I ROLLED SOUTH UNDER a grey late-February sky that, local weather-watchers claimed, would entomb the region that evening in snow and ice. With any luck, I would drive home through it, after hours of masterful poker play, flush with my winnings from the tournament awaiting me at a south Bergen County Jewish community center. The snow was the easiest barrier I might face that night. Seventy-five other players, all vying for the chance to make that final table and maybe even the top prize, proved to be a more formidable obstacle.
This new venue for the regular tournament was considerably larger. The old place was just a single synagogue, albeit with a finished basement. This complex housed at least three prayer halls, a basketball court, and two large basement activity rooms. Both were to be used today. I entered one of them with a confident stride to my step, noting with approval the 10 or 11 tables all set up, each with a hefty bowl of bagels and spreads as a centerpiece. One of the few folks already there noticed me counting the tables and chairs, as I calculated how many players we might have, and thus how large the prize pool would be. When I expressed satisfaction over this to her, she said, "This is children's ceramics. Poker is down the hall." It was then that I noticed she was spreading newspaper on one of the tables. Oops. I backed out and went one door down.
There, standing next to a table full of neatly stacked poker chips, I immediately spotted the player from my home poker game who had inaugurated this tournament. He had sold his chips and supplies to a tourney regular, because he found running the game and playing too burdensome. Now he was content to enjoy a solid streak of making the final pay spots and socialize between hands. I, on the other hand, sought contentment from the 6-foot submarine sandwich being unwrapped on the buffet table. After watching three women debate the proper order in which the dishes of salads should be placed, I ended the debate by grabbing a plate and a big wedge of sandwich, slathering it with Russian dressing, and scampering back to my assigned table with a Diet Pepsi (the horrors!).
In time, my table filled in, as folks slowly drifted from their cliques, to the food, and finally to their assigned seats. The demographic skews older than myself in this group by at least 20 years. I noticed a few of my peers, along with two college-age kids, one of whom had been bought into the tourney as an 18th-birthday present from his father. They sat at my table for a while, discussing Blazing Saddles, which they had seen, along with the 1968 Producers, that weekend for the first time. I thought back to when I had first seen both of these films, and I know it was because my parents, having introduced me to Woody Allen's early comedies, knew I would also love these. It is difficult to imagine a time when I didn't have these cultural signifiers as part of my DNA.
The 18-year-old remained at my table as the hostess called for folks to take their seats for a read-through of the rules. Aside from myself, my table had seven other players. Going clockwise:
Jack: Stereotypical balding, slight-framed, retirement-age Jewish man, not unlike Lee Strasberg in The Godfather Part II. Friendly guy who expressed, along with some others at my table, a preference for seven-card stud, now somewhat overshadowed by hold'em, but once the poker game. Enjoyed TV poker, and joked that he was tempted to wear a hooded sweatshirt so he could hide like the Unabomber, Phil Laak.
AC Player: Twentysomething man in a faded Itchy & Scratchy T-shirt. I mention Atlantic City because he mentioned a procedure on misdeals as being the way things were done in AC. I made a mental note to take this guy's actions a little more seriously.
Fat Guy: Outweighed my by at least 150 lbs., which is saying something, this guy appeared to know what he was doing with a deck of cards. (Side note: There were some morbidly obese people at this game. Not merely fat like myself, but guys who, when viewed from the side, appeared to have little flipper arms, and women who would never be able to sit in coach. I did 50 minutes of cardio-machine work before I came over b/c I figured the deli noshing would kibosh my nutrition for the day, and a look at this crowd made me unique in that activity. One younger guy of normal weight for his height looked, by comparison, to have survived a hunger strike.)
18-Year-Old: Carried on a conversation before the game about his college costs and course selections while fiddling with a knockoff MP3 player, which he claimed was cheaper and better than the iPod. Ah, the vain beliefs of youth. Said he played $5 tournaments with his friends, but that he went on tilt very easily.
Club Player: I call him this because he was the one who provoked AC Player's commentary when he accidentally flipped up a card during the deal. He replied that in his experience playing in clubs, the procedure he followed (it was after the first two blind cards, so became the burn card) was standard, and continued the deal. By "clubs," I interpreted this as possibly being the underground Manhattan card parlors that quietly schooled such future legends as Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer, and Stu Ungar, such as the Mayfair and the Diamond Club. Another player to keep an eye on.
Filipina: Mind-numbingly hot American-bred Filipina nursing student. Knew the AC Player, and had a better-than-beginner's understanding of the game. Still got hung up on advanced-beginner stuff like figuring the winner when two players paired the high board card and handling blinds when someone was busted out. I graded these slight gaffes on a curve, usually one of her own.
Mohegan: Taciturn player to my right who wore a Mohegan Sun pullover. I tried to crack the ice by commenting that the casino was finally reversing its mistake of eliminating the poker room, but aside from expressing a preference, as did Jack, for stud, I didn't get to know him all that well. Too bad, as I like to know my neighbors' style of play somewhat before making the plunge into a big pot with them.
And, out of fairness . . .
Me: Seasoned no-limit ring-game specialist who trails his regular home game in skill but can ably bring home the bacon against the fish now flooding into casino $1/$2 no-limit games. Tournament newbie, especially among loose, no-fold'em hold'em players like these. Kept things light and chatty, despite my Binions visor and Caesars Palace T-shirt.
Would I hold my ground against these strangers and take their chips to the final table? Tomorrow's pulse-pounding conclusion will tell all. . . .