Shut Up and Deal (Jesse May)

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  Foxwoods, 50-100 Hold'em. It's the Christmas tournament, I'm just back into poker after four months in Europe, and I have a foolhardy desire to test myself against prime competition and gamble with my bankroll. So here I am--stuck--at three o'clock in the morning and it's a purple rope game.

Because of too many spectators crowding the big games during the tournament, the two high-limit games are cordoned off. It's completely superfluous now because there are no spectators. None. In fact, the casino is almost deserted. Our poker table is roped off with the things they use in movie theaters and shows, thick, furry, purple rope attached to gold stands, and now because the game is full and there's no spectators it looks like maybe the purple ropes are to keep the players in rather than the spectators out. It seems that way, too, because no one has moved from their seat in five hours and no one looks in a hurry to go anywhere except maybe New Castle Ted. There's something else, however, that accounts for the fact that no one's left this game and that the casino is deserted, and it's not the fact that it's three in the morning.

It's snowing. Hard. Like a blizzard. Rumor has it that the roads are impassable, so nobody's leaving. The ultimate poker game. Like a slow boat to China.

And like I said, Foxwoods doesn't even have a hotel yet--they've only been open ten months--so nobody can even duck away to get a room. And it is a rocking game. There are guys in it who haven't played much Hold'em before. But I'm stuck, losing in the game, and Frank who is sitting next to me is stuck and New Castle Ted is stuck and swearing and calling everyone saps and the saps are getting lucky and the game is at a lightning pace. Everybody knows they can't leave, so they might as well gamble.

Afterward, Ted always says to me when we're in a really good game, They oughta get the purple rope out for this one. And it's funny, you know, because those ropes are purple velvet, like material for royalty, make you feel special, and inside the ropes is dirty gambling. So that you wish the ropes really are there to keep people in--to hold them or tie them up while you take their money and their watch. But right now those purple ropes with the gold stands are just around the table, about two feet behind all the chairs, and the game is hopping and humming with at least four or five guys in every hand and ten at the table plus the dealer and there's one other big game going at a table not far from ours, but it's definitely not full and they're playing Stud, 200-400. And there's Bart Stone and the Iceman, who won the World Series of Poker one year and a lot of tournaments since then, and maybe one or two other people who I don't know real well, but I do know, even from my position at the table so that my back is to him, that Bart Stone is losing.

Bart Stone. I can hear his motherfuckers and this and that and cursing the dealer from over here. But our game is humming and I don't pay it much attention because I'm stuck and tired and not really playing that well. Now New Castle Ted loses two or three hands in a row and he throws down his cards, picks up his chips and money, says "Lucky fucking saps," stalks over to the bigger game and takes an empty seat. New Castle is like that--he can't tolerate losing and he figures that if he's stuck a few thousand at 50-100 it'll be much easier to win it back quick at 200-400 than stay here...or else go broke. But he figures that he's such a good player that he's supposed to beat anybody as long as they're not too lucky.

Anyway, Ted's over there playing with the big boys now and I'm thinking his bankroll isn't really comfortable for even 50-100 but it doesn't really matter. The rules state that all you need to sit down in a game is the minimum buy-in, and in a 200-400 game that's only two thousand dollars, I think. But it can all be gone on the first hand--or not. That's New Castle Ted, always looking at the small picture, how he's doing right now, rather than at the game. I mean how could you leave a game like this? Not that I am doing any great shakes either because I'm sitting on Frank's right and we're bullshitting and talking between hands and he's always asking me what I had and every time that I raise he reraises right behind me and tries to isolate me and some of the hands I'm raising with are shit and some of the hands that aren't shit I'm missing the flops and maybe getting bluffed out, usually by Frank.

Frank, he's got my number and he seems to be winning a lot of pots lately, and every time I call him he's got enough and every time I fold he's got shit, but this is before I learned to freeze someone out and so it just seems like I'm giving Frank a lot of money. This is mainly on my mind and I'm thinking about how much I'm down and whether or not I should have played that ten-jack, or raised with it, and I'm not paying attention to much of anything outside the game and when New Castle Ted comes back over and takes the seat he recently vacated I almost don't notice him.

I almost don't notice him, but I do because the change in his personality and temperament is so profound that you have to notice the guy, along with all the chips that he definitely didn't have when he left the 50-100 game thirty minutes ago and now comes plopping back down for all to see. And he's practically whistling he's so full of gaiety and himself so that there's no reason to ask how he did. This time he got even--and better.

He's doing the eye-catching thing, which is what some people do when they have something that they want to say or tell to the whole poker table but know that nobody really wants to listen or they feel stupid talking to no one. You catch somebody's attention and then you can talk to them. Maybe I'm just easy. Guys are always talking to me at the poker table. Probably because I just sit there with a stupid smile on my face while they blabber away. There are some guys who I think play poker mainly because they want people to talk to, and the poker table is a good place for that. Ten people sitting around a table, unable to change seats and with no option but to be some sort of audience for whatever drivel a lonely bastard wants to spew. But Ted's also doing the chuckling thing, where he shakes his head as if in wonderment to himself and laughs softly, like he's just seen or heard something which is more funny or exciting than you can imagine and he can't wait to tell. But you have to ask.

So I say, "What's up, Ted," me the sucker, and he says, "You'll never believe what Bart Stone just did in that game. This has to be the all-time craziest fucking thing I've ever seen." So now I'm listening and a couple of other guys at the table prick their ears up and New Castle Ted has an audience, which is what he really wanted in the first place. Now he's made his little score for the day and he's feeling like chirping. Chirping chips, we say. A guy gets some chips and he starts to chirp. Now that Ted's ahead he's happy, doesn't really care about winning or losing so much and is in that winner's mode where everything is so funny and the poker room is filled with exciting characters and stories and interesting things besides the actual action itself. That's when you're winning. Ted tells us what he witnessed in the other game just five minutes before.

Bart Stone is losing. And he's mad. Real mad. After losing a brutal pot he looks like he's finally had enough. Bart jumps out of his seat hurling curses, picks chips and money up in one giant armful, and then throws chips and money back down on the table and hisses, "Deal me in!" just in time to receive his first card down from the dealer. Bart picks the card up and slams it back on the table face up for all to see--king of diamonds. Even the professionals at the table raise their eyebrows in mild surprise and amusement--they've been playing with Bart all night. Bart gets his next card down from the dealer and flips that over also without looking at it--eight of diamonds. His third card is a two, also diamonds, which I guess is a good start in Stud--three suited cards--but in Stud your first two cards are supposed to remain hidden to the end. Bart's whole hand is exposed. Stupid!

Since Bart's low with the deuce he's forced to bet fifty dollars, which he wings into the pot like he's trying to stone the dealer, who says deuce of diamonds is low. The Iceman, sitting across the table from Bart behind a mountain of chips and every hair in place, takes a sip of his mineral water and raises with an ace up. Bart reraises. Everybody else folds. The Iceman reraises, making the bet six hundred to go, and now Bart calls. The Iceman's representing aces, but does it matter? I mean he's playing a pot against a man who's showing him his cards. But Iceman does have aces and when the next card comes and the Iceman catches a blank and Bart catches the four of spades, which is also a blank, a nothing card, Iceman bets two hundred dollars and Bart calls, throwing his money in while still bending over behind his chair with a sneering snarling kill mask of rage, which is why nobody asks him why his hand is exposed. Everyone's just watching.

Bart's fifth card is the four of diamonds, which gives him a four flush and a pair. The Iceman catches what appears to be a blank, but if he's got aces then he's still the favorite, but a slight one, or so I'm told, depending on what cards he has in the hole and which cards have been exposed, which is something that I don't know. But I'm sure the Iceman does and what happens next is just way out for anything, way out, because now the lights are shining down on this poker table and there's green twenty-five-dollar and black hundred-dollar chips and lots of hundred-dollar bills in front of the players but there's only four or five people at the table plus the dealer and nobody watching and empty tables all around except for a 50-100 Hold'em game going on a few tables away. And on the other side of the room there are four or five lower-limit games going on, but they are quiet too, and it feels very empty in that big poker room with about forty tables and only six games going and the whole place sort of empty and hushed. Everyone's thinking snowed in and gamble and no one's railbirding, not even the big game where they're playing 200-400, and Bart Stone's putting on a show or something. But he's standing at the table and playing this hand and his cards are all face up, which is ridiculous because why would he want everyone to know what he has, the crazy motherfucker? I mean there's already two thousand dollars in the pot what with the antes and bets and raises up until the fifth card, but Bart ain't looking like he thinks there's anything wrong with showing everyone his hand, he just looks tall and mean and he's standing there and not talking, just looking like an ax murderer. But when the Iceman bets four hundred dollars with ace-ten-nine showing and two cards down, Bart just rasps one thing--"Raise." But he doesn't say it, he hurls the words out of his mouth and puts the money in and then they both become machines. The Iceman raises four hundred. Bart raises four hundred. And back. And forth. The Iceman sitting there tan, short hair, impeccably cut, groomed, manicured, cool, ready, casually dressed in a polo shirt and slacks and loafers and sipping from a bottle of Poland Springs mineral water, separating eight black chips off one of the stacks in front of him and placing them in two neat stacks of four, signifying a raise. And Bart, tall, gaunt, dressed in all black and smoking hard on his Pall Mall cigarette, all explosive motions as his fingers quickly count eight hundred dollars from a pile of bills he holds tightly in the other hand. And he throws the money toward the pot and the dealer. Raise.

The pile of money and chips in the center of the table that is the pot gets bigger and bigger, the dealer frantically trying to keep up with the action, until he realizes that something weird is going on here. So he just stops and waits and watches. Back and forth, Bart Stone then the Iceman--raise, raise...

Ted says they raised eighteen times until the Iceman finally called because Bart just wouldn't stop and they each had put like eight thousand dollars in just on that one card so there is about eighteen thousand dollars in a big pile in the middle of the table and there are still two cards to come.

Bart wins the pot. He makes a king on sixth street for two pair, now he has the best hand. Bart bets and the Iceman just calls and says wryly, "Aren't you going to turn this one over too?" to which Bart grates four hundred dollars and bets before seeing his last card. But the Iceman can't beat Bart's open two pair so he mucks his hand and Bart rakes a pot, which is like all the chips at the table, or at least all the Iceman's chips. Bart standing there like the Tasmanian devil, everything moving, wild, flailing, huffing, snarling, mean, lean, smoking, mass of anger. Except that his cards are face up, which in baseball is kind of like pitching to the guy underhand. Ted is laughing as he tells it and says Bart is one crazy man. I think it's wild.
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Excerpted from Shut Up and Deal by Jesse May. Copyright © 1998 by Jesse May. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.