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.
The highest-stakes form of the game is no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, meaning that a player can bet as much as he likes during each round. Thanks to Colorado gaming laws, though, the amount of any single bet at a Colorado poker table is limited to $5, so most players aren't risking the month's rent money on each hand.
Still, the game draws a crowd -- nearly $2 million a month is dropped on these tables -- and a large segment of the Lodge's players are dedicated regulars, a tight-knit group of return customers who play at the casino with impressive frequency. Most regulars play at least weekly. Some are here every day. "We host a great bunch of regulars," says Lee Coble, manager of the Lodge's poker room. "Most of them are from Denver. A lot of these guys have been playing poker for fifty years."
The regulars represent every demographic imaginable: upper-class snobs and blue-collar grunts, high school dropouts and college grads, baby boomers and Gen X-ers, middle-aged housewives, retired business executives and truckers pulling in after sixteen lonely hours in a rig. It's a beautiful group of freaks and misfits.
The best thing about this fraternity of cards is that it doesn't discriminate. The regulars are blind to characteristics like race, sex, age, weight, socio-economic class and religious beliefs. There is only one membership requirement that matters: time. The only thing veterans ask of a newbie looking to join their ranks is time at the tables. If you don't have the dedication to make the forty-minute drive to Black Hawk on a regular basis and sit your ass in an uncomfortable chair for hours at a time, they don't want to get to know you. Despite the camaraderie -- and even though it's about as low-stakes as organized poker gets -- if you walk in reeking of inexperience, handling your chips like an amateur or throwing around slang you picked up watching Rounders, the regulars will school you.
Some of them spend more time with the poker dealers than they do with their spouses. That's the only way to explain the level of intimacy that exists at the table. Ask any hard-core regular and he'll tell you that Mark the Dealer is an avid fly fisherman, and Mel the Dealer recently played in a World Series of Poker satellite tournament in Vegas. Between hands, the dealers talk with the regulars like they're sitting on bar stools instead of in high-backed card chairs. The conversation revolves around recent vacations or work or local politics. It's common for three or four players to rehash last night's action, reminding one another who scored that $300 pot or lamenting over the missed king of hearts that cost someone a winning straight flush.
On the night of my triumph of deception over Bifocals, my table consists of three true believers, three truckers, a Korean couple and Bifocals. The three familiar faces are players I recognize from previous weekend excursions. I don't know their real names, but I create nicknames to help me keep track of their play and their tendencies.
There's Big Boy, an obese, 35-year-old dude whom I recognize from a fourteen-hour marathon session a couple of months ago. He sits at the opposite end of the table, wearing a gray T-shirt, blue striped biker shorts, white athletic socks and black sandals. If I saw this guy on the street in Denver, I'd crack a joke about his outfit loud enough for him to hear me. But at the poker table, he's a beast. Up here, the overriding sentiment is that fashion is best left to the plastic-faced trophy wives in Cherry Creek. Your aptitude for playing cards is all that matters.
Next to Big Boy is Knuckles, a white-haired woman in her '70s whose arthritic knuckles are swollen as big as golf balls. Between hands, she chats and jokes with anyone who will listen. "I'm not worried about Afghanistan or Iraq," Knuckles says. "I'm more concerned about the city telling me I can't plant tomatoes in my own garden."
As soon as her cards are dealt, though, the chatter stops, and Knuckles is all business. I've played with her enough to know that she only bets into a pot when she has a winning hand, so when Knuckles reaches for her chips, I usually muck my cards without much thought.
Sticks, an older gentleman who uses crutches, sits to my left. He takes frequent drags from a non-filter Lucky Strike. Between hands, he struggles to his feet, wobbles uneasily for a few seconds and then slowly lowers himself down in his chair. I spend hours trying to figure out if this quirk is a ritual or a physical necessity. Every time I see Sticks, he's wearing an ill-fitting, yellow, meshed-back trucker hat. And not like the one that cat from the Neptunes wears. This is an old-school, function-over-form mesh cap. On anyone else, it would look laughably out of place, but on Sticks it looks right at home.
On most days, this is a loose-lipped bunch that might give me a hard time about being so quiet. Not tonight. The second I put on my reporter hat and try to get a few of them to talk about their love of the game on the record, the conversation dies. Suddenly, everyone at the table thinks they're an outlaw, a renegade on the run. They have excuses like "I don't want my boss to read my name in a story about poker" or the more popular "I've got a good understanding with my wife. She understands that I need to play poker. I don't think it would help me out any if she read my name in the paper talking about playing cards."
Off the record, though, most of the regulars say they are drawn to the game because of the human elements that are involved. Folks who play slot machines or blackjack might as well be robots, mindlessly plugging quarters into a cold metal machine or obediently staying on seventeen when the dealer is showing a six, just like the little wallet guide to blackjack tells you to do. There's nothing truly exciting about those games.
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Texas Hold 'Em is different. Players thrive on the visceral experience of feeling the cards in their hands, brazenly throwing a handful of chips onto the table and then using both arms to rake in a big win. Few experiences match the rush of adrenaline you experience when you look an opponent in the eye, dare him to call your bet and then watch as he chucks his cards into the pile and the dealer shoves a mound of chips in your direction.
At the end of the night, I'm still savoring the beauty of my play against Bifocals. Sticks looks at me from across the table and says, "Nice cards, young man."
I nod silently.
I'm not sure I'm ready to think of myself as a regular yet. But it's nice to know that I've put in my time.