I can make no sense of the multi-building apartment complex's non-sequential numbering. Its drives are deserted and the night is quiet. As at the beginning of the trip, my wallet bulges ostentatiously with (even more) cash– I seem to put myself in the most stupid circumstances. I wander in circles, crisscross paths and squares, duck under trees and parking covers.
I am only a block behind the Wynn but might as well have been in another city, one that shut down at nine. Maybe one with a corner bar that serves the lonely and outcast and forlorn and resentful. Persuadeo’s. Or maybe The Bucket and Mop. One of those places with no drink list, serving stale peanuts and puffy bags of chips packaged in 1982 to meet legal requirements (think of how the bag has condensed and expanded in the weather pressure for decades, like a quiet mutant potato creature whose respirations take years to complete). Where the bartender never smiles and a bucket and mop are always left out, like an unwanted condiment bottle or an abandoned plate of food, irritatingly visible in its corner, ready to be of service after the next disaster.
Or if the Strip is the theater’s proscenium, this is the alley behind where the stage techs have a smoke and bitch. The giant parking structures of the strip, ugly and oily, loom distantly, like fire escapes for giants.
My host texts me the geographical coordinates, but they might as well have been 45/16/9 – I don’t use HUDs in poker or walking, and couldn’t make any sense of the numbers. We briefed over the phone but couldn’t agree on what “back wall” meant.
Midnight in unwanted Vegas.
Nevertheless, there are only so many corners to a square. When I finally join Doug and his girlfriend Miranda, they are in the midst of what looks like the middle-end of an evening of earned and maybe needed relaxation. The two lounged on a deep and worn sofa, enjoying a particularly action filled Orange is the New Black. Riots. Comeuppances.
I settle in, welcomed amiably. Doug is a generous host. Soon my empty wine glass would join the other drained and stained goblets on a giant footstool-cum-coffee table.
The Hull household tells a story. Convenient to the action and the tourism, it can’t be too expensive, but it’s not friendly to the tourist either, and is no baller pad. This is a place where someone serious, never mind a poker player, can grind out a living from. It’s all plaster and paneling and darkness. The wall to wall carpet – a nicety of post-WW II America - shags its way through a large living room and two bedrooms. In the sixties and seventies, nylon replaced polyester and made this simple luxury even more comfortable and stylish than what housewives luxuriated in when the GIs came home. This apartment’s carpet, thick and vegetal, is the forest floor new Vegasites gave up for the City of Sin’s outlandish desert promise. You can sink your toes into the manufactured moss and dream of home and air and life.
Much of this rug is covered in cardboard boxes, and many of them are open, half-full of poker books. In fact, when you meet Doug and Miranda, you grasp fully that Red Chip is really, or at least started as, a book business, and how this is a non-trivial distinction with consequences for everyone involved. At the beginning of my WSOP stay, I began my now yearly reacquaintance with the RC staff by hauling paperbacks (poker books, except for poker’s bible, are never, ever in hardback) from a car to the Red Chip table at the Rio. It’s well situated, next to the Amazon, after the restaurant but before the bathrooms. You can’t miss it. (And fortunately not too far from the main entrance. Oof!)
Miranda, a slim brunette with a Jewish cast and a will to organize, runs the show. The poker players around her seem a little oblivious and delicate in the field of her administrative zest: men and employees and volunteers are just step behind her need for certainty. For things to be where they should. For books and cups and people to have a place.
Red Chip, at WSOP time, doesn’t just sell their own books, I notice, while hanging out a bit. There’s J. Little, but also Sexton and Moorman and others you don’t really think of when you click on your link to the forums. It takes a lot of sweat and hustle, even if much of it is done sitting, to make a living out of poker education, the niche of our niche. I’m daunted by the work they do, what they have accomplished, and unimpressed by how it is still not enough for some folks. The quantification of knowledge, even one as trivial as poker knowledge, is a great human endeavor, and sometimes all you get for it is a dark bungalow where you get to do more of the same. Later, as I examine the piles of books on Doug’s floor, which suddenly seem like so many units of so much product, I see it’s likely not enough for the creators, either.
Then, nothing ever is.
The trip has been a financial success for me. I haven’t played nearly as many big games as I thought I would, but earned my keep and made my monthly nut. In my final hand of the trip I will cooler myself with an underflush, having the dead read on my opponent, but deciding to make one of those endless losing calls which are “correct” or “right”: sacrifices to the poker theorist in us that we all make from time to time, like a tithe to Poker Church.
Players have a peculiar inability to express themselves in English, resorting to the verbal equivalent of Emojis. “Snap” calls. “Fist pump” shove. Tenses get confused. Adverbs become adjectives, as if we were in ancient Rome. Then you realize it’s right: we poker players are fighters and gladiators. The present matters most: it’s all one session. You join the culture and express yourself like they do: I run bad. I made the sigh call.
The Hull household reminds me of many unmarried couples’ haunts. It’s got all the business and signs of work and purpose, but a little rough around the edges. There is a vital kind of energy here that I am envious of, but a stripe of fatigue as well, as if the engine is hot but the gasoline is not quite the right octane and the oil is too light. As if there is work to do but the sun is no longer high. This is natural enough. The underlying strain of uncertainty, as with any theme in our life, permeates all we do, even to the cups on the counter.
For men, the reason for getting married is not what is usually supposed. We can of course still be successful in life without a foundation of personal life. Correlation is not causation. However the real reason a man marries is because he is ready for and suited to embracing his place in the functionality of the world. True rebels are rare. The machine goes on with or without him, but success, entrepreneurship, respect and love are best found by embracing society, not defying it.
Marriage is the great lens of masculine energy. It stabilizes and focuses; it makes women happy and children safe. Energy is restrained and revitalized. Messy carpets are cleaned. Lamps appear. Used cups on the counter disappear. All this, because now the future matters and is known, and he goes about his business, on whatever scale, of changing the world, which is his primary function in human society. The marriage may involve great romantic or sexual interest- these are important non-sequitors- but they are not at the heart of what is going on.
I learn about Doug’s next book and Miranda’s deep desire to live in Minnesota. While the couple enjoys the evening, I can’t sit for too long on the couch, and spend some more time examining Doug’s place. Most significantly, I discover he has mounted an unusual form of art on his walls: a extraordinary number of Norwegian wood carvings. One, and then another gets your attention, and then you realize, camouflaged in the darkness of the apartment’s slumbering style, there may be a dozen of them or more.
These carvings, for the most part, are flat panels, usually not longer than a few feet long and less wide, that have been cut to reveal ornate, ungeometrical patterns, facades with depth and space. The artist has contained the men and women and objects and creatures of the medieval world within these swirling, sylvan visions. They are Norse picture books – somber and circular, the birth unto its dust, originating from a time when the connection was much closer and life was imbued with a sobriety that a nation consumed by pills and pleasures no longer remembers. The carvings are serious- cut from the flesh of the trees which both house and outlive us.
They are unique, flawed, and beautiful.
The desire to look into the past is the desire to look into the soul. History informs the self, but poker is dry work, and some part of his life must feel missing, must itch at Doug slightly, while he compiles push fold charts, tutors hopeful onetwolets, and looks to the uncertainty of the years ahead.
These sober and eminently thoughtful carvings are Doug’s own work.
We had ended up drinking a bit more, and I wake up late. The angry sun is streaming into the apartment from every possible fissure and opening. Now, the couple, fun to be around and well matched in their similarities and differences, have another day of book hustling ahead. (I think if I were to write an instructional poker book, I wouldn’t market it Red Chip style. Instead, it would be dark and bound and secret, and have a lot of pictures: a bible of poker and poker tradition, tracing strategy from where it came.) I see my room clearly for the first time. There’s a workstation and computer, a wall of poker books, and a collection of chips from a variety of nearby casinos. The poker author's keep.
Everyone is asleep, and I step out into the unfinished back patio. It’s a dreaded day in Vegas. Everyone has been talking about how the heat is supposed to reach one hundred and fifteen degrees. Later, when my hosts say goodbye, expecting me to be scooped up by Uber in a few minutes, I have already decided my body needs testing: I will walk to the Encore’s new poker room. Doug and Miranda will take his new motorcycle, true Vegasites hanging onto the present. It's good to see. Godspeed.
It would have been a better choice, as I originally mentioned, to walk by the Sands Convention Center and then into the Wynn. But, being a gambler, it seemed reasonable that Desert Inn would be more direct – it certainly was as the crow flies, and so I took a chance at an easy passage to the entrance of the tertiary but still handsome hotel. Along the way, guided by plaintive grey columns of the monorail on this I found respites of shade offered by the nearby awnings and the occasional telephone pole.
I remember seeing the children: Why are you walking? Where is your family? Their eyes asked many questions. I remember seeing a boy, once, in my mind, that was either me or my son, when I was inspired to take up my latest chance at redemption, before I saw her disappear into the very night I sent her out into, alone. It had been cool; no, cold. Now it is hot, and my mind wanders into the street and beyond the treetops. It’s only 112 still.
While I was at the Rio the day before, I sniffed out an aspiring young pro with an obviously bogus table talk story. He made a loose call preflop, then got trapped into committing his draw for stacks (getting there, unfortunately for me.) We’ll call him Spitzer. ("I'm just passing through on the way to school." C'mon Spitzer!) After enough time to establish a few things and get my money back by correctly interpreting a min raise as weakness, I decided I wasn’t interested in the dullish cap game. I racked up after only a few downs.
However, Spitzer tracked me down near the cage and asked for some advice while I fiddled with a mountain of chips I had been carrying in my trusty manpurse. I talked about taking one’s preparation seriously, among other things. I want to help him: he's young and thin and really doesn't seem to know what the world has in store for him. Well, Spitzer, maybe you're somewhere taking my advice, but what I am doing here might not be the best example! I wish him well.
When I have to pause on Desert Inn for an intersection, the heat races up and swarms me like a cloud of mosquitos: walling is actually cooler. A kid in a van stopped at the light, stares at me in shock, now relieved he has to tag along with his dad to work.
When I was last in Vegas, it was dark and cold. Now, I hoped, worn out before I started, the high time of tourism and the World Series of Poker, there was a place for me, even at her most luxurious and warm honey trap, Steve Wynn’s pink, perfumed daughters.
I looked into the sun, gleaming white and gold off the glass and steel of the Encore, the nearest of the twins. I thought of seventh grade, when I was fascinated by the eighth grade girls in my French glass. I told my later girlfriend how this one in particular always wore the slimmest, thinnest white cotton shirts and the darkest bras, seemingly daring us to examine her form. My girlfriend haughtily upbraided me, assuring me no one does this and my assumptions were wrong.
The Encore, so large, grew no closer. I did not understand.
Standing in the shade was more unbearable than moving and having hope of finding real shelter. After only a mile, I stumbled into the only restaurant I could find, a singular Indian Buffet, more dehydrated than I thought was possible. I needed a pause. Electrolyte Biryani. Tikka Liquida. The wine/marinade we had drunk to relax for a fun hour the night before had not left me with a headache or other clues of dehydration: it was the heat alone that slowed me.
The looming Encore kept looming, not closing. I was walking. One of Desert Inn’s sidewalks was closed, pushing me another hundred yards away from the target. Was the Indian Restaurant behind me? When did I get here?
Once inside I stumbled to a table and asked for water. Some of us have the gift to know what the other needs, or others, like myself, only learned it through experience. In any case, my server, a plump young mother with a very judging gaze, faced with the presentation of a sweating, middle-aged white man with a pained face and labored breathing, took her sweet, oblivious time. Parched, I watch her try out several pitchers, repouring the water until she had some sort of satisfactory presentation for me. I can't take my eyes of her or the water or her bizarre and very inconveniently timed ritual. I had never seen such a thing before, never thought about optimal water pitcher levels. Because the carafe she chose was opaque it was a mystery as to why she worried about the volume in the container, but did get it right at some point: glad she’s satisfied!
She lifted it in the air like a trophy. I stared at her water, like the girl in the cotton blouse, hoping for what was inside.
I noted that she did not leave the pitcher with me, then drained my glass. I presumed it would be the first in a sequence. Yet in silence she refused to return for the second, clearly giving herself a break from dealing with an annoying customer.
What was inside was not for me.
The server fussed with coupons while I waved my hands at her and soon I found myself talking… to myself. (This is the start of senility I assume. I guess when old men start blubbering away they actually have no control over it.) She eventually caught my eye, but instead of the typical customer service response, she decided it was time to take a quick inventory of my situation. I could see her wondering why she had to return with more water so quickly.
When I was much younger some of us were reading Of Human Bondage, and a very bright girl I knew came to a surprising conclusion about the summary statement. “Everything is an Oriental carpet? Just meaninglessness?” I was both surprised at such a dark interpretation from such a workerbee and believer, a Model UNer, a debate club type - but also at such a misinterpretation.
The weaving of the carpet, or of the carving, or of the life, is the meaning. All things intersect. All things have purpose and fit an order beyond the one we want to give. I wonder what became of that girl. I remember she had bright brown eyes. I heard she had cancer. I heard she went to medical school. Our patterns have not crossed, but then, I have retreated in to the shadows. I have hidden from the world because of too much pain, only to learned this magnifies and refocuses it, hot and gold. Or black, like the shadows and dead space of a wood carving.
Too much oblivion. Throughout the trip, I’ve been smoking. But I only used to smoke for a few puffs. I’d throw it away, having gotten what I needed. Then, disaster, and when I had to deal with the most painful time in my entire life. I sat in a garden at my work, slurping down the smoke like it was liquid, needing to cauterize my insides, to build up some sort of thickness to the impossibility of what had happened. It wasn’t enough. I discovered, having supplied them to a needy addict for so many years, the joys of opiates.
I spent days indoors, finally free from pain, floating through television series after series, going through my liquor cabinet, the death inside me felt by someone else. Only there did anything make sense.
But it’s not another cigarette that I need, but a different fire.
Poker confuses the world, but it's merely a formality, an homage the concrete pays to the abstract. They need to pretend to not understand our need to compete, nor do they want to understand the interior truth of the game, which is all abstraction: Poker is just one expression of our need to face ourselves through facing each other. We see this in every aspect of the game, from its actual play to its curiously simultaneously conforming and confrontational community. Anyone can do it, and it requires nearly nothing. It is open to us all, and all who seek it need it, but the answer is not there. We fall into it because this need was already there inside us, inside people of all stripes, from every class, every age, every culture.
The world seeks answers, but the answer is not the game. Whoever, whatever you are, The Answer is always the way through, expansion, the movement toward the flame. We go into the abstract when the concrete is not enough, because this is how we grow and return and rejuvenate. This is our pattern, it is our oriental carpet, our carving which we cut out of the earth to remind us of what we are and what we can be.
The day has peaked. On the windless sidewalk, the temperature exceeds the forecast.
It's not just the sun, it's the day itself that blazes furiously.
And maybe, somewhere, what I really want to set alight, what I really wanted all those times I stepped away to cauterize myself, what every strike of the match really wanted to create:
I am a poker player. I am here to fight. This is me.
It is us.
Burnt. Tired. Hopeful.
I walk into the Encore and put my name on the lists.
Thank you for reading this series and thanks to everyone involved. You can show your support of my work by subscribing to my site and retweeting my blog posts, which will help leverage a future publishing endeavor. - Chris