Poker is hypnotic. A siren call. We enter a weird expensive world in a kind of trance. It takes years to get our brains right and generate profit. So the road to that exquisite Maserati is nothing if not crooked.
I had met Big Nick in 2014. He ran two 1-2 tables over a dive bar in Hell’s Kitchen where I then spent several sweet months finding my grind. I first trained as a tournament player. On the cash side I was still a fetus—dense about this drunk, coked-up underground cosmos and the dealers who over-skimmed and the fat rakes and nutty 15x opens. Then as now, NYC poker hobbyists fed the low-stakes ecosystem. Luckily for them poker was (is) a little bit luck. Even if kinda terrible, these guys could take goofy superficial lines. And win.
In a low-rent sort of way illegal NYC games remain captivating and rebellious: think fetching massage girls and porn and pot vapes and sticky poker chips and the occasional raid. Romance aside, coaches forget to say that this strain of poker is not exactly real. Underground games fall miles short of elite TV poker and public card rooms where a hefty percentage of pro players are hip to things like, well, ranges.
Real poker demands real genius. And yes I’m a wanton purist (hate me now.) I do believe in real poker—despite maniacs cashing large at every stake on earth. Despite dazzling anarcho-innovators in every generation making poker their own.
Keep in mind: if you’re trying to live off your winnings you quite simply inhabit a different game. Your “decision trees” won’t resemble those of lotto-style recs who play for the rush and bet accordingly. Let’s face it: a ton of casual players show up and get stoned and that’s the whole beautiful point—catching a break from kids and partners and soul-crushing day jobs. These players pay exorbitant rake for a convenient night of free-wheeling entertainment poker. (That’s a thing—the entertainment part. Winning, less urgent.)
As poker magician Ed Miller suggests, low-stakes cash games are tribal. Unconscious and predictable, weak play gets entrenched and imitated. (New York is likewise a donating city, the profit potential tantalizing once you master the fun chaos of the hobbyist mind.) Since most of us don’t live near casinos, we make do. Yet buyer beware: if you’re training underground, get into as many pots as you can with the tiny subset of strong able grinders (often tighter winning players) who will challenge you and teach you and make you uncomfortable.
Big Nick’s spot had become a hit, though I had long since moved on. He ran a ton more tables and a ton more days. At one point he missed me. And texted me.
The second I set foot in the joint I could feel how much I had changed. Nick had changed, too, the stress of running a boisterous gaming enterprise and a recent divorce wreaking havoc on his anorexic frame. Nick showed me around but his eyes lied. At 48, he seemed depressed and world-weary in a gaming domain he had presumably built with love.
I had no business playing there. Even the hip lighting over the table felt desolate. One player on a 70% range running godlike at ½ quickly accumulated several thousand dollars. Something about this guy’s hospital-corner chip castle and chilly manner and zombie position bets…suffice it to say I was agitated. Failing detachment (sorry Angelo).
A single word danced before my eyes. This particular game dishonored poker’s complexity. Dishonored its capacity for structured combat that can feel intimate. Dishonored the game’s flair for helping countless civilians feel less alone. As grinders, we might gaze at a hand with a wondrous concentration as if we had but one day to live and chose to spend it playing cards. Dishonored.
Destiny sucks large. At one point Nick’s cocky 70% player cracked my kings. Tilt ate my brain. I hated this knucklehead with his fast chip cuts and silent smirk. I hated myself for caring. Hated myself for hating. My coach and I had been working exhaustively on mental-game issues…this elegant scaffold of private achievement at once collapsing around my feet.
Later that night Luka the pro had his way with me. “Eileen,” he admonished via text, “the way you describe the lucky player and that whole scene, all of it has foundations in mental triggers that parallel justice, equality, and entitlement…the many pointless things that must be ignored. Scorned, in fact. By serious players who actually have the goods.”
I’ve played endless hours of live poker perfectly indifferent and stoic and silent. At Nick’s I went backward. I got so attached to the idiotic particulars…the zealous lotto play…the hostile dealer who hated his life…the melancholy absence of laughter. Somehow I became more novelist than grinder, heartbroken over Nick’s travails. Overwhelmed by the crass violation of a magnificent odds-infused, honor-deserving Hold’em battlefield.
We plan and Jesus laughs. Poker does indeed have a dark side having nothing to do with dreadful beats. Certain gaming habitats are simply gloomy—the way Beverly Hills mansions from my childhood were gothic and truly spooky. In the end, nothing could fix the haunted look in Nick’s eyes. I hugged him hard when I cashed out. Waiting on the curb for the car service in the middle of the night I knew Nick’s spot for me was a gigantic set up. The ghost of Christmas past. Something wicked this way went. A dybbuk.
Truth be told, sad poker is timeless. I can easily imagine a 1950s back-alley Texas saloon, the game hostile and boring and the light (bulb) equally appalling. Yet, real poker back then really was dangerous. You didn’t risk getting robbed at gunpoint for kicks. Gunslingers aside, modern poker is bifurcated. There’s poker for fun. And poker for gain. These realities are radically different yet equally wonderful and feed each other.
Wanna get where you’re going on poker’s jazzy superhighway? For starters, know what you need. If you play to relax have at this glorious clash of wills with a teeming heart. If you’re training for real, cuddle up to players and tables (and coaches) who will straighten your brains out sooner rather than later. They’ll get you closer, faster, to that Nero Ribelle Quattroporte. Swear.