Up, high among the shadowy beams of the ceiling or an unclear memory, I see or imagine a fan spinning so deliberately that I’d be wiser to say it was turning.
An illusion of memory, though - and of a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit. In reality, light poured in from the skylit atrium, that open interior the ancients passed down to us, among their many gifts.
I know for certain, on the other hand, that a Mexican family, at the only occupied table in the visible two-thirds of the restaurant, was enjoying a communal meal. Their bald and mustachioed patriarch, worried, tired, thin, with the better joys of his life behind him and that frozen face, kept an upright, wordless survey on his chirping girls and a nursing young woman. Perhaps she was the eldest or a niece; there was a significant gap in age from the children. Where was the mother, or could that young woman possibly be her? What explained the variance in ages? Was it the ravages of the border economy? An unfortunate illness? Or maybe just a needed “me” day at the Painted Claws Salon?
Bounty for the missing patronage was spread across a row of tables: an enticing, herbed and oiled buffet of the cheery cuisine of our restive neighbor to the south. Real life demands an appropriate reaction – turn on the local Spanish language radio station and you will hear the plaintive and the cheerful, turn on the music of our semi-first world paradise and we hear the decadent and the trivial. (More gifts passed down too – that salsa once merely meant witty or spicy, and now settles comfortably on a hopefully fresh mixture of tomato and jalapeno and cilantro.) I was encouraged to buy a plate, did so, and then was immediately told the buffet was over and should hurry.
That fan turned indifferently as well.
Then I saw it – the main lobby led to a raised dining area in the back, where a wave from an umbral but familiar figure, stout and tall, greeted me. Now I know why I was thinking of darkness and space and fans and salons – the twilight memory of so many nights of drinks and discussion in the natural “third places” of many a restless if unsober mind.
However, there would be no drinking here (of any sort, as it would turn out): this was serious business. Leaving the happy family tableau to their chirping and nursing, I marched into the pitch.
How did I end up at Ricardo’s in the late afternoon, home of Las Vegas’ notorious Wednesday Poker Discussion Group?
It was midway through the WSOP trip when I stayed with Jason for a few days at the Linq. We’d played in different games but nearby Caesar’s called to him, a convenience of two of his favorite things in the world – poker and properly cooked Alaskan crab legs. When he’d returned from a satisfactory session, Jason recounted running across a classic Vegas character – the local reg nit.
This particular muscled, square-headed, low-browed, and tattooed fellow, a greying and grumpy sea dog of the sand, had performed the inevitable min-raise with poker’s best hand (nits have no bluffing frequency so they occasionally stumble upon one of the laws of bet sizing through the castrated levels of action they get or should get), allowing a natural setmine and had been stacked. Poker has many comedies that must be repeated, and not only is this one, but so was his aria of lament afterward.
Vesti la giubba, Pagliaccio.
So the next day when I decided to sit in with Jason at 1/2, there among us was our meaty clown, grim and ready, with an odd three-quarters stack.
“That’s him,” Jason whispered.
I have many weaknesses in life and, more relevantly, poker. In the forums, I’m most easily exasperated by those who feign misunderstanding in order to bait, or those concept nits who need pat binary answers they can plug into Poker Scrunchie. At the table, on the other hand, what I really can’t take are whiners. So, a true fake genuine Vegas nit and whiner seems about as odious a combination as I can imagine.
I picked up two reds and introduced myself to the players around me.
I waved the chips hypnotically. “This is yours if you felt the guy with the tattoos.”
I placed them next to my stack, separate, and nodded at them. A mere five bbs, but the incentive was better than any dead money a straddle-brain can induce.
People love a challenge but still need leadership.
Pagliaccio, furthermore, did not disappoint. First he put in an early position raise, check-called the turn and check-folded the river to one of my purchased agents. Pagliaccio flipped up two aces to show how good he was and sent them into the bitter muck.
This guy really is a clown.
Meanwhile, I gave action and ran up a stack. Pagliaccio and a simpering apprentice, a hoodied, grubby, and stooped twenty-four year-old going on sixty-two, complained about the action Jason, me and my new henchmen were driving. I bluffed them both out. I showed cards. We had a fun time. While my mercenaries couldn’t felt their target, a player on his own end of the table did take a big chunk from Pagliaccio. Our clown berated his opponent and called over the floor, who he clearly was familiar with from his tone and use of a first name, and got a table change.
Do you want a setup with that?
I’d say mission accomplished. I told the guy who hurt Pagliaccio what I’d been up to, and tossed him the five dollars chips in unowed compensation. The session soon played out and my date at Ricardo’s neared.
That shadowy wave from the back of the restaurant was from Bill, a student and friend. He’d wanted me to come primarily to hear Robbie Strazynski, the founder of Cardplayerlifestyle.com, an ambitious blog that has evolved into an alternative poker news, strategy “tips,” and opinion site, the latter being the best of his work. Bill also wanted to see what I’d think of the group, which for a long time had been a part of his poker routine.
I sat down and Bill introduced me to his friends. Pleasant folks, mostly retirees, math and science types. The room was large and could fit at least seventy-five; as members came in I wondered just how many would make the air-conditioned journey for a burrito, a hyper-enthusiastic speaker and their fabled strategy talk. Robbie and I embraced, knowing each other through the small world of poker writing.
Then I saw someone else, and my skin crawled: there was Pagliaccio, all muscles and tattoos and aces!
But… of course. Nothing is a coincidence in this world. He sat alone with a misanthropic scowl of defiance.
The meeting began. A short and neat man with a short cropped hair cut and the grave air of a steward introduced Robbie. For the next hour and a half, Robbie babbled cheerfully at 2x speed, his poker thyroid out of control. I learned more about him and his website than I ever wanted to. I also got to reflect on the contradictory nature of the best of humanity. Robbie has done great things and deserves success. If you love the poker world, you'll get a lot out of his site. As a person, he is humble, dedicated and lovable, yet couldn’t help but remind us that he was “one of the chosen people.” It’s interesting, because it is a paradox that many of the hardest working and best among us require some supporting belief for their humility but one which is simultaneously outrageous in its conceit.
The unchosen listened with increasing restlessness, however. It was past the time to wrap up, and patient faces had grown longer. We ended with some incredible questions that Robbie could have no reasonable answer to- a portent of what was to come. Notably, one curious fellow didn’t seem to have any compunction about taking a phone call in the middle of the speech – perhaps he was chosen, too. Loudly and indifferently he responded and talked until an upset organizer shuffled him off.
It was time for the strategy presentation. While Robbie doled out promotional “gifts,” a neat fifty-year-old took the mic and a co-organizer readied the projector. I’d been here nearly two hours and was surreptitiously looking for a waiter– I was parched. A withered employee stood in the corner, fiddling with some glasses and a pitcher of water. I made eye contact with him, but he merely opened his mouth, wrinkled his forehead a bit, and went back to his busy work.
“He’s worked here for thirty-five years,” Bill told me. Well, he’s not getting work anywhere else like this, I supposed.
Then the heavy thud of the mic took over. Our grave host announced the question of the day, an apparently
compelling scenario that “we all knew.”
“We open two kings and in position an unknown player min-raises us.”
The cabal had finally reached its purpose. As Doug Hull termed it, the granddaddy of poker discussion groups was about to open its books.
“But there’s a complication: The small blind folds and exposes his hand. He has a king. Then the big blind folds and exposes his hand by accident as well – he has an ace.”
What the hell is this?
“What do we do?” the host breathed into the mic. Bass and garble echoed. Why do Americans love using sound equipment when it’s clearly not needed?
Hands shot up. The room was now full. Middle-aged and older men and women were in booths and at tables. Some of their faces seemed familiar. Had I seen them in videos or on the walls of some casino? I couldn’t place who any of them were, but instinctively knew I should.
Members shouted out answers.
The host took back the initiative, still breathing heavily into the unnecessary mic. “I hope you all know enough to just call.”
Really. Well, not everyone agreed. One member offered a contrary opinion:
“I would fold! This isn’t a good situation.”
Then a dignified man with a moustache – who we’ll call Troy Booke to completely disguise him, demurred. “What about value? What about pocket queens, pocket tens… Poker is gambling.”
I liked this man immediately, he understood the game. I also liked his tone, but in it I felt a decade of effort. A weariness: he’d said this before. He trailed off, not expecting to be listened to.
I understood, all at once, the Wednesday Poker and Burrito Night from Troy Booke’s tone.
Then, another man, aggressive, one with a little rage and with a raggedy red and white beard, took over.
“There’s no value in raising! Pocket queens will fold if we raise!”
This fellow was not so sympathetic. I looked over at Pagliaccio, and realized I was uncomfortable. I was in the heart of a place that I didn’t belong, the center of the conspiracy to make the games in Vegas bad. This room, the back of a strip mall restaurant, is where everything I’ve inveighed against happens.
Yet who had just min-raised aces? Who wins, Pagliaccio or me?
Our game is relational. If we conserve our equity and always attempt to have the best of it one hundred percent of the time - even in this absurd example, a very a real one to those self-trapped in the one-dimensional world of best-handing tourists - we strangle the action. We spend hours arguing over microedges. We have a poorer strategy that never goes anywhere and never rises to newer, more fascinating challenges. This advantage of trying to ensure that we always have the best cards, which the saint of creative poker Andrew Seidman called the first and least important edge a player can have, does little in the long run for the player or his ecosystem.
There is no hope in this approach. There is no joy in this poker world. It is a flat, dry, empty and waterless land.
The air remained stagnant, despite the imaginary fan. I looked hopelessly for the waiter. Scanning the restaurant, I could see that the happy Mexican family had departed and only the WPDG members remained. The employees became more serious, indifferent and accustomed to the curious group they hosted every week, every month, every year. These were frugal clients, too, wise to every dollar. They ordered little: it suddenly dawned on me why the old dude wasn’t going to serve me.
Meanwhile, the strategy host tried to keep the group focused by laying out a series of scenarios. “There’s a queen on the flop…”
“Well now we don’t beat anything!” came a shout. “Check-fold.”
“We shouldn’t have called in the first place,” announced the original folder, smugly satisfied.
I kicked at the chair leg in front of me. I needed to pass the time and stay low. However, Bill was having none of it. He’s a sharp old coot, one whose quiet, successful career, life, and politics speak to the dignity of the individual. In an age of grievance politics, identity whoring, and self-righteous triviality disguised as virtue, he keeps his own counsel.
However, the august among us often enjoy the defects of their earned indifference to puerile social pressure. In an unintentionally loud voice, BIll abruptly announced to me:
“This is why I don’t come here much anymore!”
Eyes shot my way. I didn’t know whether to laugh or hope the cabal’s attention wouldn’t find me. Fortunately, the conversation droned on while I sat frozen. The host’s lips remained stuck to the mic. I could sense his heartbeat. I squirmed and wanted to leave.
However, it was at that exact moment that my natural vocation as poker educator got the best of me. While the group discussed all the ways which they were beat, I realized something, something that keeps me writing, keeps me in the poker forums, and keeps me in a half-dozen poker chat groups:
I can’t help myself.
There was only one guardian who could stop me. I asked Bill, “Should I say something?”
Please say no.
Bill, this is where you say, no.
“Yes,” Bill urged, in that commanding tone of someone who isn’t making an order but knows what he is talking about. Goddamn you and your integrity, Bill.
Time to come out of the shadows. I raised my hand while the conversation had steered back to the preflop value.
The host pointed to me, and I began.
“There is something very wrong here. We can’t discuss this hand in the way you are doing it. If you can’t raise kings, it’s not the problem of your hand or the min-raise, it’s because there is something wrong with your strategy.”
The voices in the room stopped. I continued.
“You should be trying to felt this hand and to encourage the raiser to come along. But you can’t do that if the presumption is you can only call with kings, because if queens are folding it means your frequencies are all off…”
The silence had been just temporary and now the storm of voices began, redoubled in energy.
“That’s not how to play the game!” Raging Beard was across the table from me, but was now shouting. “No one at one-two raises anything less than aces here if they like money!”
I continued my argument. “It’s not a disaster if you felt versus the occasional aces, but it is a disaster if no one can play any hands beyond aces for multiple raises. You’ll get that money back in the reciprocal scenario, and gain in all the other opportunities to get value or win with a bluff. These frequencies being proposed here are exactly what makes the games in this city bad.”
The room remained silent, but this inflamed Raging Beard, who would hear no such blasphemy here in Castle Nit. He seized on the micro argument. “Balance is NOT needed in low-stakes cash games. If you read my article in Poker News…”
I cut this one-off at the pass. “I’m not talking about raising for balance. Balance is the natural result of a well-constructed strategy. You don’t do things for balance’s sake.”
However, this was too much heresy, apparently, because the meeting suddenly both exploded and collapsed. The host tried to single out members to respond but everyone was talking at once. Raging Beard leapt up from his chair to confront me.
“We have covered this before…” the host's voice waned and waxed at once, frustrated: his control, and the meeting itself, was effectively over. I stood up to leave, but Raging Beard and several others surrounded me.
“This is a bad idea. This is not how it is!” my Poker News antagonist admonished. Raging Beard waved his index finger in my face while suggesting I could damage the poker lives of the believers in the room with my carelessness.
I've never liked being pointed at; duels have been fought over less. However, I was saved. None other than Impolite Cell Phone Guy suddenly reappeared!
“I agree with what he’s saying,” my unexpected champion declared.
“You would…” countered my persecutor.
Raging Beard of Poker News and Impolite Cell Phone Guy argued. I packed up my things, rescued by an unexpected savior. I escaped from the building and waited for Bill outside. However, true to his character, he was taking his time.
I smiled weakly as the members filed out and stared at me. Pagliaccio trundled by, avoiding my glance and looking war-weary. In truth, my issue with him and his kind was over, if only for today. I’ve written about them before, but seeing the enemy up close, in his home country, in his very citadel tower at the Small Counsel of Nit’s Landing, provided a new perspective. Maybe these guys just don’t see what to do or what is good for everyone.
One however, chose not to avoid me. A serene woman in her sixties, dressed classic American comfortable, with the feathering hair and bright colors of the southwest, approached and greeted me. She’d been in a booth and seemed to have some standing in the group. Graciously she wished me well.
“I hope you return next week and tell us more of your ‘theories.’”
I thanked her for her mysterious farewell and she disappeared, smiling, into the burning afternoon parking lot. The ceaseless Nevada sun blurred and crisped the air.
I felt better about speaking. The welcome of women is important – they hold the keys to society, they ameliorate the bombast of men and their inborn stubbornness which creates and destroys. It’s not Pagliaccio who will help make the games fun for tourists and everyone by expanding their strategy, but people like her, who have the patience to humor jesters like myself and perhaps find the heart of the matter on the lips of the fool, because they understand behavior and how politesse opens the mind. Nevertheless, I won’t be coming back to this amazing, troublesome little Flat Earth Society, if only because I’m no resident of Las Vegas.
Bill had been right about me needing to speak, however calamitous. Sometimes, whether Canio or Nedda or Silvio, we just have to play our role and it means nothing beyond that.
Or...maybe something more real was beginning to slowly turn? Could my "theories" add up to something?
La commedia del poker non è mai finita.