Thursday, March 23, 2006

What is poker?

What is poker?

It’s an old guy in a trucker’s hat that reads “You should have been a hemorrhoid because you’re such a pain in my ass” laughing with his poker buddies.

It’s the matronly woman who looks like June Cleaver with glasses who plays ok, just well enough to make the final table of a women’s event, but not good enough to compete with the tournament regulars.

It’s the brash Italian who criticizes the June Cleaver type for the questionable plays she makes while the hypocrite calls off many of his chips on even more questionable plays.

It’s the intermediate player in the Alabama cap visiting a far away state and observing all of these characters while wondering himself, “why do we all do it?”

It’s the players of a weekly tournament at the Eldorado Casino in downtown Reno, buying in for $65 and trying to win about $1,300 as the neon lights flash outside and pedestrians brave the cold on their way to and fro.

Three times Tuesday I could have made a sizable score and three times I lost. Never is poker more humbling than when you can’t catch a single break, no matter how many times you try or how well you play. Every time you’re in a big pot or a big hand you just know the river card or the flop is going to turn against you. First, there was the $110 SNG in which I lost on the river, costing me at least $400. Then I played in a 10-20 Omaha H/L game in which I had it on the turn and lost on the river. The pot was about $300-$400. And lastly there was the aforementioned Eldorado tournament, in which the blinds got ridiculous and I raised in the cutoff with A-4 and the guy in the big blind had to call with Q-2 and he won the hand. The next hand I’m in the big blind and most of my chips are in the pot. I lose that one with A-6 to J-J. Bye bye $1,300 pay day. Meanwhile a couple of young players with no clue what they’re doing were still in the thick of things.

Is this what I left my job for? To watch my dreams of riches disappear in the flash of a river card. Am I that bad or just unlucky?

Yesterday afternoon, I came up to the room to rest for awhile and Ted was lying on his bed watching his ubiquitous Fox News. He has to take some pills on Wednesday that kind of conk him out so he usually just takes it easy. As he and I lay on our respective beds watching Bill O’Reilly, Ted said something that chilled me.

“I think of that grandson of mine. He’s 12 now. You fuck around for a couple of years and he’s 14. There’s something missing in that equation.”

My mother is having some heart troubles and is going to a cardiologist in Birmingham next week. It was heart problems that killed her mother. Meanwhile, I’m goofing around in Reno. What the fuck am I doing?

I’ve only spent about three months on the road in the past year, and it’s only a one-year adventure (plus a couple of months), but Ted stays gone six months out of the year on his poker trips.

“I could be making a lot more money at home than I could out here playing poker,” he continued.

“So why do it?” I asked.

“Sometimes you’ve got to get away from the rat race.”

I can’t argue that point. The newspaper began to feel like a rat race after awhile, but I have to wonder if we all spend too much time away from the race in our quest for poker dominancy.

I see so many of the same faces on every tournament stop. How many families is this quest breaking?

I have to think the dealers are the smart ones. Granted, many of them play when they’re not working, but I suppose they watch enough poker that they are good enough to at least break even. When they are working, they make pretty good money.

I finally got the chance to interview Connie Mertens, the dealer from DeValls Bluff, Ark., who I met at the WSOP and saw again in Tunica and here.

She and her husband used to own some businesses in their hometown, but they sold them and she decided to try dealing poker. Mertens trained in Gulfport and dealt at the Isle of Capri Casino in Lula, Miss. (just south of Tunica) for awhile and then decided to try the tournament circuit.

“It’s a tough job because you don’t know what it’s like until you get there,” she said. Like Reno, for example, where the crowds are not very large and there are more than enough dealers.

The 2005 WSOP was Merten’s first big tournament. She said John Bonetti was intimidating.

“He was a mean old man,” she said. “Any dealer can’t say they’re not intimidated when they first walk in.”

Mertens said she misses being away from her husband and her grandkids, though her husband often travels to the tournaments near the end of the affairs for a little R and R.

Although Mertens said it’s tough to live out of a suitcase, but she plans to continue the circuit for another few years. She likes the camaraderie with her fellow dealers and the money is good.

“The advantage of this is you make a lot at one time. What job can you work three weeks on and five weeks off?”

She makes a good point. I wish I could find one of those jobs.

Instead, I’m walking out of the Eldorard on a Tuesday night as Italian blowhard, who finished fifth after losing with a favorite, paces the sidewalk mumbling to himself.

May I never become that guy.

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