It wasn't a mutter that raised the eyebrows. It was spoken in full voice and with no small amount of disgust.
"What the fuck?"
For a moment, we bristled, looked at the six-seat, and waited for a reaction. There was none, because Vera, apparently, had heard it all before.
Someone said maybe we should tone it down out of respect for the lady. The gentlemen among us--myself not necessarily included--nodded. We weren't raised to use words like "fuck" and "douchebag" around ladies. Further, we weren't sure why we felt like the poker table gave us an excuse to break away from our manners.
As if to allay our concerns, Vera tittered. Yes, I'm sure it was a titter. And then she said, "In my life, I've heard it all."
The underground poker scene in G-Vegas is like any other city where back room poker thrives. The players are a microcosm of the world out on Haywood Rd. They are white, black, and Asian. They are rich, poor, righteous, and atheist. There are heterosexuals and homosexuals. There are straight-edge tee-totalers and people who play with substances even the wildest among us think are best left under the kitchen sink. Players range in age from 18 to 80. The only thing the local scene has really not seen much of is women in their golden years.
Until last night.
I got to the game just as it was starting. It was clear from the beginning that it was going to be a busy night. I saw several new faces. Among them was a diminutive lady. Respect dictated I shouldn't ask her age. Respect further dictates I shouldn't guess. I suppose it's best I describe her as "retirement age."
It is no surprise to see women like Vera in poker rooms, I suppose. Most of the time, however, the women are playing $1-$3 limit poker and passing the time until the early bird special at 4:30pm. This game, however, is not $1-$3 limit. To wit: When we sat down for this no-limit hold'em game, three out of ten players--this time, me included--bought in for 300 big blinds. At least a couple of the players seated at Table 1 were good, aggressive players who regularly post big wins. It was going to be a deep game with the swings you might expect.
So, why would a soft-spoken lady sit at this table? She looked like she might be more at home over a cup of tea and the Sunday crossword. As it happened, we picked seats right next to each other. And at first, I didn't think to ask. I didn't think to care. With the exception of a couple of tough spots, it was a pretty good table. It looked like I might have a rare profitable session. And really, what did I care if some lady was sitting in on a game where the next youngest woman in the room was likely 40 years her junior?
I think it was about the time the board showed JJ9-J and she called all-in against two other players (I peaked and saw her KK) that I started wondering how she ended up in an underground game in the middle of South Carolina. Her opponents were drawing dead and Vera raked in an impressive pot.
"How long have you been playing poker, Vera?" I asked
She rolled her eyes at me. I think she thought I was trying to get a read on her age. By that time, her age didn't matter to me. She was an anomaly in the game, and that was enough to pique my interest. At this point, anything that is even slightly different is reason to pay very close attention and figure out what one can.
"All my life, I guess," she said. "See, I'm Italian. In my family, we have a big meal and then sit down and play penny poker. I love poker."
Vera was pure Italian. She was from Long Island. "I made it my goal to go into Manhattan at least once a month," she said, and then confided in a curious conspiratorial whisper, "I just love Manahattan."
I tried to imagine this woman, all five-foot-one of her, stalking the streets of Manhattan all day before bellying up to a big Italian meal and a game of poker. She reminded me of my friend Chris. He died about a year ago, a Long Islander who had found a way to transform himself into a southern gentleman. Vera could've been his aunt.
And so, for the rest of the night, we boys tried to watch our tongues, but didn't feel too bad if we let loose a fuck, shit, or cocksucker. The hour grew later and later and Vera continued to sit, munching on rosemary potatoes left over from the catered meal.
"I just love potatoes," she said in the same tone. It gave me the impression that Vera was bit of a reserved heondist. She knows what she enjoys and is not entirely ashamed of treating herself to it.
Her hands look like they had molded a million meatballs as she peeled up the corners of her cards. She won and lost several hundred over the course of the night. When she left, she was either a slight loser or slight winner. It was hard to tell. Because unlike a lot of other players who sit for the first time in that game, she held her own for hour upon hour.
When she left, she inquired about the weekend hours of the room. When she heard there was a tournament, she nodded and seemed to consider whether she should play.
As she walked out, she said sotto voce, "I'll be early."
At first--especially the first time you walk into an underground room--it seems romantic, dangerous, and like you're skirting the edge of the law. After a while, though, it all becomes fairly commonplace. It's just the local card room, where eveyone does their thing and does their best to ignore the fact that their mere presence constitutes a breach of the law.
Vera, a savvy Italian from the old school, undoubtedly knows this. She knows that by going to do what she wants--what she surely feels she should have the right to legally do--she has become a witting criminal. One can't help but smile at the hypothetical mug shot and a prosecutor holding a news conference. "This," he would say, "is the face of immoral and illegal activity in your community."
It's then that you realize how ridiculous it all is--not just for the underground games, but the world at large. From the Dallas poker scene where the cops are busting up the Am Vets for penny-ante games or the poker world at large--where online companies have done more for the game than anybody since Johnny Moss and Benny Binion--that is under attack by misguided governments. Poker is an American mainstay that gives young people a way to succeed and gives retirees a reason to go out at night.
And as Vera walks out, that's when it hits me.
It's so easy to get beat down by the bad streaks, the cold decks, and the self doubt. It's so easy to wave the white flag at the government. We let it all build up and build up. It gets to the point that it's not even fun anymore. Tournament bubbles, payment processing silliness, and friends at each others throats over nothing but how the fuck you could call three bets with Q4 off. We all started playing because it was fun, because it was challenging, and because it let us win a little money while we played a game.
And so, if it's not those things, why bother playing? Well, because it can be. See, Vera loves playing so much, within two months of being a brand new state where she virtually knew no one, she had sought out an underground card room so she could play poker.
"I missed it," she said.
And we would, too. If we let someone take the game away from us, or we somehow destroy it for ourselves, we'll miss it. We live in an age where personal responsbility takes a backseat to a sense of entitlement. Sometimes it's hard to remember, it's up to us to keep the big game alive. And, something I'm still learning, it's up to us--me--to keep our personal games alive. If we take it so seriously that we can't have fun anymore, we'll lose the game.
I fell into a real rut over the last year. I let the big game problems depress me. I let my own personal game problems compound for too long. I'm not even sure I have got it completely figured out.
But I know this: When I'm Vera's age, I want to feel the drive to get out of the house and find the card room.
Because, just like Vera, I love poker.