Grinders

With bigger pots at stake in the track poker rooms, the workaday pros are lining up to get in

Jimmy King leans forward over the poker table with his arms crossed in front of him and glares at the few dollars in the pot, counting what he'll win. Tight poker players like King, who go to the casinos every day just to scratch out enough for a modest living, don't stay in if it isn't worth their time. So every pot, every single dollar he bets, has to be worth the winnings. "Two dollahs more," he says in his Massachusetts accent. "Who's in?" The bet is four bucks now, and eight out of the nine card players foolishly match his raise.

There might be eight other players in, but every one of them stares warily at King. Here in the poker room at the Palm Beach Kennel Club dog track, King is the local card shark. He doesn't look like one at first glance. He's wearing a gray T-shirt over a plaid dress shirt; both are tucked into running shorts with three white stripes down each leg. King's 62 years old, but he has few wrinkles across a modestly handsome face and a full head of curly black hair that crowns at the top of his forehead. As he leans across the table, he grimaces slightly, the right corner of his mouth arching confidently upward, in a way that could easily be mistaken for a bluff.

"Oh, King's in this time -- can you believe that?" dealer Bruce Smith says as he places three cards face up on the green felt. There's a two, a four, and a nine, all of different suits. A pretty terrible flop, as it's called in Texas Hold-'em. The players can use those three community cards to build a hand with the two cards dealt facedown to each of them at the beginning of the game. Two more communal cards will come out after rounds of betting, the last one mysteriously called "The River." But, if King's in, it usually doesn't get that far.

Colby Katz
Palm Beach card shark Jimmy King (left), the crowded Kennel Club poker room where he clocks in every day (middle). At right is card room manager Carmine Mamora.
Colby Katz
Palm Beach card shark Jimmy King (left), the crowded Kennel Club poker room where he clocks in every day (middle). At right is card room manager Carmine Mamora.

"All right," King says, throwing a pair of chips into the pot. "Two more. Who' s in?" Across from King, wearing a cream-colored Panama hat, sits 77-year-old Jack Pyms. A retired real estate agent with a condo in Palm Beach, he wears the hat so often that he introduces himself simply as Panama Jack. But most of the regulars know him better as the guy who plays just about every hand he's dealt, as if he doesn't care about blowing his money. He's toying with a pair of chips in his left hand, deciding whether to match King's bet. The sleeves of his gold dress shirt, sticking out of a tweed jacket, shine from heavy starch. "Not me," Panama Jack says, flipping his cards to the dealer. One by one, everyone else but King drops out.

"Everyone's out?" the dealer asks. "What's up with that, Jimmy? Is it out of respect, or do they know they don't want to face you?"

King stays silent. He's never one to brag. The dealer pushes him the modest pot -- about $25 -- and King uses both hands to merge it with the bulging pile in front of him. It's only a quarter till 1 in the afternoon on a recent Wednesday and already King has the biggest pile of chips in the room. There are 24 tables going with ten players at each in the Kennel Club's poker room. Another dozen men are waiting for spots to open up. And this is a slow day.

In just six months, the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach has become one of Florida's most popular places to play poker. A new state law that took effect in August allowed greyhound and horse tracks across the state to up the stakes in their poker rooms. No longer are bets limited to 50 cents and pots no longer cut off at $10. Now, there's no limit on pots (the big ones can get up to triple digits now), and bets have risen to $2 and $4, attracting a new class of serious gamblers -- and those who should know better.

The once slow-moving clientele of mostly retirees with time on their hands has become a diverse daily crowd of dedicated gamblers, who can be anything from hardened poker pros to young out-of-work dot.com execs to thrill-seeking tourists, with a lot of retirees in the mix too.

The stakes may still be lower than those at the casinos and gambling ships, but regulars say a skilled player can pull in $200 a day. When augmented with the occasional trip to Vegas, nights on cruise boats, and Internet gambling tournaments, it's not a bad living -- especially since Uncle Sam isn't included. (The IRS doesn't come after gamblers unless they win $600, which hasn't happened at the Kennel Club.) The Kennel Club also benefits from two simple features: a good location and low prices. While dog tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties compete with casinos on the Indian reservations, the Kennel Club is the only place to play poker on dry land between Broward County and Daytona Beach. And in terms of the house take, it's a real bargain. The Kennel Club takes only 10 percent of each pot, while most others take 15 percent. The business plan has worked like ice water in the Sahara. Since the law change last fall, the Kennel Club's poker room has seen its business quadruple; gamblers are now betting more than $2.5 million a month.

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