Let's backtrack. I had been going to local casinos, and Las Vegas, for a couple of years before trying poker for the first time as an adult. Blackjack and occasionally craps, but never poker. I perceived poker as an impossible realm of braniac bluffers who could quote the odds of your making a hand merely by observing how you sipped your beer. In childhood, I had played for pennies or plastic chips with my mother and her mother, but not at all since maybe third grade. And we certainly never played the current rage, Texas hold'em. That game was still the province of craggy cowboys and desert rats cloistered in the air-conditioned neon temples of Las Vegas. The World Poker Tour was still decades off when I played my last childhood hand of five-card draw.
One day in the spring of 2003, a former coworker, Rick, accidentally cc'd me on an internal work email. I hadn't seen him in some months, so I took the opportunity to reestablish contact with him. I recalled his mentioning that he played poker with his friends, and I asked him if he was looking for any new players. It turned out that his gang was discussing the next game, so my query was well timed. He was happy to have a new player, as were his pals when he broached the topic with them.
I soon found myself at Rick's apartment with three of his friends, two from a previous job, one from way back, all of them toting small change for the game. Yes, it was literally a nickel-dime game, and I, too, clutched some rolls of coins in my nervous grip for the evening's combat. Ante was a thin dime, max raise was a fat quarter, and we played a crazy variety of wild card games where a single card could turn two pair into a royal flush or back again. I had worried that I would be diving into a shark pond in a steak swimsuit, but this was far more of a friendly game, where bullshitting about work and life was as much the reason to meet up as the chance to snag some wee coin for the night. Luck took way more of a role than all of this slit-eyed bluffing you see on the televised poker shows now. I soon got over my nervousness over losing (and what was I really gonna lose, like $10?) and somehow throwing the cards off the table while dealing, and settled in for a fun evening.
By some miracle, I walked away with $4.30 in profit . . . and a yen for a rematch.
It just so happened that this game occurred about a month before my annual trip to Las Vegas. I knew they had poker games out there, though I realized I wouldn't find too many tables where Chase the Ace or Pass the Trash were being dealt. Their loss. Most of the games played at Rick's were based on seven-card stud, so I figured I would give it a try amid the usual casino games I intended to play while baking in the June Vegas heat. I picked up a copy of Poker for Dummies and began studying.
I have a massive Word document in which I track my poker wins and losses. The first date is 6/18/03, and the record shows I plunked down $100 at the disturbing medieval pile that is the Excalibur Casino to play $1 to $5 spread-limit seven-card stud. Spread limit indicates that you can wager any amount between a buck and five bucks if you are the first to bet in a pot. If the action gets hot as the hand progresses, it more or less becomes a true limit game, as optimistic potential winners just toss in $5 chips for their bets and raises. My record shows that I lost $31 in that virgin game of casino poker.
It also lists that I popped my cherry with a royal flush.
I probably played for an hour or 90 minutes before it came, trying to bet only on decent starting hands, or what I thought at the time were decent starting hands. I was probably folding more than anyone else at the table. Although low-limit stud tables have a reputation for being "tight" — that is, few players betting initially, and even then only on high pairs, three of a kind, or three cards that could make a solid straight or flush — I was playing tighter than a clam's ass. No sense in giving it all away that quickly. My journal from the time records that I pulled in a couple of wins, including a full house that narrowly beat someone else's full house (I have since been on the opposite side of that equation, so the karmic debt I incurred was settled).
I think my journal entry from the day best captures the moment:
And then it happened. Down cards came A 10 club, first upcard a J suited [also a club]. Three to a royal. I get some chips out, not too many so I don't scare folks out of the pot. Fourth card blank [i.e., didn't improve my hand]. Fifth: K clubs. My hands start shaking. Sixth is another blank. I keep betting. Final card is down. I lift it. Queen of fucking clubs. A royal flush in my first trip to a public poker room. My hands are vibrating as I bet out. Nobody raises, but I don't care — I've got the nuts of the nuts. I am the last to show down, and to the shock and surprise of the table, I flip up a club royal, and say, just as stunned and w/ my heart thumping, "Holy shit!"And, of course, I knew I would be back for more.
Out of this incredible feat, I got the sizable pot, an Excalibur Poker Room hat, and a spin on the bonus wheel that picked me up another $20.
Further adventures in the empire of felt and chips to come.