Pro Poker Hurts

At a poker table, perhaps nothing is more disturbing than a well-tanned man. This is a man of luxury. He has the time in his schedule to lie beneath the sun so that it may color him. Or worse, he has the time and money to lie in a tanning booth. He never wants for food or shelter. He doesn't have to wake up to an alarm clock or show up late to meetings, unshaven and smelling of last night's intoxicated adventures.

Nor does he care about a stack of chips worth a few hundred dollars. And this fact makes him dangerous in a poker game filled with men who really can't afford to go home light five big bills.

That was the trouble with Norman, the bronzed gent in his thirties with sparkling teeth, coifed hair, and a Ralph Lauren pullover, as he sat at a no-limit table in the back of the card room at Isle of Capri Casino and Racing at Pompano Park on a Sunday evening in July. Anytime that anyone else at the table bet, Norman raised an ungodly amount, calling out the bet in what seemed like an intentionally ambiguous foreign accent. A few other players knew he played here almost every day, and more than once that evening, a brave soul had doubted Norman and called his huge bets only to see the tan one turn over an unbeatable hand. He sent player after player away from the table looking down into an empty wallet.

When he dragged a tall stack of red chips from his sizable pile and planted them deliberately in the middle of the table in front of me, I quickly shucked the pair of kings in my hand. Like everyone else, I didn't think he had a better hand every time, but I could never be so sure that I'd stake every dime I'd brought to the table.

Norman had more than $600 in chips in front of him when Harold Persaud arrived at the other end of the table. The 53-year-old Caribbean man, who always seems to be in a good mood, is a familiar face around here. This night, he had his long, braided ponytail under a red ball cap and wore a gold earring shaped like a musical note.

Persaud makes his living at these tables. He pulled a crisp $100 bill from a roll in his pocket, greeted the dealer in his island brogue, and sat down. Norman immediately recognized Persaud. "This guy will give me action," Norman said to me under his breath. He sneered as he thought of separating this smiling man from his money.

Over the next half-hour, Persaud was calm, even jovial at times. He casually tossed his chips into the middle; twice he engaged in conversation with someone at another table and didn't miss a beat in the game, throwing his chips in for a call without even turning around.

Soon enough, the two men got into a hand together. Persaud bet. Norman raised; his bright tan was essentially winking at Persaud, begging for a call. Persaud obliged. When the first round of community cards came out, Persaud bet again, pushing the pot over $50.

Persaud knew Norman too, and he'd watched him play. Though this was a lower-stakes $1/$2 table, the two had played at the $5/$10 tables, where the pots often go over $1,000. So when Norman raised again — this time $50 — Persaud sat back and thought. He looked at the bet. Then he counted the money in the pot. He looked at the cards on the table. If Norman had a deuce or a three or another pair in his hand, Persaud knew his pair of fours wouldn't hold up.

He folded, pushing his cards to the dealer — sending all the money he'd put in the pot to this tanned nemesis. Norman, looking smug, turned over a king and an eight. He had nothing. Persaud nodded. A scruffy-looking retiree called to Persaud: "He got you to drop too, huh? I knew he didn't have it."

Persaud calmly leaned forward. "Listen," he told the old man, "you play by your rules and I'll play by my rules." His voice was as soft as the green felt on the table. "We'll see who comes out better."

He was confident that if he stuck to his system, he'd prevail.

A self-described "pro," Persaud plays cards to supplement his income as a cruise-ship musician. As Harold Caribbean, he has recorded eight albums over the past 20 years, but now he's what you might call an amateur professional poker player. He is one of dozens of men — and a few women — who go to the legal poker rooms across South Florida every day, hoping to grind out the money to pay the bills. They go to places such as Pompano Park, Mardi Gras, and Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, to card rooms full of businessmen who cut out of the office early, young men wearing hooded sweatshirts and listening to iPods, foul-smelling degenerate addicts, and more retirees than a Sunday buffet.