By Joe Speaker © 2005
A thick haze hung over the Las Vegas like a shroud. Dank brown, almost black, it obscured even the gaudiest of the city's iconic buildings. "Looks like the Apocalypse is early," I muttered to myself as I descended into its heart.
As I drove, I could feel its weight pressing down on me, even as the skyline came slowly into focus. It was forbidding, negating the usual promise of action, the standard rush of adrenaline. Normally, my anticipation would rise to critical mass as I neared the city limits. This time, that excitement was crowded out. Something else rushed in.
I could feel it coagulating in my bones.
Trepidation remained an hour later. I sensed a similar haze lingering over the Excalibur poker room. I had selected the eight seat in a $2-$6 spread limit game, wedged between a pair of players. To my right, an older, genial gentleman with towers of chips, ascending in height like bars on a cell phone. He was fully charged. On my left, a dead ringer for actor Nick Stahl, though he said his name was Kevin. Nick/Kevin was sullen and unkempt, bent over his chips and mumbling derisively. I sat uncomfortably – claustrophobic - with my shoulders and elbows jammed inward, never moving except to throw another hand away. A practice I continued for 15 minutes.
When I first arrived at the hotel, I lugged my doubt over to the poker room. I leaned self-consciously on the rail, looking for signs. What exactly, I couldn't say. I saw nothing to lift me from my gloom.
I had lay awake several nights in the past two weeks, eager for this moment. I envisioned a boisterous bacchanal, chips flying, ice cubes clinking, laughter and despair in equal measure. Instead, I saw serious faces and rigid spines. Skepticism greeted every movement. Every bet spawned a silent and thorough interrogation.
As I walked away, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. How could I think that I, someone so new to the game, someone who had usually played against the endless and faceless online, had any business being here. In real life. In a Las Vegas poker room. I chastised myself inside my head.
I peeked at my cards almost hoping to again throw them away. "I'm not ready for this," I thought. "I'm in over my head. I need more study."
My hand revealed ace and jack of spades. On my action, I recklessly pulled a pair of chips from my stack, nearly toppling it in the process.
"Why are you shaking?" Nick/Kevin sneered. He eyed me contemptuously from below, hunched over his chips like a squirrel guarding his acorns. I ignored him. Not that there was sufficient saliva in my mouth to croak a response. I know why I'm shaking. He doesn't have to. I pressed my fingertips against the felt in a vague attempt to quiet the tremors.
"Four players," the dealer declares, and turns the flop: Ace of hearts, king of spades, five of diamonds. I exhale, only now realizing I'd been holding my breath, and immediately hope it wasn't audible. Two players check to me and I can barely remain inside my skin.
"I bet. Six dollars."
I throw the blue chips out there quickly, one stack of three and sliding three more toward the pot in a nice straight line. Hey, good form.
Nick/Kevin punctuates his call: "You're still shaking."
In all honesty, I had played live Hold 'Em before, back when I first caught the itch for the game. But I really didn't have a concept of the game then. I was having fun, like a golf game with your drinking buddies. But this...this was something different. I have something at stake now. Hours of reading poker books. Tens of thousands of online hands. A reputation to uphold, even if it's merely a reputation I've hung on myself. This is for me. Can I play this game? For a couple months, I've been of the firm belief that I can. What if I'm wrong?
Only three of us now, and the dealer flips the turn card: Jack of diamonds. My heart starts thundering in my chest. I look down, almost expecting to see it visibly fluttering my shirt. I belatedly realize I've just made a mistake, exposed a tell.
"You like that jack, huh?" Nick/Kevin says. It's not really a question. Checked to me and I bet again. He nods to himself, "Yep, you like that jack," and folds.
The three seat, to this point only existing on the periphery of my universe, calls the bet. I finally fixate on him, Nick/Kevin's mumbling fading into the background. He's older, probably his 50s, with the deep tan of a man who works outdoors. He's wearing huge mirrored sunglasses and is far too bald to try salvaging a hairdo, which hasn't stopped him from trying. I stare straight at him with what I hope appears to be confidence. In fact, I can almost convince myself that it is. My gut churns, but for the first time, my mind is calm.
"Two players," the dealer notes and drops a meaningless 4 of spades on the river. My mind flashes, "No flush for ..."
My thought is interrupted as he reaches for chips. I take a momentary pause. Two check-calls and then he bets into me with a seeming rag on the river? What the hell is this? Could he have just check-called Broadway on the turn? Sat quietly on his Big Slick waiting to pounce?
I'm knocked off stride. My vision of how this hand ends has just been corrupted. It's all I can do to keep from shaking my head and showing my confusion. I can't solve this riddle, so I throw out my six chips and ask for the answer.
"Pair of Kings," the man says and I'm certain I'm not hearing him clearly. I lean over the table for a closer look at his cards.
King. Two. Off.
I hurriedly grab my cards and hurl them at the felt. "Two pair," the dealer says from far away. "Aces and jacks." He pushes the pot my way as my head swims. I can't suppress the grin. I don't even think I want to.
"I knew you liked that jack," someone says.
Joe Speaker is a poker- and soccer-playing ne'er-do-well from the godforsaken desert east of Los Angeles. He is universally unpublished and generally pissed off about that fact. He enjoys long walks on the beach and seeing the sun come up through the front doors of the local Indian casino. He's married and has a three-year-old son. You can visit him at The Obituarium.