managers $27 a pop.

Phil is adept at dealing as Lynn is. Card rooms make their overhead, and their profit, off the rake, and that means slow or inept dealers don’t last long. The more hands dealt, the more money is generated for the house. On average, a poker hand lasts less than two minutes. A good dealer will put out 35-40 hands an hour. The rake takes a dollar on the flop, another dollar when the pot reaches $20, and another dollar when the pot tops $50, so even a little $2-$4 game will bring in something like $70 or $80 an hour for the house.

I buy in for $60 on a Thursday night $2-$4/$2-$8 Hi-Lo 7 Stud game. On this night, no cards come my way, and I drop $120 before I’m out the door.

A few days later I’m chasing my loss and another interview with John Malone over at Gold Country Casino. The players begin to filter in around 2:30 for 3-6 Hold ’Em and the Monday night football pool. John calls his poker room the “Poker Dome” because it’s housed in the old dome-like tent structure downstairs from the new casino. A thunderstorm rumbles overhead, and the place is uncomfortably warm. I buy a rack, and settle in.

You won’t find many cars with those “Celebrate Diversity” bumper stickers in the parking lots of Butte County card rooms, but anyone looking to do the diversity rag could do no better than take up Hold ’Em. There are plenty of chances to celebrate diversity every time you sit down at a poker table. In tonight’s game, there’s a Samoan, a Mexican, two Hmong guys, a Vietnamese and a young man of indeterminate ancestry, wearing dreadlocks. There’s a white kid whose cheeks suggest little familiarity with a razor, the kind of player who looks like an easy mark, but this kid is good, and he takes a hand from the guy with the dreads who mucks his hand and punctuates his loss with the f-word. Frankie, the dealer, who appears to be a Native American wearing a large turquoise ring, admonishes him for swearing. When the guy with the dreadlocks swears again a few hands later, Frankie chastens him again, and he apologizes, saying, “I grew up in one of them minority families,” he says, “where we didn’t learn any better.” As in most card rooms, rules are posted prominently, and all the card rooms have rules against offensive language, but I’m surprised to see the dealer make a point of enforcing this particular rule. None of the men assembled here look like they would be much disturbed by profanity.

In my first hour or so of play, I’m up about $60, but by the time the Monday night football game between Denver and Kansas City is half over, I’m busted out and I buy another rack. Forget the No-Limit game, which is just getting started; now I’m just out to get back to even.

But I take a bad beat—I’m dealt pocket queens and then a third queen comes up on the flop, but the guy in dreads sucks out a flush on the river to take down a big pot I thought was mine—and that bad beat, plus my previous losses, puts me on tilt again. My next hand is pocket Jacks, and I play them against one of the off-duty dealers, taking the Jacks all the way to the river even though there’s an over card on the board, a queen, and of course, I’m beat. Had I not been on tilt, I would have folded my pocket Jacks as soon as the queen hit the board and someone bet.

I never make it to Feather Falls, though I do call there to talk with “Bones,” one of the poker room supervisors. Like Gold Country, Feather Falls is running tournaments and other special promotions. On the first Saturday of every month, the casino hosts a $20,000 grand prize tournament. A $330 buy-in gives players a shot at that top prize.

Like Poker John Malone, “Bones” has been around card rooms in Butte County for more than two decades. Poker, he says, went almost extinct for awhile there. The only legal poker was Lo-Ball or Hi-Lo Split, and those old players were dying off, and they weren’t being replaced. Then, California got a gaming commission in 1984, and they got around to making Hold ’Em legal, and not long after that the World Series of Poker got popular, and then there was online poker, and now poker has been completely rejuvenated.

It’s tempting to see the current popularity of poker as an expression of the zeitgeist, the perfect fad for this moment in history when just taking a flight or entering a building can seem like a game of chance. Poker is a game where one’s fortunes ride on the turn of a card, and where even the best plans can be overturned by the element of luck. Now, in times as uncertain as these—where wild cards and unreadable players seem to drive the bigger game we all play in even more than in “normal” times—we may be drawn to poker because it serves as a metaphor for the precariousness of our lives.

Or maybe we just like the action, seeing the cards come up, and taking periodic assessments of our chip count.

On any given afternoon or evening, a revolving cast of characters—a few hundred rotating regulars, plus occasional newbies—gather at the three Butte County poker rooms and swap money and lies and pleasantries across the felt. In the process, they provide jobs to a couple of dozen dealers who love their work, love coming to the job each day and engaging in the banter with the players, love watching the cards come up in their almost endless combinations, love being near the action, whether the action is $2-$4, or big money no-limit. In the three weeks I worked on this piece, I didn’t find a single card room employee who didn’t love the work. “Bones” is no exception. From casino general manager to dealer, they all share a fondness for the cards, the players and the tables.

Are you a good poker player? I ask “Bones.” He pauses, like a player assessing another player, then sighs: “That depends,” he says. “The problem is, I’m not a tight player. I’m a gambler.”

My kinda guy.