Nobody's Fool

When it comes to poker, Texas Hold 'Em proves who's a real player.

It is close to midnight on Saturday, and I'm growing impatient. Sitting in the same room for ten hours, surrounded by shifty-eyed strangers and an enveloping cloud of lung-rotting smoke tends to wear on a man's nerves.

I could use a drink. Bourbon on the rocks. Maybe a strong vodka tonic. That might take the edge off. But the only people who drink in this situation are suckers who aren't serious about their craft.

The woman to my right is devouring me with her eyes. She must be new; I haven't seen her here before. The pudgy, forty-something chain smoker has a shock of curly brown hair hanging at her shoulders. She reminds me of my high school Spanish teacher with her orange slacks, thin, floral-print blouse and cheap silver crucifix; gaudy '70s-era bifocals dominate the landscape of her face. She's nervously fingering a small jade elephant figurine.

After several awkward moments, she makes a move toward her pile of chips, throws $5 to the center of the table and calls.

I sit, motionless. Her hesitation tells me that I have her beat. My insides are shaking, but on the outside I'm cooler than Johnny Cash.

The dealer turns over the last card, and Bifocals reveals her hand. A pair of queens. I flip my cards over to reveal a pair of aces that I made on the flop. It's not an unbeatable hand by a long shot, but it's good enough for tonight.

Bifocals is not happy with the results. She manages to piece it all together before the dealer clears the cards. I pinpoint the exact moment she realized that I didn't bet big when I made my pair. Instead, I strung her along, letting her think that I didn't have a strong hand early in the game so I could lure a few more chips out of her stack.

"Way to slow-play the ace," Bifocals says.

I watch her shake her head in disgust for the next few minutes, quietly cursing.

In this moment, epitomized by one woman's angry mutterings, I know why I come to Black Hawk. I'm not here to eat at the buffet or fumble with a bucket full of change in front of a slot machine. That shit is for the meek. I'm here is to see if I have bigger balls than the next guy -- and the only way to find out is to belly up to the tables.

The Lodge Casino and Hotel is the epicenter of poker in Colorado, where players go when the excitement of Saturday-night nickel-dime games in the 'burbs wears off. Sure, there are other poker rooms nearby that do their share of business, but it's the Lodge's level of competition that makes it popular with the card-sharp crew. Veteran players in search of worthy rivals eventually find their way here, and their presence attracts saucer-eyed neophytes looking to test their skills against the local giants.

Located on the second floor of the casino in a large, open room with dizzyingly busy crimson carpet, the Lodge's poker room is home to fourteen well-worn green-felt tables. The addition of at least three more by month's end should accommodate an expected influx of players following the recent closure of the poker room at the Colorado Central Station Casino just up the street.

"It's tough to have good profit margins with poker in a limited gaming market like Black Hawk. This is definitely a slot market," says Central Station vice president and general manager John Bohannon.

A quick look around any mountain casino proves his point. Slot machines dominate the floor plans. In Black Hawk alone, there are 9,152 of the beasts. There's occasionally a beer-soaked contingent at the blackjack tables on weekend nights, but a constant stream of coins keeps the slots buzzing and whirring all day, every day.

Where Bohannon and the Station see a battle that isn't worth fighting, the Lodge sees a winning proposition -- despite the poker tables only bringing Black Hawk casinos $877,000 in April compared to the slots' $40 million haul. "We have more tables than the other rooms, so our margins are better," says Meera Rosser, the Lodge's director of marketing. "We're definitely committed to offering the game to our players."

The game of choice in the Lodge -- and anyplace else that gamblers take their cards seriously -- is Texas Hold 'Em. It's the purest form of poker. Not only is it the game that determines the best poker player on the planet at the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, but if you stop and think about it, it's the only version of poker that makes sense. Consider the alternatives: A game like five-card stud doesn't require any skill; whoever is dealt the best cards in each hand wins. Any version that allows wild cards automatically strips the game of its integrity. Who wants to play a game where two players can both finish a hand holding five aces? Texas Hold 'Em represents the perfect marriage of perception, endurance, trickery and blind, stinking luck. And in an arena dominated by armchair statisticians and professional liars, the game that involves the most skill, the highest level of deception and the biggest rush of adrenaline will always be the game of choice. That's why Texas Hold 'Em is skinny Elvis pimped-out in a black leather jacket, gyrating to "Heartbreak Hotel." Everything else is an overblown knockoff.

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