The reinforced door to the host’s apartment is being repeatedly struck and will soon be destroyed; small pieces of it fly into the hallway. A hinge snaps. The players are frozen by the unsettling combination of the loudness of the battering ram and the silence of the intruders behind it. I look at the high window but it’s several stories down: futile. There is no other way out. The host gives up trying to stop them and tries to make the most of the remaining seconds. He orders his wife, pregnant and delicate, to go into the bedroom, but she simply sits petrified on the chair she’s been watching the game from. All of us are frozen, in fact. The group of poker players watch the entryway in unison.
The door comes off its last hinge and collapses. A heavy, black metal pipe pushes briefly in, then back, and the chaos begins. Handguns first, three police officers enter, wearing armor and one of them a helmet. The lead officer, young and fit like a soldier, shouts to everyone, “Put your hands on the table and lay down. Down on the table hands out!” Everyone complies immediately. I lay my head so that I can watch the entrance. The officers are certainly not understaffed and have taken no risks. More of them stream into the apartment, all with sidearms raised and aimed at the group.
“Put your hands behind you!” Every player is handcuffed. The officers are not satisfied with their personal safety however, continuing to point their pistols at the helpless and prone players, now face down on the felt like cards. The trampling in of officers is over, but they begin to talk amidst themselves. Radio chatter buzzes and clicks. The world cup plays on.
Once everyone is secured with the raid slows down. The players stare at each other, trying to find a reaction that makes sense. I worry it’s a shake down and not only will my table stake be confiscated, but the remaining grand in my wallet might be worth some cop’s while. No doubt the others are wondering the same thing. I go through the if onlys… if only I stayed and looked at natural history… if only I didn’t buy in again… if only I hadn’t stacked off with tens… (The poker player in you never goes away.)
Meanwhile, the host is taken back to the hallway where the bank is kept; presumably he’s the one facing the most serious consequences, and we all know it, even though in aggregate the players are losing the most. Or are they? Three of my opponents are employees and I've kept out of the way of soft play and collusion so far, but it might go deeper, despite amiable appearances. I’m in over my head, after all.
Despite the drama, a small period of tense boredom sets in. While the cops scavenge the place for drugs or anything to further incriminate, I find myself looking over the policemen, one younger and one much older, a true Dennis Farina type, stringy and muscled, with decrepit old tattoos on his husky forearms. He’s got the big, near bouffant, head of grey hair and a matching moustache. However, I don’t want to call attention to myself, so I let my eyes settle on the world cup game, Honduras vs. Ecuador, locked up at one-one. The host had in fact made a grand betting on France; there’ some consolation for him: the money presumably is not in the apartment.
The players are silent, but we’re both soon distracted by a younger cop barking at a finance guy I stacked the time before. The guy is twisting away and in pain; he asks if the cuffs can be redone, but this is refused. Later I observe he’s the one guy to be victim of a less experienced or crueler officer: his wrists are behind him and parallel, unlike the rest of us with a more normal limbs pointed down configuration.
Between moans from the suffering player, silence and soccer is the rule for a few more minutes. There are at least six and maybe as many as nine policemen, and they end up breaking the mournful quiet at the table and the ridiculous chorus of discordant vuvuzelas from the television by setting off some sort of alarm; I suspect it is a safe or the intrusion device. When that is turned off, the host is returned to his seat at the poker table, still cuffed. He does not look happy but is not hysterical at all, and seems, I notice, to be feeling sorry for the players, an attitude worthwhile to note.
It would become a serious time for me, however, but for one detail: many of the cops are wearing body armor, but the ones who remove their vest or are not wearing it, have Vice Squad t-shirts on. That’s when my sense of irony returns to me. This is a ridiculous moment and an absurd abrogation of our basic rights to assemble and pursue our own course of pleasure in privacy, with the locale and taxes paid. These fellows may be enforcement officers of the state, but they are as much stooges and phonies as anyone else, any bureaucrat, any criminal. The final organization of society is always through power, no matter what system you are on the side of or in, and now our game has been ruined by the intolerance of the hierarchy of our betters who hypocritically have no patience for the pastimes of their charges. Our snug surroundings don’t even qualify us for the “broken windows” theory of social recrimination. So many celebrities, historical figures, and most of all, the politicians who shape our legalities, have enjoyed and even bragged of their poker prowess and extolled its essential Americanness. Vice indeed.
So what happens next is fitting and therefore should be not surprising, but it still will be a shock for some of you. While the world cup plays on the screen, the lead officers and the detective interrogate the host. The officers are led to the bank box, which was accounted for in a separate room. They empty it, but aren’t satisfied by absconding with the players’ buy ins. They interrogate the host further, who is at first unsure he should comply. However, the undertone of the threat surfaces. This will generally work when your companions are in chains, your pregnant wife is in tears (clearly on the edge of a breakdown), and your aggressor is armed with deadly force. After a few more persuasions, the host leads them back into his bedroom. The sounds of movement and commotion ensue. Something is being sought, violently and quickly.
This takes a while. I glance around the room. Most of the players are now watching the World Cup, tipping their head upwards. One cop, bored, joins in. No Chips looks upset and scared. Tears stream down the face of the player with the misapplied cuffs. Finally he cries out for help, and one irritated cop fusses with him for a few moments. Unfortunately, he informs him, he’ll just have to wait.
When the noise in the bedroom is finished, some cops come and go. Now I’m getting restless and instinctively test the strength of the handcuffs; yeah, those are going to work. Farina and the lead officer discuss something in low and urgent voices. The door is left open, and a signal given. One by one, the players are uncuffed and led to the bedroom, where a line is formed. I’m one of the last to go, so I sit and absurdly watch the World Cup along with the bored officer.
Farina pulls the host aside yet again. I can only make out the tones and a few intermittent words, but I am getting the idea: Is there more money? I glance at the Korean limp raiser, one of the remaining faces chin down on the table. I’m darkly amused that his limp raise tactic worked but his reward is taken. So I’ve got that going for me: all our chips are worthless. He stares at me blankly.
When I am finally led to the bedroom, I am horrified by the carelessness of the invasion team. They have upended the room in a completely unnecessary act of contempt for the host, scattering his belongings everywhere and tearing out the contents of his closet in order to better examine what they have been searching for: the safe, I realize, where the rest of the host’s personal money- who knows how much- is stored. Officers sit on his bed rudely, as if it is a sofa, and have scattered their paperwork over it.
No Chips is miserable and the others in front of me are cowed. I ask them what is going to happen, and I get the attention of a junior, perhaps Puerto Rican officer, who is collecting our licenses. He explains that we will have to go to court. He asks me why I can’t go to outside the city to play table games? He knows a legal place. I explain I like poker and not those things, but he doesn’t get it or seem to know the difference. He offers to give me a gambling addiction number which I smile at. He doesn’t like this so I have to back off. I’m still in cuffs, of course.
Now, his authority smirked at, he presses me and asks me if I am in other games. However, he’s not really a jerk, and we start to batter a little more after I tell him no, just passing through. I think his mumbling and my foreignness to his lingo makes the conversation somewhat confusing. He makes a comment about knowing some lawyers who play, which is funny. In one exchange he says something about “25 dollars a pop” but maybe I hear “a pot,” and I interpret it as a reference to the rake. I say I only play in small games. My implication that they are overdoing their job does not go past him, but I smile and deflect my own challenge enough to satisfy him. With your hands handcuffed behind you, confrontation doesn’t seem terribly useful in the moment, as much as I contradictorily wanted it.
Between chatting, another procedure is going down. The junior officer gets on the phone repeatedly; the four of us in the room who have had our backgrounds check come back “good,” meaning no outstanding arrest warrants. Each time he gets a negative he reports to Farina. I’m mildly surprised at the positivity of the language, but more surprised Farina’s reaction, who is genuinely relieved. Then, I get it. No one likes paperwork, and he is in charge. It is a Friday late afternoon, after all. I remember when I was more worried, while scanning the listings for games, that a Friday seemed likely for a bust: the cops would imagine that the game would be more filled. A positive warrant would mean hauling off someone to Rikers: effort, time, and yet more scribbling.
If I had been more of a nit, I could have skipped today: it’s Friday, the day I said I’d skip. Of course the vice squad has the principle of it wrong- there are no more players today than the days before, as it’s time to see family and girlfriends, or head to Atlantic City. In fact, two regulars have evaded trouble by leaving early; one to get ready for a tournament at the Borgata and the other for social reasons. More bad game selection by me.
At last I am brought to the end of the procession, where one of the lead officers is seated at the host’s desk. I am uncuffed. Despite what you see in movies, and of course contrary to the poor finance guy’s experience, they did not bind terribly and there was no need rub my wrists: all the relief was mental. He asks for my identity. He is startled to find that I am from out of state, which in turn startles me: I don’t know where any of this is going or what it is going to cost. It’s been a long afternoon of being threatened, handcuffed, and queries. I still have the rest of my trip’s roll in my wallet and am not free yet. I am imagining this is going to be an expensive episode in my life, aside from the money that has been confiscated. He hands me a pink slip of some sort and explains to me that I have a summons and that I will have to appear at such and such a date. I take a closer look, but see no mention of a fine. Court, no ticket- this is going to be a disaster. Will I need a lawyer? I need to know just what this is going to set me back.
I ask him what the fine will be. I hold my breath. No Chips and another player look over anxiously, equally curious.
The officer leans back in his chair, enjoying his moment of moral gravity and informational advantage. The punishment is going to be extraordinary, and he must weigh his answer carefully. This is no time for stock, desk jockey answers. Lives can be changed, justice done. It’s moments like this that made him go into law enforcement and serve his community. He puts his pen in his mouth briefly, then lays it down on the desk, furrows his brow, pushes his lips together thoughtfully, and looks me in the eye to prepare me for the terrible news:
“Seventy… five… dollars.”