Naked Otis sanghoki

 

I sat cross-legged in the hotel room. The carpet was new, clean, and better than what I had in my house. The balcony doors were open, letting in a wind and exposing a view you can’t buy–it’s only available for rent.

A few feet away from me sat more than $30,000 in cash. Most of it was wrapped in ten-grand bundles. A private dealer had been summoned to the room, a sanghoki of one-of-a-kind chips littered the floor, and a setup of cards was being counted down. I speak of all of this in passive voice because, while I was there, I was–at least for the moment–a spectator. It was not my money. They were not my chips. I hadn’t touched the cards. I was sitting in the middle of something that was simultaneously meaningless and exceedingly important. More to the point, I was caught up in a salt-washed epiphany.

***

When I wrote The End, there was a pretty serious part of me that believed it would be the last thing I wrote on the Up For Poker blog. After four years of finding nuances of the game and inspiration in the romantic turn of a card, I had given up. It had been a losing year–my first– and I barely knew why. Poker had become more of an addiction than a hobby. It wasn’t as if I was blowing through wads of cash and endangering my family. I was not playing above my roll or on borrowed cash. In fact, a nice-sized chunk of my bankroll sat in the bank untouched.

No, it was not your typical sweating, tweaking addiction. I only defined it as such because I was playing, but didn’t know why. I wasn’t playing for profit. I wasn’t playing for fun. I was playing because, in short, that’s what I do. I play cards. It was still better than drinking myself into barstool grandeur or experimenting with firearms, but it was not serving a purpose. I found no spiritual or financial profit in the game. Even if I kept playing–which I knew I would–I didn’t see reason to write about it anymore. I write about things in which I find beauty and passion. Even if it’s beautiful tragedy or hilarious passion, it’s worth a word or two. There is only so much one can write about autotonomous raising and folding, and even less when the lifeless time at the table is the means to an unprofitable and unhappy end.

What’s more, the G-Vegas underground games had become no man’s land for me. After two violent robberies and one unfortunate bust, I made a promise to my wife that I was finished. No amount of entertainment or writing fodder was worth her worrying about whether I was spending my night looking down the barrel of a cheap .380. The games died off for a couple of months and then started their comeback. I did not come back with them. Despite pleas and protestations from my poker friends, I stayed away. Those long, hyper-caffeinated nights in smoky underground rooms were now just a thing about which I could wax nostalgic.

Indeed, I had all but given up on the idea of writing about the game that played such a large role in my life since 2003. When people asked what I do, I stopped saying “I write about poker.” Instead I muttered something along the lines of, “It’s sort of a long story.”

***

A few nights before the mini-epiphany, I was half-crocked and sitting in a hotel lobby bar with a semi-motley crew of people. I gave a fellow writer 10-1 odds on his $50 that he could not blow up a deflated soccer ball using only his mouth. He pondered it for several minutes before declining the bet. Half an hour later, he inflated he ball anyway, just to see if he could do it. I thumbed the $500 in my pocket and wondered how I had dodged losing it. On any other night, with any other person, I would’ve lost the bet, lost the money, and lost a little more of my mind.

I was in a pretty dark place. No matter what I did, it didn’t feel right. Privately, I think of it as One-Pip Syndrome. It’s that time at the table and in life where you can make the decisions that feel almost certainly right and turn out to be just one pip from success. Eights versus nines, AQ vs AK, it doesn’t matter. It’s either a winner or a loser and when you’re one pip off, you might as well be drawing dead.

The night that I ended up in the hotel room, I let go. I stood outside and let the wind smack me in the face. Whatever it was–the booze, the breeze, the bravado–everything seemed more clear. I made one decision that wasn’t even officially mine yet to make. Everything inside my head settled, sediment at the bottom of a river that had been running too fast for too long. I ate dinner with my wife and friends. I laughed, indulged, and let go of whatever it was that I thought had tied me up. We walked outside after dinner and did something those afflicted with good sense don’t do. No sense in describing it either, because it was certainly more important in my head than in reality. Regardless, it was 15 minutes of pure and simple abandon. No matter the consequences, I was free.

Later that night in the hotel room, I sat across from the friend who had just won the $30,000 in a poker tournament. He was happy, but no happier than I’d seen him when he was badly stuck. As the room filled in and we settled on a private HORSE SNG, we worked out the stakes. I can’t remember how much it was per person, but it was $100 or less. A few of us did a last longer that was the same as the buy-in. We would do another game for similar stakes a few hours later.

I looked around and realized that it was not the money that mattered. I was sitting with a guy who had casually won more than my car was worth. I was sitting with people who had enjoyed the glamour of playing on TV. I was sitting with people who are big players in the business. The money was incidental. Not only that, almost all of it was incidental. All that mattered was I was playing with friends who appreciated the game as much as I did. I was sitting with people who took poker–for any amount of money–seriously, and at the same time, could laugh, cut up, and enjoy the time they had to play.

I admitted to myself that, for whatever reason, I am not as good a poker player as I used to be. I admitted to myself that I probably am not as good a writer as I used to be. Neither realization meant, however, that I had to quit. Even now as I struggle to figure out where my game fell apart and my words became trite, I am, in a word, okay.

Though I found it hard to believe, I was actually having fun again.

***

The room we called The Gaelic Game ran out of a fireworks warehouse on one of the oldest and most traveled highways in G-Vegas. It was not prophecy, but The Last Poker Game told the story of the joint pretty well. I spent many a night there, albeit few of them big winners. Still, before The Depot opened, it was my house of choice and I went there as often as I could.

At the end of the summer in 2007, the local Sheriff’s office raided the Gaelic Game, effectively shutting it down, at least in that location. It was the second to last straw in the my little pig’s collapsing poker house. When the game disappeared, with it went the rest of my poker year.

The other day, I was driving down the same road and, as always, stole a look at the place that had been my poker home away from home. The giant, red “FIREWORKS” sign had fallen on hard times. The letters that remained: REWORK.

I’m not much of a believer in omens, but sometimes you just have to read the writing on the warehouse.

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