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Poker Blog established in 2003 as the first stop for poker news, poker stories, and bad poker advice.

April 27, 2006

Underground poker rooms

by Otis

When you walk in through the sliding glass doors, there are some women on the couch watching "Deal or No Deal" on a 64 square foot projection screen that doubles as one of the house's interior walls. To any observer who has driven through a foggy night, down an construction-crowded interstate, and then down a long, dark, unpaved driveway, this would seem like an ordinary rural house. Though the dozen or so vehicles parked in the back field might be a tip-off, the casual onlooker would only be guessing at what was going on behind the hollow wooden door to his right.

I knew, of course. I'd been there before. In an earlier post, I dubbed it the Spring Hotel. What's more, two of my poker running buddies (frequent readers know them as BadBlood and G-Rob) were already in the room, sitting around a curiously designed poker table. Black speed-cloth covered the top and a familiar dealer sat in the box.

I killed time waiting for a seat by playing a five-handed turbo SNG in another back room. I chopped the tourney and sneaked into the empty one-seat in the main game.


T.J. Cloutier told a story in a book with Tom McEvoy about winning $8000 in an illegal card room in Dallas, Texas. With big money in his pocket, he worried about getting to his car and on the road without getting robbed, or worse yet, killed. He knew one guy in the room was known to carry a gun and could be suspected of being a robber. Sure enough, that guy offered to escort Cloutier to his car. Cloutier said in the book that he wasn't sure whether to be more worried about getting robbed or about the guy who was escorting him.

I thought about this story as I drove the 20-something miles back home tonight. Back in Cloutier's illegal poker heyday, river suckouts were not among the players' chief worry. While calculating pot odds, hiding their tells, and making sure they didn't go broke, they were also worrying about being cheated, robbed, or busted. Every corner was a dark one and all the old school Texas road gamblers couldn't have been happier than when poker--legal, regulated poker--exploded in Las Vegas.


The Spring Hotel takes care of its players. As the sun set, pizza and lasagna arrived as a prelude to the 64 square foot image of Kellie Pickler getting the boot on American idol. After all the bellies were full, the players had their choice of snacks, sodas, beer, and liquor from a fully stocked fridge. I'd venture there are even very few casinos where you can get a can of Diet Coke, a plate of lasagna, a Bud Light, a shot of whiskey, and a Hostess Twinkie all within 25 feet of each other--and for free.

What's more, the Spring Hotel offers a professional dealer in the box. Anyone who has only played home games or player-dealt games does not know what they are missing. When a full-time pro dealer is running the show, the number of hands you see per hour skyrockets. What's more, you can concentrate more on the game and less on making sure you get the card to the eight seat from the three seat without flipping over an ace.

Of course, players are paying to play. The house charges a rake, takes money for a high-hand jackpot (straight flush to the ten or higher to qualify), and expects players to tip the dealer. At the Spring Hotel, the rake is reasonable, the jackpot is not small, and the dealer is good. So, it makes it all worth it.

Sort of.


There will never, ever be a poker game where someone will have an absolute 100% certainty that they aren't being cheated. Whether online, in Las Vegas, in a homegame, or in an underground card room, there is always the chance (no matter how minute) that someone is cheating.

Thankfully, the legal live card rooms and online poker sites have put in lots of money, effort, and security to watch out for cheating. That effort has allowed its players to feel as comfortable as possible while playing. Of course, there will always been worry warts and naysayers who refuse to believe the games are legit. There's no getting rid of those people.

Underground cardrooms are different, however. At the Spring Hotel, for instance, the guys who own the action and run the games often prop to keep the games going. While there is little difference in this and dealers playing in shift in some casinos, there is a nagging part of any reasonable brain that whispers, "keep an eye out for these guys."

I'd been playing a pretty roller coaster game since I sat down. I'd turned a set against a guy on a flush draw that missed and nearly doubled my stack. Later, I gave the dude half a stack back when he pushed all in under the gun. When I found pocket nines, I decided to gamble--putting the guy on 25% overpair, 25% underpair, and 50% big ace. He had aces and I, as expected, lost. Later I picked off a couple of loose players with my top-pair top kicker and made back what I lost with my gambling call earlier.

As the game started to get short-handed (G-Rob and BadBlood had left), I picked up pocket kings in the cutoff. With two limpers to me, I made a standard raise. The button called. Sitting in the big blind, one of the house players re-raised. While the guys has a fairly wide range of starting hands, he's more of a calling station than re-raiser, so I put him on something big (AA,KK,QQ). His stack was fairly short (only $64 behind). I raised enough to put him all in and was fairly surprised to see the button call. As expected, the house player called. When the flop came down Qxx with two clubs, I knew I had no chance of winning the main pot. The house player certainly had either outflopped me or was ahead the entire time. I pushed in my stack and got the button to call with his AJ of clubs. He missed, which was good, because his missed draw almost made up for the money I lost to the house player. Oh, I didn't mention? The house player, indeed, held pocket aces to my pocket kings.

For one half a second--if that--my brain whispered: you just got cold-decked, buddy. Then it was gone. Reason prevailed and I went back to playing.

In the past four months of online cash games, I've had pocket kings 127 times. In those 127 times, my pocket kings have been beaten by pocket aces four times. That's a liitte over three percent if you're keeping score. That is to say, running kings into aces happens. It doesn't happen very often, but it happens. If I were to focus on the four times I'd run into aces with kings, I'd not be able to enjoy the 77% of the times my kings held up for a win.

So, let me get one thing perfectly, perfectly clear: At no time did I ever believe or have reason to believe I was being cheated. To make everything very clear, I think the Spring Hotel game is on the up and up, fair, and not a place where I have to worry about getting cheated. Finally, if you need any more evidence that I'm not worried, I plan to go back.

All of that said, that half-second of worry is what has me pissed off tonight. It's not that I got unlucky. It's not that I only walked away from the evening with $11 in profit. It's that for one millisecond, I had to worry at all.

Who do I blame for this? Well, of course, the government.


Around town, you can find a game just about any night of the week and just about any level you want. The poker boom has spawned a cottage industry of poker entrepreneurs who know the demand is high enough for them to risk getting busted to provide the poker supply. Just a few years ago, finding an underground cardroom in these parts would've been very tough. Now, I get Evite invitations to tournies on the weekends. When I was in Dallas last week, I met people who make a good living running illegal cardrooms. One, if not more clubs there have web sites with schedules, directions, and everything.

The demand is intense. How do I know? Well, I get to play poker all over the world. I have unlimited opportunity to play for as high of stakes as I want online. And I want to play live in my adopted hometown. Why? I love to play live. I love the characters, the camaraderie, and the face-to-face psychological game.

So, if a guy like me who is fortunate enough to get to play poker just about anywhere he wants is hellbent on playing live in rural underground rooms, how do you think the people who are stuck here feel? That is, there's not a legal cardroom within a seven hour drive of this town. If someone wants to play live, they have to play illegally. And if they don't have a homegame, by God, they are going to play in a raked game in one of the rooms around town.


Earlier in the night, there was a three-way all-in preflop for a substantial amount of money in which a house player was the last to call the all-ins. One player held pocket aces. Another player held pocket jacks. The house player held pocket deuces. The house player spiked his deuce on the river and the pocket aces holder stormed out without a word.

Now, his exit didn't allow him to see that the house player donated all of his winnings and more back to the table within an hour. His exit didn't allow him to see that the house player continued to play as loose as he did with the deuces. Not knowing the loser, I don't know what was going through his head as he left. However, I wonder if he thought for just a second that he might have been cheated.

That's my point. The sheer nature of illegal cardrooms offers at least the possibility that the game might be fixed. While I can't stress enough that I believe this game is fair, the mere appearance of any impropriety hinders a player's ability to see things in a reasonable way, to accept that there are donkies everywhere, to accept that suckouts happen, and to accept that they got unlucky. That is, you start to see cheating where it doesn't exist.


So, the government.

I live in a state where thousands upon thousands of lottery tickets are sold every day. The legislators sold the conservative public on the game by saying a portion of the proceeds would go to fund education. This is the same state where 82-year-old ladies get busted for playing poker.

The overall hypocrisy sticks in my craw like a catfish bone.

So, tonight (this morning, actually) as the caffeine makes its way out of my bloodstream, I'm not angry that I got unlucky. I'm not angry that I didn't make any money. I'm not for a full second believing I got cheated.

I am simply pissed off that there is not a legal cardroom in this state where I can go and get unlucky without the worry of being raided, over-raked, or cheated.

I'm just sayin'.

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