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.

These amateur pros feast on tourists with bloated pockets and yentas who can't quite see all the cards — and guys like Norman, who have the money and know-how but not the drive or desperation.

They show up from open to close as if the poker room were an office. They take their meals at their desk — the poker tables. Their friends are their co-workers: the other regulars, dealers, and floor supervisors. And the massage girls — the attractive young women who, for $10, will rub your back and laugh at your stupid jokes as you play.

The goal is somewhere between carving out a semblance of a normal existence while playing a game for a living and making it big as a poker icon like Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, or the ultimate amateur-made-good, Chris Moneymaker.

Battle between the patient Persaud and the tanned Norman continued for hours. The other players at the table could only watch as the two went back and forth, each trying to study and trap the other.

By 11 p.m., Persaud was collecting the last of Norman's chips.

After seeing his fortune melt away, Norman stood up quietly, with the empty gaze of a punch-drunk boxer. He went home, possibly to tan.

To his heckler, Persaud was curt. "You think I'm going to risk all that on a little pair of fours?" he asked, referring to the hand he had lost earlier. "He can have all the small pots he wants. I'll get him in the big ones. And look" — he pointed to the $600 of chips in front of him — "here's all his money." He grinned. "This is what I do."

The days of poker as the sport of bearded degenerates with tall hats and nicknames that involved geography are gone. Delaware Donnie has been replaced by Donald Johnson, an accounts manager from Dover who likes getting together with buddies and sometimes, while on vacation, plays at a casino.

Everyone in the industry can chalk up at least some part of America's poker fever to the work of Chris Moneymaker. And seriously, who could ask for a better name? The Tennessee accountant who began playing dollar games online and ended up winning the World Series of Poker main event in 2003 was a story too good to resist. This was the first live tournament he'd ever played. His small frame, soft build, and Southern drawl told millions of Americans they too could bluff out a Vegas pro and win a few million dollars.

Then came the constant replays of that event. And the rise of online poker. And the barrage of poker commercials and poker books. Poker movies. Scripted poker TV shows. Poker cruises. Poker videogames.

Poker players became celebrities, drinking champagne with movie stars, appearing on television and receiving large winner's checks. And then thousands of poker enthusiasts across the nation debated "going pro" — as if they were Heisman Trophy candidates forced to choose between friends on the team and the money in the NFL. Except, of course, with poker, turning pro doesn't mean you're signing a contract with a franchise. A thin sliver of players in Las Vegas and Los Angeles receives sponsorships from poker websites, but the only real requirement to turn pro is the willingness to gamble — and lose — large sums of money.

An industry centered on corporate-owned casinos such as Isle of Capri Casinos and Hard Rock International benefits from these individuals spending more time at the casino, where they eat, drink, get rubs, and tip, tip, tip.

Card Player magazine's 20th-anniversary issue, which is handed out free at several local card rooms, featured a column about "understanding what to expect before turning pro." Among the tips: "If needed, take a leave of absence from work. It helps to play every day (or whatever schedule you expect to work as a professional). If you decided to move to Las Vegas or California, go there for a few months to try it out."

Casinos found a way to make big bucks dealing poker. Though players are competing against one another and not against the house, as in blackjack and roulette, the casino still takes a cut of every pot. That portion, called a "rake," is normally 10 percent, with a cap at $5 every hand. A rake also means that even if two players tie in a hand, they both lose money.

Harold Persaud learned the game when he was a lounge performer 10 years ago in Las Vegas. But only in the past year and a half has he decided he could play full-time. He goes to Pompano or the Hard Rock most weekdays and at least one weekend day — to cash in on the weekend tourists looking to get a few hours away from the family. He told me he averages $1,000 a week from cash games, tournament wins, and the lessons he offers in his Boca Raton home. He also told me he's never read a poker book but that as long as he brings positive energy and sticks with his rules, he likes his chances against anyone in the world.

Brian G. was ahead of the poker boom. Now 33 years old, the Brooklyn native first played for cash at age 14. He told me he doesn't like to call himself a pro, but he spends 80 hours a week playing in live cash games, playing online (as "BrooklynBman"), dealing in high-dollar home games, or dealing at the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, where he lives. His arms are tattooed, his head shaved, his face thoughtful.

I sat down next to him at a table in the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, where he plays about 25 hours a week. It was past 1 a.m. Right now, four Broward poker rooms are open around the clock: Coconut Creek and the other two Seminole casinos, plus Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Hallandale Beach. A poker room in the middle of the night is a symphony of coughing, clacking chips, and loud sports television played over a sea of sunken eyes and crooked backs. Behind all the interaction is the mutual understanding that nobody in the room will be doing anything productive for society the next morning.

While we played, Brian took several smoke breaks, and each time he returned, he made his way around the room to see how his friends were doing. His mother taught him to play Uno and Yahtzee as a kid, he says. Then gin rummy. Then a handful of poker games he can list off in his Brooklynese: "Omaha, acey-deucy, follow the queen." His father trained — and bet on — racehorses. By age 18, he had a fake ID so he could play poker and blackjack in Atlantic City. By 23, he had spent every dime of his bar mitzvah money and pawned every bit of jewelry he owned just to keep gambling.

One night he broke into his roommate's safe to get the $1,500 inside. When he came back from the three-day binge — where he lost it all — his stuff was gone and his key didn't work.

He says he's finished with betting on sports and playing blackjack. But not poker. Here he has some control of the outcome. And there isn't much in the world that feels like a good run of cards. He has seen people turn $100 into $20,000 in hours. Brian says he doesn't keep very good records, but he places his annual poker income at $50,000 to $70,000 before taxes.

Recently, he's played more live games and less online. He doesn't trust the offshore gambling companies that run now-illegal sites such as Pokerstars.com and FullTilt.com. For years, players have worried about the validity of online games that benefit from two players both getting top-quality hands at the same time, so they both end up betting a lot, raising the rake.

"I'm a dealer; I see thousands of hands every day," Brian says. "You just don't see four-of-a-kinds and straight flushes like you do online. It's gotta be fixed."

While we spoke, a bearded old man at the table was telling us how close he was to the bad beat earlier that day. Most casinos display an ever-growing "bad beat jackpot" to be split among everyone at the table after the most improbable poker defeats. Which hands qualify as the bad beat vary from place to place, but generally, if someone loses with a full house of aces over kings or better, the hand is jackpot-worthy. Each casino also has a complex set of fine-print rules and technicalities for the bad beat, so no player is sure what qualifies at any given time.

"I was an ace away," the old man said. "I've been at the table when we hit once. We couldn't believe it. We split more than $100,000. Dealer, let's get a bad beat."

The dealer had just told the table about her new baby grandson. She had pictures. When any of the men around the table folded his cards to her, she'd say, as if talking to the toddler, "Bye-bye now!"

Brian got into a hand with an older Asian man. He was disappointed the guy had stayed in — and won — with a jack and a seven, which is, by any standard, a subpar starting hand in Texas hold 'em.

"What kind of asshole calls two raises with jack-seven?" he grunted to the other end of the table, showing he had a pair of aces.

"The winner, that's who," the Asian man replied, stacking Brian's chips.

Brian unfolded another $100 bill and slid it to the dealer. "Jackasses who stay with jack-seven ..." he trailed off.

When I asked him about the hand an hour later, he was still bitter. "You should call your story 'Fishes of the Sea,'" he said. "Donkeys like that, they don't know the right way to play. I guess in the long run, you want guys like that, but then sometimes they get lucky and get you." He pursed his lips. "That's poker."

The expression "That's poker" has come to symbolize the ultimate noble defeat at the whim of the poker gods. Playing poker is one of those rare opportunities in life when you can do everything right (go all-in with a pair of aces in your hand, for example) and still lose all of your money (to some horrible, lucky schmuck with a two and a seven). No matter the pronouncements in movies like Rounders about poker being a game of skill; it is popular, in part, because a donkey (a popular nickname for a bad player who gets lucky and wins) can beat a pro on any hand, given the order of the cards.

For the majority of players, the compulsive nature of the game keeps them coming back to places like Pompano Park, where the new poker room, with its wood paneling and high-tech tables that allow for faster play (and more rakes), is the center of a $140 million renovation project that includes a steak house, a New York-style deli, and a top-shelf bar.

In the early afternoon, players begin to arrive, a ceaseless stream of poker zombies traversing the vast, sweltering casino parking lots, called to the cool air inside. Once in the door, they grip their wallets inside their pockets and march past the slots and over to the escalator going to the second floor. From the first floor, they can already hear stacks of chips shuffling and clacking together in a rhythmic, soothing cadence. The sound alone sets the neurochemical receptors in motion, a Pavlovian response in anticipation of the gamble.

The regulars, however, require more stimulation. Sitting in these cold, anonymous rooms for hours on end, they need something to root for. So after a pizza or a smoke break or a series of unlucky hands, a player might pat the table gently and call for the elusive bad beat. Most players have actually never seen one. It's the dream — the prayer — that gets the weary through a disappointing stretch.

On a recent Wednesday back in Pompano, Persaud had suffered a string of bad beats at the higher-stakes $5/$10 table, though none qualified as so bad it was good. After losing $500 ("That's the most I'll buy in to a table for," he told me. "If it's not your night, it's just not your night."), he saw me at a $1/$2 table.

Across the table, a man sat next to his wife. He wore a poker T-shirt, an open button-down shirt with cards on it over the T-shirt, a poker-themed hat, and poker sunglasses. His gold wedding band had aces carved into it. As they played, the man criticized his wife's play.

"No way you should have called that," he said.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what I was thinking."

Persaud sat next to me, across from Mr. Poker.

"How's it going, Harold?" the dealer asked.

"Not so good," Persaud replied. "Not so good."

Most dealers also play, though they can't play where they deal. But on their days off, they go to other card rooms — and tip the dealers especially well — so many of them seem like a happy little community. Except when they're losing.

A woman with a round belly walked by. "Hi, Gina" the dealers called out as she passed. Gina, the wife of one of the dealers, made eye contact with a dealer friend of her husband's and sat at the table. She was eight months pregnant.

"I'm just trying to get it out of my system," she joked to another dealer who'd come by to rub her belly and pay his respects.

"You mean the poker or the baby?" he replied.

"If I hit the bad beat, it'll be both," she said.

"Awww, we'll have a great little poker player, won't we?" he said as he rubbed her stomach a few seconds more.

Playing at a table nearby was Trevor Nesbit, a Jamaican-born man in his twenties with an underbite. He told me he plays to pay the bills, painting a picture of himself as the stoic grinder who can gut out the emotional roller coaster that poker provides. His family owns a coin-operated laundromat where he sometimes works when he isn't playing cards. He doesn't go to the laundromat much.

Trevor, or T as he's known in most card rooms, told me I should write about him. "I'm the best player in Florida," he said with an accent. "You follow me around and write about me and get me a sponsor." He said he could take anyone in the world one on one, that he can play all day, every day, and that he never makes a bad move. "Just when you think you might have me, I got you," he said, closing his hand quickly. "I was born with a straight flush in my hand."

He left Pompano around 10 p.m. He said he was off to Coconut Creek, where day and night cease to exist. He vowed he wouldn't leave that casino until he had $2,000, enough to pay his bills for two months. "Come watch me get rich the easy way," he said as he left.

Back at my table, Persaud's bad luck continued. He went through half of his $100 buy-in in just a few hands, losing once to Mr. Poker's wife. His sorrow was interrupted by the shrieks of a woman a few tables away. A swarm of players from other tables stood up and walked over to see about the commotion. The woman was throwing white chips — each worth a dollar — into the air, laughing. "We got it!" she announced in a shrill voice.

Indeed the cards were still on the table as the dealer waited for a floor supervisor. The woman had four queens ("quad queens," in pokerspeak) and had just lost the hand to another player who showed four kings. As the woman danced around, though, Scott, the dealer, sat calmly and quietly. Something was wrong.

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.

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.

Now, at any given time outside a 24-hour casino, you might find a handful of people sleeping in their cars. Generally, they're too drunk to drive or so desperate to get back to the slots that they can't bear to drive away. Once in a while, a security guard told me, you'll find couples having sex right there in the open.

I walked around to the passenger side, where T's head was resting gently. As I looked down at his sleeping face, I thought about this life as a wannabe poker pro. Like so many Americans, part of me is envious that some people get to play a game for a living. They feel the everyday buzz of hitting an open-ended straight draw or bluffing an opponent off a big pot. But there aren't too many jobs where an employee can walk into the office, do everything exactly as the manuals recommend, and still walk away a few thousand dollars poorer. And as an adult, there aren't many respectable occupations that lead to spending the night in a truck parked at the edge of a casino parking lot.

As these thoughts bounced around in my head, I saw movement. T's eyes opened. He looked up at me. I looked back, notebook in hand.

It was weird.

He opened the passenger door and swung his legs around, still groggy. "What are you doing, man?" he asked.

"How often do you sleep out here?" I asked, still jotting down notes about his scuffed Nikes.

"Man, don't go telling people I sleep in my car," he said.

"It's part of the price you pay as a local pro, right?"

"C'mon, man. Don't tell people I sleep in my car. How are people gonna respect me if they think I sleep in my car?"

A week or so after finding him in his truck, I saw T back at Pompano. He was at the $2/$5 table, popular among serious players because you don't have as many idiots as the cheaper table or as many ridiculous gamblers as the highest-stakes tables.

Two seats to his right was another regular, a man the dealers call Wild Bill. T and Bill got into a hand together. T bet big. Bill raised him. T pushed all of his chips into the center and stood up, daring the older man to call. Bill lifted his cards to get a better look. He sized up T's stack and then his own. He tossed his cards into the muck. T turned over his cards, revealing a complete bluff. He scooped the chips into his chest with both arms, grinning brightly.

The thing about poker is, no matter how bad the beat, a few seconds later, you get another hand. A new chance to get rich. A new chance to go broke. And it takes only one win to forget about all the losing.

Still beaming, T tossed the dealer a $5 chip as a tip. Then he turned to the woman sitting next to him. "This guy over here," he said, pointing at Bill, who was within earshot, "this guy is a chump."

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Michael J. Mooney