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

The Kennel Club immediately reaped the benefits of the new limits. While the tracks don't have to report the amount bet in the card rooms, they are required to tell the state their gross revenue each month. By factoring in the Kennel Club's 10 percent take (up to a maximum of $4 on each pot), gross revenue reports show it was taking in $700,000 in bets a month before the rule change. In August, the first month of the new rules, using the same formula, gamblers made more than $1.7 million in bets. By December, the latest figures available, the betting reached above $2.6 million. By the end of 2004, the poker room is likely to see well over $30 million in bets, with the track taking a dollar for every $10 wagered. Meanwhile, the state tax revenue paid by the club has also quadrupled and will likely rise above $300,000 by year's end.

The rule changes turned the Kennel Club from a declining racetrack into a big-time moneymaker for its owners, the Rooney family, which became famous for founding the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the current pace of growth, the poker room may soon bring in more bets than the greyhounds. Gamblers put down $3.3 million in bets on live dog races in December, not much more than the action in the poker room.

The Kennel Club is now the state's most active racetrack-based poker room. There's even talk of expanding it, perhaps doubling the number of tables. "We'll have to wait and see," poker room manager Mamora says on a recent afternoon while trying to find spots for the 20 or so guys waiting for a table. He points his pinky ring out toward the bank of windows on the room's western side, which faces the racetrack. "I could see it going all the way out to the other wall, with a lot more tables and dealers and the whole shebang."

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.

It's a constant complaint from the gamblers, Mamora says. The poker room should stay open seven days a week and more hours in the day. State rules allow them to play poker only if dogs are racing, so expanding the poker room hours would mean an expensive expansion to dog racing. But customers will come if the expansion happens. They're here already, waiting in line every morning, crowding the waiting area by lunch, and filling the tables until midnight every night, except Tuesday.

At the apartment he shares with his girlfriend in the Century Village retirement community, King reaches under the coffee table for a yellow legal pad. "You see this?" he says, running a finger down columns of dates with corresponding dollar figures. "This here is my daily take." King became a regular at the poker room right after the rule change in August, and since then, he has written down his winnings or losses for every day on that yellow legal pad. There are a few days of losses and some where only a few bucks came in, but most days look good. "Let's not get too specific, hah?" he says, shoving the legal pad back under the coffee table.

Before August, King, like many of the current Kennel Club regulars, used to take gambling day cruises or drive an hour south to the Indian reservation casinos in Broward County. Then a few times a year, he would go to Biloxi or Las Vegas for a weekend of cards. But the travel time for all those other places can't compare. "I went to Vegas for a weekend," King says, "and you know how much I gambled? Seven and a half hours. That's it. It takes too long, with the shuttles from your hotel and all the bullcrap they throw at you. It's 4.1 miles from my door to the Kennel Club. You can't beat that."

Gambling has always been a job for King. "I got out of the service in '62. Had no idea what to do with my life," he says. He went to barber school and owned some businesses, but always, he went back to playing cards for a living. "My ma, she says, 'Jimmy, what am I gonna tell people that you do?' I says, 'Ma, tell them I play cards, because that' s what I do. '" So every morning, King heads to the track. Every day, he wears the track shorts with the stripes down the side. He has 16 identical pairs, eight in black and eight in blue. He fills one pocket of his warmup jacket full of handy wipes and puts a handful of mints in the other pocket. He passes them out once in a while. "I buy them in bulk now," he says, pulling out a massive bag of mints from a cabinet in the simply decorated living room. Between hands, King takes laps around the poker room or makes a brisk walk to the water cooler. He's timed the walks so he can make it back before the next deal. He likes to sit still as much as he likes to lose money.

In the Texas Hold-'em games played at the Kennel Club, only one player per hand has to ante $1, and each player takes turns putting up the "blind" bid. The dealer begins the game by giving each player two cards facedown, and usually, the smart move is to get out of the game before the first round of betting. Most stay in with at least a pair of tens or perhaps just a king or an ace. Like every pro who walks away a winner regularly, King says his secret is endurance. He once went 2 hours and 40 minutes without staying in on a hand. "I have patience," he says, "and I have discipline. I want them to come to me."

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