Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Time to go again

My next trip has dawned. Tomorrow I take off for two weeks, though not all of it is poker related. First, Brian and I head to Orlando for a couple of days. We have a friend from college who works at Disney World and she is getting us free passes to hit the parks. On Saturday, we go to Gainesville to work TV production for the Tennessee-Florida game. On Sunday we're driving to Atlantic City (that will be a nice hike) where Brian will stay until Wednesday and I will stay until Sept. 29. I'll play a few U.S. Poker Championship tournies at the Taj Mahal and maybe catch some final table action at the Borgata.

I submitted the sample to the editor on the college poker craze book possibility, but won't hear anything until at least October. My agent thinks I have the edge over the other candidate, but that could just be wishful boosterism. Anyway, here's what I wrote...just an average night in a University of Alabama fraternity house...

Only the sound of cicadas can be heard as dusk settles over the University of Alabama campus on a Sunday evening. A few joggers and dog walkers abound, representing a mere fraction of the crowds that packed the campus 24 hours earlier for the university football team’s season opener.

The crowds are long gone, but at the Sigma Nu fraternity house the game is just beginning.
In a poorly lit living room, nine students crowd around a table covered by a poker setup, a portable cushioned green felt with cup holders that can be transported wherever the action is. Have game, will travel.

Beside the poker game, two more fraternity brothers shuffle another deck of cards and play heads up over a Ping-Pong table as they wait for a seat in the big game. The deck only has 50 cards, but in a time of need it will have to suffice.

A couple of other students lounge on couches on the other side of the room, under the painting of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, as they tune into the Virginia Tech – N.C. State football game on the large screen television. As the popularity of poker grows, one has to wonder if football really is king in the South anymore.

At the main table, Matt Matthews is running over the field in this no-limit Texas hold’em game. The aggressive senior is one of the ringleaders of the game, helping to organize poker nights in various fraternity houses and off-campus apartments in Tuscaloosa. When discussion turns to the new college edition of Card Player that the stalwart poker magazine is now publishing, Matthews spouts, “I should be featured in that bastard.”

With his visor turned sideways and his confidence level high, Matthews debates the merits of 10-J, a middling starting hand in hold’em. He calls it the “cocaine hand.”

“People like it so much, but it’s bad for them,” he says.

As if on cue, the next flop is 10-J-K. “Cocaine! Crack on the board, baby!” Matthews exclaims.

The game itself could be referenced in the same way. A group of these guys play just about every night, either here or somewhere else -- sometimes making the drive two hours to the Indian casino in Mississippi, or sometimes just sitting down for an hour at lunch for a quick game.

“We played all day and night last year,” Matthews said. “We’d come in at 11 a.m., we’d get our food at dinner and bring it in here and eat while we played. People would come and go and we’d still play. We were sick.”

Trey, a sophomore who belongs to another fraternity, often lets his buddy Matthews play poker online at his house since Matthews doesn’t have an Internet connection in his fraternity house.

“He was sitting over there playing a tournament on Doyle’s Room on my computer and he called in sick to his boss,” Trey recalls. “You could hear the chips clicking in the background.”

For Trey, poker is in the blood. His uncle Harry Cullen recently made the final table of the World Series of Poker circuit event held earlier this year in New Orleans. But it wasn’t Cullen that got Trey into poker. He and his buddies played after class in high school in Houston and their love for the game was fueled further by the media attention the game began to receive a few years ago.

Now two years into college, Trey enjoys joining Matthews and the others in their regular games. Most of the games, like the one this night, have blinds of 50 cents and a dollar with a $40 maximum buy in. The stakes are high enough to keep things interesting, but low enough so friends and fraternity brothers don’t go broke.

“We try to keep it friendly, but no limit isn’t friendly,” Trey says. “It’s like a regular poker game. We try to take each other’s money.”

The next hand is dealt from the well-worn red deck and the chatter continues. As action moves around the table, most players splash the pot, a practice disdained in proper card rooms, but which is commonplace here, perhaps symbolic of the players’ carefree nature.

“Most of these guys are just pissing away their dad’s money so they don’t care,” Trey says.

Trey busts out, and leaves with a $56 loss. “I can’t really afford it,” he says before departing. “I work at McAllister’s [a local deli] so I’ll just go work some more hours.” At a wage of $6.50 an hour, it will take him a full day’s work to earn back the money he just lost -- before taxes.

As play continues through the evening, it’s obvious to the casual observer that this game isn’t so much poker as a pissing contest. It’s not about the hands one can make, but the biggest pots a player can take down with a bluff, as a guy called Buzbee proves when he wins a big stack with a big bet and throws his four-deuce face up on the felt.

“Take a fucking look at that!” he sneers.

A few players have received nicknames over the years. Matthews is dubbed The Disciple, a moniker the brash player relishes. Another player is known as Captain Maniacal. “He used to play anything,” Matthews quips. And another player, last name Bunch, has a hand named after him, the ten-five. Supposedly, he has cracked pocket kings and aces with this piddling holding. When asked why he likes to play that crap, Bunch pops a cigarette in his mouth, thinks for a moment and finally says, “I don’t know.”

When beer and college friends come together, logic often flies out the window, especially when there is a bigger game to be had. Some of the players with larger bankrolls plan to go to a $1-$3 blinds no limit game in downtown Tuscaloosa when this one breaks up, where they are likely to win or lose a lot more money playing with a larger crowd with deeper pockets.

As the night grows longer, the pots get bigger as the players grow impatient.

I’m up $80 so I’m waiting it out,” Matthews says. “These guys are trying to win as much money as possible before they go downtown.”

But on a flop of 10-7-2 with two clubs, Matthews pushes all in and is called by two players. Brian, another regular, ponders for a moment before tossing in his last $30. “I’ve got top pair and I’ve got places to go so I’ll go all in,” he says.

Matthews turns over a flush draw, while Buzbee turns over a 10-J. Brian has a five kicker with his pair of tens. No one improves and Buzbee rakes in a pot with more than $100 in it.
“Remember what I said about the Matt Matthews blow up,” Buzbee reminds a visitor of an earlier comment. “That was it.”

For a game that often goes into the wee hours of the morning, this one is quickly breaking up. After a few hours, the game is dead, with several of the players broke.

“Sometimes they get tired of losing money,” Rob says.

Some players are heading for downtown to the bigger game, while others are off to watch some football or go out drinking.

They will have a day break. The next game is Tuesday.


In Poker 101: The College Card Craze, Johnny Kampis delves into the world of college poker, where the first games start before fall classes begin and straight flushes often take priority over exams. As the nation’s fascination with Texas Hold’em has grown so has its popularity at the University of Alabama, UNLV, Yale University and any other college with living, breathing, impulsive college students.


As Kampis travels the country, mining college campuses for stories, he’ll answer many of the obvious questions about college students and their poker habits.

What sorts of games are college students playing? Are students from the Ivy League playing the same games as the kids in the South or the West? How does Las Vegas’ status as the poker capital of the world affect the UNLV games?

Are women joining in on the card craze on college campuses also?

How many of the legions of online poker players are college students? Why are college students in particular hooked on online poker? The book will catch up with students who have won or lost tens of thousands of dollars in cyberspace, including those who have even played online while in class.

What do college professors and administrators think about students’ addiction to poker? Do they believe the game has redeeming values? Do math professors ever use poker examples in their classes? Are they addicted themselves? (Allegedly, University of Alabama President Robert Witt plays in a regular home game.)

What position do universities take on students gambling on campus? (The University of South Carolina has sponsored free tournaments in which prizes were awarded on its campus, in part to stave off illegal poker playing for money.)

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