Pro Poker Hurts

Page 6 of 7

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.

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Michael J. Mooney