Henry Brown likes to play poker. A lot of poker. But mostly, he likes to talk about playing poker. So last month, I asked if I could tag along to one of his regular games. We met at a bar downtown beforehand so we could arrive at the game together.
"I've been playing for about a year and a half," says Henry.
Frankly, I was little surprised it wasn't longer considering how much he talks about the game.
"I got into it recreationally--and by recreationally, I mean I got into it losing money. But then I started making money. And for awhile, that's how I was paying my rent."
I wanted to know what makes this group of players different from the normal, friendly Friday night games. How obsessive is it? Is it an addiction?
"When I lose, I say I play it for recreation. But when I win I say I play it for the fucking money," he tells me. "I play it for money, man."
"Are you pretty good?" I ask.
"Yeah, I AM pretty good. But it's not really how good you are, it's how bad everybody else is."
Recently, poker has emerged from the clandestine backroom and into the limelight. The Travel Channel hosts the extremely popular World Poker Tour, a cable show which features top professional players at work. The Bravo network has a hit with Celebrity Poker Showdown, where TV and movie stars play for charity. Meanwhile, ESPN has a ratings winner with the annual World Series of Poker. In Vegas, the card rooms are flourishing, and suddenly, everywhere you look, the old-timey game of poker is back in vogue.
The game Henry attends sounds friendly enough. The other players often support one another with loans of cash--just to keep everyone in the game. It's also a clue to the extent of the addiction when players lose more money than they can afford.
"Someone sees you pulling down dough in every game, they're going to lend you money," Henry says. "Especially if it's your money they're winning."
"We play just one game--Texas Hold 'Em, That's all we play. It's the only real poker game."
Texas Hold 'Em is played with two cards dealt to each player face down. Then, three community cards, called "The Flop," are turned over. A round of betting happens, and the fourth card, "Fourth Street," is dealt. After another round of betting, the fifth and final card, "The River" is laid on the table. The player with the best five card hand out of the seven cards dealt wins. Hands rarely make it to "The River." Most players with lousy hands get out after "The Flop."
"We have just three rules: Don't lie about your cards. Don't loan or borrow mid-hand. And don't tell what you folded if the game's still on. Oh yeah... and one more rule," Henry says as we get up from the bar. "Never, ever, tell anyone you play video poker. It's a dirty secret. It's just bad form. It's like telling your Grandad you're a child molester. You just don't do it."
We pull up outside our host's house. Henry is visibly excited and it's contagious. He has a twitchy manner as he skips his cowboy boots up the sidewalk. I'm anxious about what I'm going to find inside. There's a certain mythology that surrounds poker; the smoky backrooms, Vegas gangsters, desperate cheaters missing fingers, life-ruining bets, police raids--they all propel the dark ideal of poker in popular culture.
"Don't worry about it," Henry says. "Our game isn't illegal, because the house isn't taking a cut. Not like at our old games."
I'm introduced to five players who are already at the table as Henry joins in. My expectations of fancy-clad Vegas gangsters are immediately dispelled. It looks more like a bunch of college buddies playing a friendly game of cards.
The poker table is set up in a small dining room with chairs crowded around. Henry trades in $20 for chips. He must be confident, because that's the only money he brought. After a few fast hands, Henry is already borrowing money. It's early, and the other players seem fine with lending from their tall stacks of chips. In the first 15 minutes, Henry is down $40 and borrowing again.
Three more players show up. After they buy in, a few slower hands are played, and the jovial quipping and jokes start to die down. The players are shuffling their chips anxiously, watching the cards with calculated interest. It's becoming clear the simple game of just a few minutes ago is now more serious.
I ask the players how often they play and where. A quiet guy known as "The Hat" finally pipes up.
"I play a little at other games, but this is mostly it. I play online about five times a week."
A small guy, Pepe, says in a matter of fact tone, "I play about six hours a day online. It's how I make my money. But this here? This isn't gambling. This is just sport."
Another player, Baxter, asks The Hat, "Are you still playing at that other house?"
"In Lake Oswego? Yeah. It's okay. I got beat by some goober last week."
Hours go by with small hands played quickly. Every player seems entranced. It's a social activity, and yet every player watches the hands and calculates the odds before speaking. A movie playing in the next room begins and ends without anyone taking notice.
Henry is on the short stack, with very few chips. I'm having trouble keeping track of how much money he's borrowed, and how much he's down. He's in trouble.
A hand is dealt and Henry plays it all the way to "The River," the fifth and last card shown on the table. It's the first time in many hands the game has gone this far. Usually, a player will back out long before this if he's unsure of his hand. The fifth card comes up... and it's just what Henry needs to win. He's got a straight (five cards in numerical order) and takes the pot. Every other player at the table just shakes their head.
"Stupid, stupid poker," someone says.
"That's bad poker, alright," another agrees.
The odds were clearly against Henry getting the final card he needed to make a straight, and a "smart" player would have laid down his hand much earlier. Everyone nods in unison as Henry rakes in the monster pot and stacks his winnings.
"Yeah... That's bad poker," Henry says seriously. "Never do it. That's just stupid."
Henry was down, but now he's back in the running.
It's a fascinating game to watch--but after six and a half hours of staring at the table, I'm becoming weary. It's now 3:30 in the morning.
The fatigue is showing on the player's faces. They have a lot at stake, and the losers are feeling the pain. Winning back their money is what's keeping them going.
The losers are playing conservatively to keep their losses at a minimum. The winners are playing conservatively to keep their winnings. It's clear by the look on their faces and the way they glance at each other's stacks of chips they are disappointed for not winning more. The chance to play for bigger stakes is gone. And yet, they play on, tired and disappointed, waiting to see if the game will ever turn.
Now, it's 4:30 in the morning. The game grinds to a halt and the players cash in their chips. Most of the players have wry smiles on their faces. They are caught somewhere between accomplishment and disappointment. I don't have the heart to ask the players how much they've won or lost. It's clear no one wants to talk about it.
In the car ride back home, the sky is turning grey with dawn. I ask Henry how much he lost.
"I ate so much shit tonight. This is the worst I've ever played," he complains.
He stops for a minute to calculate what he really doesn't want to know.
"I guess I lost about $240. I borrowed a lot of money from a lot of players. But... hey. That's poker. I lost four hands I should have totally had. They were, like, 90 percent. Those were bad beats. Next time I'll just have to be luckier and win it back.
"Fuck it. It's just stupid fucking poker."