Pro Poker Hurts

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"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.

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Michael J. Mooney