Wednesday, February 6, 2013

High Stakes Poker

The sun rises. The sun sets. Nature’s transitions, quite literally as clear as night and day, and nowhere more apparent than in the blazing, dry heat of the desert.

Unless you’re in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is in many ways, a city designed to defy such transitions. Walk the strip and you’ll see rows of neon lights, bright by day, brighter by night. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Vegas is a land of tourists, castoffs, and gamblers. Those who do sleep tend not to be bound by the same conventions as the rest of us. I’ve visited four times now, and never cease to marvel at the fact that no matter how early my day begins or how late it ends, there are always people. There is always motion. There is always light.

But then , beyond the glow of the signs, screaming the significance of The MGM Grand, The Luxor, Caesar’s Palace and so many more, there are the insides of these buildings. Casinos. Windowless. Without clocks. No phones at the tables. A setting without time.

In 2004, my father sat in one of these casinos, a man who had lost a great deal in the years leading up to that moment. A man with an unusual chance at redemption.

A 2.8 million dollar cash prize and assorted spoils.

He sat at a nine-person poker table that included no fewer than six professional players, each of who had won million-dollar tournaments in the past--Howard Lederer, Jon Myung, Gus Hanson, Freddie Deeb, Thor Hansen, Carlos Mortensen.

How did it come to this?

*

I started writing this particular post about a half dozen times, with intentions of juxtaposing my father’s experiences at the World Poker Tour Championship with my own stories from the poker table: playing seven-card stud at my grandmother’s house, games of Texas Hold ‘Em with the other professional staff at my res life job, the periodic low-stakes games I’ve sat in on here in Baltimore, the small handful of times I’ve sat at tables in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Usually, getting an expert opinion makes it easier to write. After I interviewed my father this past December, I found it more difficult to begin. Nearly impossible to reconcile his encyclopedic knowledge of the game with my limited vocabulary.

I play poker conservatively and competently enough that I’ve never lost much money; in fact, taking the sum of all of my experiences, I think I’ve come startlingly close to breaking even.

But then, the stakes have never been particularly high.

I think that what has always fascinated me about my father’s participation in The World Poker Tour Championship was not so much the big prize money, the big name players, or the glitz and glamour of playing in a televised tournament, but what it must have meant to my father.

My father retired at the age of 30--just one year older than I am today--to be a stay-at-home dad to my sister and then me. In so doing, an intelligent, critical man; a decent athlete with a graduate degree in electrical engineering, disappeared from the world. Say what you will about the contentious relationship he has more often than not had with me, my sister, and my mother. This was a sacrifice. An acceptance that he would not be a professional star, or even a breadwinner. That he was putting his family first in the most sincere way he knew how, living a life in service to them.

By the age of 54, everything had changed. My sister had moved out for college, and only returned to the house for Christmases--then stopped doing even that with complete regularity. I went to college and started my first of what would turn out to be twelve summers (and counting) working for CTY. And my mother--well, that first summer I spent away, she, too, decided to leave my father.

At 54, my father found a new life in a new game. He’d always been a gambler, playing blackjack and craps, betting on horses, indulging in a stint of day trading on the stock market. But when he was most alone in his personal life, he discovered a home in the poker room at the Turning Stone Casino. He won money. He won tournaments.

Then he won a special tournament, besting the likes of professional players Pete Giordano and Al Krux, to win the prize of money for a plane ticket, a hotel room, and the $25,000 entry fee to the World Poker Tour Championship in Las Vegas.

He was interviewed in the local media and wrote emails about it to all of us. Looking back on the time, my sister recalls it pretty simply.

To Dad, it seemed like if he won, he could win back Mom. To Mom, it seemed like if he won, he might be able to move on with his life.

My sister’s reading probably oversimplifies things, but I don’t think she’s entirely off point, particularly from my father’s perspective. A tournament like that one in Las Vegas had the potential to be life changing. An opportunity for my father to make a statement to himself, to my mother, and to the world about his talent, his cunning, and, indeed, his very relevance.

He was every jilted lover who registers for a long-distance road race. Every fired employee who throws his all into a new startup. Every person told he wasn’t good enough who insisted on standing up to the world and proving it wrong.

In short, he was playing for redemption.

*

My father sat with the pros. In an early hand, he bluffed Freddie Deeb, who glared at him across the table and said in perfect deadpan, “If you do that again, I’m going to kick your ass.”

The professional players were chummy, trading workout strategies and sex jokes. I imagine my father striking the balance. Laughing along enough to enjoy himself, enough to feel like he belonged. But keeping his composure. Never forgetting his purpose. Remember that, while he had little left to lose, he may have had more to gain than anyone else in the room.

It was a three-day tournament. My father hung around his table for hours, outlasting a number of players. And yet, when it came time for the closing hands of the first day, he felt compelled to make a move, lest he start the second day too far behind to contend in any meaningful way.

He went all in.

He lost.

Like most of the top-tier poker players I’ve known, my father has startlingly good recall for cards, able to remember very specific hands, regardless of the months or years that have passed. I asked him to talk about the losing hand, but he preferred not to. I know it’s not because he’s forgotten.

I learned my conservative approach to poker from my father, so I can only assume he had very good cards or a very good reason to bluff. In whichever case, I can only imagine that recounting the nitty gritty details of that hand is much like rehashing how you got in a car accident, how you loused up your relationship, or how you blew a job interview. You can put together the pieces. You can see where it went wrong. And yet, no matter how many times you might replay the series of events in your mind, there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome.

My father walked back to his hotel. Broken. Discouraged. All those lights of Las Vegas Boulevard phonier than they’d ever been before. The sun had set hours ago.

Rather than taking the next two days for a vacation, the next morning he checked out of his hotel and returned to the airport. He changed his flight and landed back in Albany in the evening, back on east coast time before he had had the time to adjust anyway.

You would think that this experience might ruin the game for someone. Nine years later, he plays poker far less, and I have to imagine that the way the tournament turned out was one small piece in ushering him toward finding joy in different parts of his life.

And yet, when we wrapped up our interview about the tournament, turning instead to recollection of his favorite cards stories, he let down his guard; he dropped his poker face.

He laughed, recalling that he used to play a combination and the two and three of hearts as if they were pocket aces. Sometimes the bluff worked. And, a disproportionately high number of times, he actually lucked his way into real hands—usually flushes. When he had to show his cards opponents who knew that he played tight would groan or scratch their heads in bewilderment at how he of all players would win a hand like that.

Another time, he slow-played pocket aces, squeezing out a four-figure pot, besting a player who started with a pair of kings in hand.

Just the same, he remembers a hand he lost to an arrogant smart alec. All in, pocket aces, my father had the hand won up until the river, when a queen fell to give his opponent three of a kind.

Bad beats. Drawing dead. Cracked aces. These are parts of the game, and to my surprise, my father laughs as much about his bad luck as he does for his good fortune.

These are his stories. This is his game.

There are no lights in Utica that compare to the lights of Las Vegas. The stakes are rarely as high and people go to sleep at a decent hour. Just the same, nearly a decade after he boarded a westbound plane, my father can reflect on that moment when he played for the highest stakes of all.

No, he didn’t win. He’s not a millionaire, and I suspect it has been over a year since he last so much as saw my mother.

But on a cold winter night in central New York, his space heater warms him. He has a body of new friends he hadn’t met yet all those years before. Plans for New Year’s Eve. And for what little it’s worth, on this night, he has me for company. To share dinner and cans of beer. To talk about a time when he went all in.

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