The Russian isn’t really a Russian, just a local comic books guy who plays poker well and comfortably. He drinks and enjoys himself and loses his accent, if there ever was one. He likes to berate others, especially when they don’t play like he wants them to play; to hear his barbs is to hear a thin compliment; he uses laughter as a manipulative signal rather than as a release. He’s loud, and proud of it. He thinks of himself as in-charge, manly yet casual.
He does have an agreeable big Baltic head and stomach. He’s got the ponytail and does seem like he could smack a pack of prostitutes into some temporary orderliness. However, if you have the time, if you really watch and listen to him, he’s essentially conservative, nitty and cautious. He flats ace-queen and jacks correctly, when the others would three bet bomb it again, insensitive to sizing and strategy. I’m ready to tussle with him verbally, in fact, I’ve been planning this, because he’s rude and been rude, but it just doesn’t come up. He’s basically a belligerent teddy bear, like many of us, ready to find fault with others, ready to cower when it’s his turn.
Who we really are isn’t usually clear to anyone, not without some study.
With these long shifts at the felt, I have time to notice a lot. Flashback to the night before, where we have the apparent hoody and sunglasses poseur across the table. From the comfort of his grinder armor, he stares people down – lidless he can’t blink – and seems to be gathering some actual reads based on his lines. Usually, these types are cowardly when it comes to putting chips in the pot, similar to how overly beefy players, so concerned with how Olympic they appear, will overfold rivers for fear of looking stupid in front of their audience. The fear the hoodied instill is one of being abused by bluffs, but this fear is mostly being used to acquire unearned payoffs, to make you become paranoid. So, I do the reverse and surrender too meekly to him in one pot: he shows me the nut low in turn.
He’s not the guy we think he is. When he loses a big pot to me, he comes over to give me the fist-bump and apologize for complaining. He rebuys and laughs, even if we never get to see his eyes or the top of his head. His costume is a true prop. He is just another player with faults and strengths.
We take on a personality to help us fight, but when it comes apart, we reveal who we are. That’s not a bad thing, and no one can keep a pretense up all night.
It’s almost for that exact reason that I’m ruefully amused by this past week’s Sessions, where Billy posits that those who stay in action have some family or other money that bails them out. As he always says, we project our anxieties and frustrations onto others; he lives in the bubble of L.A. and Las Vegas and the California Southwest, which is a kind of endless ant hill of activity under the shade of a rotting Bilbao money tree that always drops enough fruit around for the frightful and shrill gamble monkeys. So, it’s not the same for all of us. I’ve played for a living since 2014 without staking or help aside from some generous student gifts around Christmas or after a particularly strong result. The idea of asking for money to play poker is anathema to me; if I go broke, it’s over. I do the helping, I make the loans, I take care of business.
However, this isn’t the best approach, not necessarily. For those of us who aren’t degenerates and fakes and gamblers, if you slip, coming back is very, very hard, and that’s something Billy demonstrated clearly in the early seasons of his podcast. I secretly knew this, too, when I let myself sink to the bottom – I am an inveterate liar, simply not to others, but to myself. Spend down everything, you’ll just get it all back. You can play forty hours a week, you can afford anything, you can quit drugs and alcohol, you’ll be in a great shape in a month. You can do anything.
I lacked respect for my prior work, for the pool, for reality, and yes, for Variance: the goddess will not to be trifled with so arrogantly. There is a perversity in her, and she seems to punish above all those who can’t accept her whims. I’ve never been a sun runner – all of my big pots are losses now. The latest, at 5/10/20, is a ridiculous flip in a four-bet pot I didn’t need to take, one that leaves me flattened emotionally and financially. With the month on the line a night later, I lose an additional key pot holding AA against AQ. I’m numb, however, because I’m careless and foolishly brave – it seems in the moment that I can always outplay my way into financial health.
However, I’m trying to outplay fire, not the game, when I think like this, especially when unexpected expenses come my way. Maybe because of this, I’m playing later and longer of late, looking for guarantees, for a series of reassuring wins. I don’t enjoy coming back to the apartment, of course: finding my roommate sedate from television and drink isn’t exactly inspiring. Yet it is growing worse and more prominent a habit than just dodging the disagreeable, because I sleep longer and longer during the day, waiting for the sun to go down, leaving later and later.
All I want is the comfort of the shower, the medication of the streaming images, and when ready, the life of the battle.
The night goes goes on and on. At one point, the waitress spills fresh black coffee down my back. It immediately funnels down my buttocks and into some sensitive places. I let out two yelps before controlling myself. The staff is all over it – it’s lawsuit time, suddenly the service is incredible – but they don’t know me. I’m not whining and I’m unhappy about those two yelps more than anything. One of them brings me a wet towel, humorously – what am I supposed to do with that exactly?
However, if you look around, they brought this error on themselves. The side table is overloaded with trash and the floor strewn with garbage. We’re in a salon on the frontier, the casino carpet might as well be sawdust, the waitress might be one of the Russian’s girls.
We spill and fall and trip because at the bottom is disorder.
I’m in the grit, the disorder, still, once again, after all these years. Where’s that family money that’s supposed to bail me out? And where’s that tournament run – wasn’t that the answer?
So many of us fall into tournaments, my brothers in arms, not because they like them, but because of the secret fatigue that seems to demand one big pay day.
I took my shot recently, buying in for a midstakes 200K guarantee. It was interesting because all the predictable regs in the Las Vegas cash scene were there. Gummy was at my first table, his inflamed upper mandible ready to burst from its bacterial redness. As I was moved from table to table, I was reacquainted with many of my opponents in this new if predictable light. It was striking – was this their natural home? The dumpiness that overtook my dress and body after my personal disasters a few years ago seems to blend in with many of them. They are balding and soft, their skin aged early. Their shoes are always mysteriously dirty, given they do nothing of use outdoors, and they love jogging suits.
I go for what seems forever, but it doesn’t last: I bubble the thing after a long day of playing fairly well. Just one more cooler I couldn’t fade.
It’s not just tournaments. When you’re in trouble, you do many things that aren’t really you. One night I sit smaller than usual, and it gets the attention of one of the regs: he wants me back at my normal seat. “It’s a great time to get into the game, look at seat two, he goes crazy when you check to him.” The reg opens to nine times the blind.
Normally I’d listen to this guy as much as I listen to Katy Perry, but an hour later, I’m paying off “crazy” and his thick value bets for my stack. Thanks, bro.
The days pass (I mostly skip them) and the bills mount. I begin to ignore some of them, a critical distinction, and I go out as usual, ready to be lavish but looking for a break. I spend some time with one of the agreeable Euros on tour. He has no money pressure on him and is happy, even-well adjusted, as they used to say so curiously – adjusted from what? Of course, his social safety net is absurdly good, and he’s likely being paid to have children as the richest European countries are suffering from the world’s worst birth rates as well as their own decadence; suicide tourism is their growth industry. He complains about the U.S., so well-off that his main problem is the food, while oblivious to how the world economy works, especially the U.S. economy works, to support his lifestyle. Yet he never even thought to contribute to the two-three game, designed to allow players of different income levels play together, because he’s consumed by pursuing money he doesn’t particularly need. The environment around him is Africa and he is a sporting gentleman with trophies and hides to gather… and gentlemen never hurry.
I need to hurry. I have been coming to the realization that I’m the bum, the local, the native. I was more like him back in the day – cleaner, better off, orderly. What happened to my Varvatos jacket and those handmade shoes?
Instead, I’m about to start shopping for jogging suits. Did I wear long underwear to get coffee the other week? To the Wynn?
Let’s not think about that, because there are other signs and signifiers. What’s funny is I’m playing a bit better again, if cautiously. I rue my splashy style of the first year here, where I punted hard in some bad spots and really, some just boring, normal spots: someone always has to run badly. Now I’m more restrained and I know they know I’m bluffing less in some cases. A pointlessly nasty and unsocial reg folds a straight to me and shows me in contempt; I’ve bluffed here so often but it’s true not tonight. (I flash back further to the first days here, when that absolute gremlin at Caesar’s didn’t like my line, his flavor saver trembling and bobbing in outrage, his skull ready to pop like a kernel.) It makes it harder to get paid when I have to win, every time. Yes, I pot control turns more, I take more passive lines because I know they are both acceptable and safer, but that means the frequency of big pots has declined and huge nights are rarer. Squeezes I made in 2021 are now flats and folds. It’s hard to blame me – a string of aggressive, bold nights in January at meaningful stakes left me in the middle of an untimely 20k downswing, not even the nadir of what it would become.
How small it seems to the reader, all things given, but when you’re at the bottom, every dollar matters. I’m having trouble getting used to it. In the horror of a bright day in a Summerlin strip mall, I hand a hundred to a dislocated homeless man, in defiance of my situation and to remind myself of how I behave, how I’ve always run my life since the day I put aside resumes and cubicles. He amuses me by saying he should have asked for five hundred and doesn’t thank me.
I smirk and go inside the Korean fast-food resto that caught my eye. I’m no happy Euro but still sharp enough to learn it’s terrible: what’s with the mountain of rice and noodles? I want the twenty for this travesty back more than the hundo. I sift through the pile of carbs and low-grade beef: today the world is trash, a fight for the top of a heap of garbage. Am I going to run into the five-hundred dollar homeless man on the way out? Do you want some noodles to flavor your rice?
I remember the worst days of my life, but they weren’t the homeless period. Losing your home is a challenge, and I managed it deftly, getting myself into a place in a new city within a couple of months. There was only one night, when I slept on the tennis courts on which I once played with the aspiring brahmins of that wealthy city, that I let pity sweep over me. The time wouldn’t pass, and it became colder than I expected; looking up at the brutalist-inspired gym building somehow made it worse, as if even the commie blocks weren’t good enough to save all the losers. I couldn’t sleep and it soon became so lamentable that I seemed to leave my body, an alternate angel or spirit evaluating my choices. Probably just the urge to get the fuck up.
That was chilling and sad, these nights aren’t. These nights in the casino poker rooms are long and sickly warm and full of bad breath and cigarette smoke, and yet never, ever long enough. I drain the coffee pots of their worst, acidic porridge; their phosphate-laden “cream” is my protein and fat. Every blind I fumble away is the despair, not the darkness or the bare night sky. A hero call that works out is salvation, a missed continuation bet in an ambiguous spot is misery. I’m ready for my bailout, but that’s not real or truthful, that’s someone’s L.A. fantasy, his San Diego suburban e-girl, his own homeless night under the sky.
Dawn. I am still not ready to go back. I’ll find a breakfast I don’t need or a beer I can’t handle – is it the end of the day or the beginning, and does it matter? The streets are clear, though, and life is easy. There’s no rush hour here, no moral reminder of what others are doing. The best of Las Vegas isn’t necessarily the poison and sweat of gambling, but the sun they hide from: the clean, hopeful light of day shared by all and which knows no currency. It’s the hills we don’t visit and the big sky country beyond. It’s driving west, not with the wind at your back, but that vigilant and bracing sun behind you, both of you looking to the heady and cool mountains, and that promising coast that so many risked everything for.
Well, sometime soon. It’s five a.m. and I’m not nearly done, I’m not leaving. There’s nothing young around here, nothing to ignite hope, not me, not them, not even the night – but I’m not leaving. A hardened gambler I know, aging into a ghost, as we all do, falling through his forties carelessly and foolishly, emerges from the blinking and restless slots, the digital garden of Alzheimer’s. Is that a jogging suit? We don’t say hello, but he flashes me the peace sign and moves on to whatever’s next.
No one is outlasting me tonight.