"Are you a card player?"
The cabbie had just picked me up at the Mirage. The sun was up, the card room was still full, and two drunk girls were slipping into the sunlight like a gator into the Everglades.
Am I a card player? I thought.
It was an obvious question. From the Wynn to Mandalay Bay, the only thing going on besides the National Hall of Fame Dance Competition was the World Series of Poker. At least 10,000 of the people in town were either card players or relatives of one. Since I was going to the Rio, I had to either be a card player or the prodigal father of some Jon Benet Ramsey-esque tart in tight shorts and sequins. Just the other day I was walking behind a swinging, barely-covered ass with the words "Get Some" written across the cheeks. It was only after passing by that I realized the girl couldn't have been more than 14.
"I've played poker before, but my real game is video poker," the cabbie was saying as I took another look at the mountains on the edge of town. There is a desolate beauty to them that makes me feel happy and sad at the same time.
"I hit eleven royal flushes last year," he said.
Am I a card player?
Despite the fact I'd been working 14-hours days, I'd still been playing more live poker than at any point in my life. As a narcotics officer from the Denver area said to me one night, "When you're this far away from your family, you have to do something to pass the time."
I'd become a fairly familiar face at the $10/$20 tables. The locals knew my name, the dealers had nicknames for me and asked me how my workday went, and I only had to raise my eyebrows at John the cocktail guy to get him to bring me my beverage of choice.
My wins and losses were, if not well-documented in writing, sealed in my brain like a cobra and mongoose in a fish tank. There was the night I took 11 stacks of red off a single $10/$20 table. There was the night I played in the $225 last chance tournament and got my money in with JJ versus ATs and A6o and lost. A6, the big dog, took it down. And there were many other nights, as endorphin-pleasing and eye-sucking as you might imagine.
As the cabbie prattled on about video poker, I couldn't help but smile a bit. During some dinner breaks, I'd go with Pauly to the hooker bar (so named because the hookers congregate there late at night to pick up horny tourists). One night, Pauly took a phone call and I absently slipped $20 in the jacks or better machine. By the time Pauly was off the phone, I'd hit quad aces and profited $180. On two consecutive liquid dinner breaks following that night, I hit quad deuces and quad nines. Pauly was agog. What he didn't know was that I'd hit quad tens, jacks, and sevens at the All American Bar and Grill while waiting on my to-go breakfast orders on various nights.
There was a time many years ago when I was sitting at a Pai Gow poker table in the middle of the night with some friends. A pit boss told me he didn't play many cards, but he played piano. I said I'd been playing guitar for about 20 years. He laughed and wiggled his fingers like he was tickling the ivories.
"Not piano piano," he said. "You know, video poker."
A person who plays video poker fast would understand. The strategies are so easy and inculcated that it's possible to play the game, drive a car, date, marry, and divorce a woman, while still finding time to eat a steak sandwich and go to the bathroom.
But piano players aren't card players. Fortunately, my liquid dinner indiscretions notwithstanding, I'm not a piano player.
But am I a card player?
Over the past few years, I've played tens of thousands of hands online. I've played in home games, hotel conference room games, hotel room games, bar games, and country club games. I've played in Atlantic City, France, Monte Carlo, Austria, and more times than I care to count in Las Vegas. My biggest tournament win (not including the $12,000 Party Poker Million seat that I didn't end up using) was around $8000. My biggest cash game night was a profit of about $4000 in eight hours. My losses are what you'd expect when playing at levels that can win you that kind of money. They never come all at once. It's a gradual slide that you fight off like a drunk friend who wants to go to Waffle House at 5am. That is, you get him to pass out two or three times, but you know before sunrise you'll be eating some sort of scrapple on toast and wishing you were in jail.
Now, I've spent a grand total of three weeks at the World Series of Poker. I've seen and recorded the most brutal beats, the most fanstic plays, and the slings and arrows that go along with big-dollar tournament play. I've stood in awe in some of the name-pros and aghast at some of the others. Just tonight, I got caught in a literal sandwich between Phil Hellmuth and Howard Lederer. As they both walked into the tournament area, I was walking in the other direction. None of us gave any ground as we stepped in between two tables. Before I knew what was happening, I was staring into Hellmuth's armpit while Lederer's stomach pushed against my elbow.
All I could think is, I'm being sandwiched by my idol and the guy I'd most like to see audited by the IRS.
But idol worship is tenuous at the WSOP. I find that the people I disliked, I dislike even more. And the people I idolized...well, they just seem like everybody else now. It's not much different than looking at the same mountains as you drive to work every day. They look amazing for your first month, but after that, they sort of fade into the background and you find yourself listening to talk radio more than looking out the window.
The rumor (apparently now confirmed by several sources, but none of mine) is that Gus Hansen is broke. I don't know if it's true. I'm not sure I care, but it's the rumor of the week. He skipped the entire WSOP, showing up just a couple of days ago to walk the floor and leave.
I get the feeling that for a majority of tournament players, the fine line between being broke and being a hero is a hard one to walk. So many of the name-pros play nearly every event. Only a few make final tables. Even fewer make mutiple final tables or win a bracelet. I knew a guy in college (a guy I idolized for some time) who hit on anything that even smelled of femininity. He got rejected, sure. But he got laid more than anybody else I knew. I get the feeling tournament poker is much the same. Shoot ten times, score once.
There was a part of me a year or so ago that believed I wanted to be a fulltime poker pro. I never really admitted it out loud or believed it for very long. But there were those nights (usually after a major win or great session) that I thought I could do it.
Are you a card player, he asked.
Over the past week, I've seen quite a bit. Last night, a 75-year-old man fell down beside me. I thought he just tripped. When ten security guys came to his aid and eventually took him by force out of the poker room, I realized he was drunk. Thirty minutes later, another man who had been playing $1/$2 NL all night was nearly dragged from the room by security after spilling a drink all over a table full of people who hated him. Last week, a man literally stood in his chair and rained handfuls of $100 bills down on the table while he was making a bet. All the while, two guys were sitting over at a back table playing Chinese Poker for $100 a point.
And all around them there are people playing everything from $4/$8 to games that could fund the Salvation Army for a year. Ask any of the 2500 people in the poker warehouse if they are a card player, and 99% of them will look up from their cards just long enough to say, "What does it look like, asshole?"
So, this particular night, I'd gone to the Mirage. Minutes before I walked out the door of my hotel, I'd been in the cash game area of the WSOP and found myself tilting for the first time in as long as I could remember. A tattooed kid from Alaska entered the flop in a capped pot and called my kings all the way down to the river with an ace, which hit on the river. No draw, three outs. When he check-raised me on the river, I lost my cool for the first time ever at a poker table. "Did you hit that fucking ace?" He turned it up. I scanned the board and saw two spades. "Did you even have fucking spades?"
"Nope," he said, as he pulled in the mountain of reds. "I just felt it."
I composed myself, mentally elbowing my side, and reminding myself that I'm not the guy that gets mad at the table. "I picked up the remainder of my chips, said "good game, guys," and walked out.
I needed a change of scenery and walked straight for the cab line. It was full of drunk 20-somethings, chugging their drinks so they wouldn't have to throw them away before getting in the cab. In the middle of the storm was the venerable Barry Greenstein, clutching an armload of his new books. I wondered why he didn't have a car. By the time I was done wondering, I was sitting in the card room at the Mirage.
I sat down at a $6/$12 table and ordered a hot chocolate. Before long, two kids from Denmark, in town to play in the main event, sat down at the table. One beside me was painfully drunk and very talkative. For an hour, he and his buddy battled, essentially heads up for bragging rights, not caring much who got caught in the middle. When one of them left, the guy sitting to my right seemed embarassed. He explained that they'd been drinking for a long time and were just blowing off some steam.
The kid then said he wanted to play his best game, regardless if he was playing $40/$80 or $6/$12. I smiled and thought it impossible. Then he surprised me and seemed to sober up immediately. He started playing a good tight-aggressive game. He pegged me for a solid player, it seemed, and stayed out of my pots. Before long, we got to talking. For a solid hour, we talked bankroll management, strategy, and all things poker and poker life related. I realized, just about the time the floor people put out finger sandwiches and danishes, that I was having a good time again. When I check-raised from the big blind with an open-ended straight draw and pushed an early-position limper off the flop, my buddy from Denmark whispered, "I don't know if you had it or not, but I like the way you played that."
Ordinarily, I'd take that kind of comment as the ramblings of a drunk kid or a seasoned pro trying to needle me a bit. This time, though, I thought he was being sincere. And I found msyelf thinking, You know, I like the way I played that, too.
I left the game later, a little bit to the good, and hopped in the cab. Eventually, I would get back to the hotel, walk into the elevator and slump into the corner. Before the doors closed, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson jumped in with wild eyes and the look of a guy who has been at a club all night.
"Howya doing?" he said.
"I can't complain," I said.
"You're about the only one," he said with a smile.
As he got off on his floor, he said, "Seeya around." I looked at my watch and realized he had just a few hours to sleep before his tournament started.
In the taxi, the cabbie had asked, "Are you a card player?"
At the time, I barely thought before responding, "Yeah, I'm a card player."
It was an easy response to an easy question. But sometimes, responses aren't answers.
And frankly, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question. What's more, I'm not sure I want to know.