Pro Poker Hurts

It's not all glitz and glory at the table.

When the floor supervisor arrived, he confirmed the hand did not, in fact, qualify as a bad beat. "The eight didn't play," he told the gathering crowd. In Texas hold 'em, to have a bad beat, both players in the hand have to use their initial pocket cards when making their final, five-card poker hand. Since there were three queens face up along with two kings and she had a queen and an eight in her hand, the eight was not part of her final five-card hand. (She had four queens and a king; her opponent had four kings and a queen.)

The woman collapsed into her chair, despondent.

The crowd dispersed. As close to the bad beat as most will ever get.

Harold Persaud, a regular at Pompano Park's casino, makes a living playing poker.
Tara Nieuwesteeg
Harold Persaud, a regular at Pompano Park's casino, makes a living playing poker.

For some people, life as an amateur pro player is like one big bad beat without the six-figure payoff. In theory, all luck evens out and the players with more skill profit in the long run. But the numbers game is hard. The poker commercials that promise "yesterday's average joe might be tomorrow's millionaire" don't explain how difficult it is to beat the rake. For a player to be successful, he not only has to skim excess money from the whales rolling up with fat stacks of cash, but also pull in enough to cover the $5-a-pot cut that goes to the house, the dollar or two tip to the dealer for each win, and the cost of food, which can range from disgusting fries to a gourmet spread at your table, such as is available at Isle of Capri.

Catherine, a Pompano dealer, estimates about one in 20 players in her card room tell themselves they're playing poker for a living. "Kids see this on TV and it doesn'tlook like gambling," she said. Poker fans are inundated with commercials that promote a luxury lifestyle and programming built around the suspense of turning over cards with millions at stake. "Parents are telling their kids to go play poker over at a friend's house to keep them off the streets. What's really happening is an entire generation of boys is going broke very young."

She also thinks television teaches people to play the wrong way. ESPN takes four full days of poker and boils it down to 45 minutes of action, so viewers don't see that most of the time, professional poker is a tedious, unending sequence of receiving cards, deciding they're not good enough, and folding. "I love the game as much as anyone," Catherine said. "It's fun. It's the reason there are hundreds of people here tonight. But some of these kids bring in all their money, trying to build up a bankroll. And who takes care of them when they have $40,000 worth of credit card debt?"

When I last saw him in Pompano, T told me he wouldn't leave Coconut Creek until he had enough to cover his expenses for two months. And sure enough, more than 24 hours later, T was at a $5/$10 table in the small, crowded card room on the second floor of the Seminole casino. He was wearing the same Aston Villa soccer jersey I'd last seen him in. Every ESPN channel played from one of the plasma screens on each wall. Some showed highlights from the Home Run Derby. Others showed poker.

I was at a table with Brian. He was telling me about the hand in which he lost $40,000. "By the way, does New Times cover your buy-in?" he asked.

"We'll see what the editors think of the story," I said, noting my longtime desire to list "gambling losses" on an expense report.

"Losses are a part of this game, like everything else," he said, taking on a slightly wistful tone as he ruminated on the game he has built his life around. "If you love poker, you have to love losing. You have to love winning. You have to love donkeys. People bitch after a bad hand, but you can't complain when you agree to sit down and play with those other people at the table. And deep down, people know that. If poker players didn't love losing, they'd choose to get up and walk away."

When I looked up from our conversation, T, who'd accumulated a hill of expensive chips when last I looked, was gone. Someone else was in his seat, surely still feeling the body heat he'd generated sitting there for more than a day.

It was nearly 4 a.m. when I headed out to the west parking lot. I spotted a white truck off by itself near the edge of the lot. It looked just like the one I'd seen T driving when he left Pompano a few nights earlier.

As I got closer, there was a glimmer in the window. Moisture, it seemed, had built up along the inside of the windshield and was reflecting the tall, yellow lights of the parking lot.

I was next to the driver's-side window of the GMC pickup before I could see inside. There, resting against the door handle, were two large, black Nike sneakers. They connected to jeans that bent around the steering wheel. Beyond that was an Aston Villa jersey twisted around the thin Jamaican man sleeping with his hands next to his cheek. In the quiet of the night, under the glow of the casino lights, he looked like a child taking a postlunch nap at daycare.

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