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

King's not alone in looking at the poker room as a way to make some steady money. It's not hard to find players there who talk of gambling for a living. A lot of them are retirement age and say the poker room is now their way to pay the bills. Pam Cordova learned poker a few years ago when she and husband Paul started playing with other couples. Now in their 60s, the Cordovas come every day to the poker room, driving 53 miles each way from Port St. Lucie. "If we have a really good day, maybe $200 apiece or something, we'll stick it in the sock drawer," says Pam, a grandmotherly looking woman who plays seven-card stud. "I don't kid around with this game, though. If you bluff me once, you won't do it again."

More frequently nowadays, the pro players are in their 20s, having watched the World Series of Poker on TV and dreamed of their own fame from playing cards. Eight months ago, Deryk Weber of Palm Beach Gardens spent his days as a commodities trader. His firm went under, and at 22 years old, Weber changed professions. "I sort of gamble for a living," he says on a recent afternoon while taking a break from the cards and watching the dogs get ready to run on the track outside. Wearing faded jeans, a red T-shirt, and a Nike baseball hat pulled to his eyebrows, Weber doesn't fit the stereotype of a full-time gambler. But he does little else. He uses his own money now to buy commodities, spending maybe a couple of hours a day researching world markets. He watches the euro mainly, buying when it's down. Then, he goes to his other job, playing cards. Weber goes to the Kennel Club in the afternoon, the Palm Beach Princess gambling ship at night, then fills downtime with Internet casinos. "I'm a numbers person," he says. "I run numbers on everything. What's the possibility that this can happen? What is the chance that I can win this hand with these cards? If the numbers work, then I win."

It may take a professor to illustrate this. Or maybe the assistant basketball coach at Palm Beach Community College, Brian Mullican. He goes almost every day to the Kennel Club for what he says has become his second income. Playing recently at King's table, Mullican admits he was awful in math but somehow figured out the statistics of cards. In seconds, he can deduce the statistical probability that his hand will win or lose, based on what's showing in the community cards. He says it works like this: Suppose you get two hearts in the "hole," the two cards dealt facedown at first. Then two more hearts come out in the flop, the community cards anyone can use. That's nearly a flush (five cards of one suit, a good hand in poker). But then you have to calculate that only nine hearts remain. The deck is about half its original size, meaning there might be only four hearts left. "That's something like a 13 percent chance that a heart will come up," Mullican explains. "Not very good odds that you'll win."

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.

Mullican's lesson is a good way to tell what kind of card player is sitting at the table. King would probably have dropped out of that hand long ago. The odds of winning are too slim to make the bets worthwhile. But younger guys, like Mullican, take more of a risk. "I'd probably stay in," he says, after his statistics lesson.

Not everyone sees it being that complicated. Eddie Bowlds has gotten further on a simpler strategy. Bowlds is perhaps the poker room's most famous player. He's been to the World Series of Poker for ten years running and made it to 30th one year. "I was three away from the money," he says. "The guy who came in 27th, they paid him. Something like 25 [thousand dollars]. The winner gets $2.5 million." Bowlds lives about an hour north of the dog track in Port St. Lucie. He comes every day when he's not in Biloxi or Vegas or Atlantic City. He doesn't get too stressed when playing for low stakes at the Kennel Club. He usually reads the Daily Racing Form or Card Player magazine while waiting for a good hand. "You know what I do to win?" he says with a thick, Southern drawl in-between hands. Everyone stops playing to hear his answer. But card players like Bowlds, the type who pictures himself winning that World Series of Poker one day, who keeps plaques from the small tournaments he's won, and who gets booed in Biloxi casinos by gamblers who fear losing their shirts to him, he's not the type to give up secrets. "I just play smart, that's all."

Every Wednesday night, the underside of all this gambling can be found at the First Presbyterian Church ten miles away in Lake Worth. That's where Gamblers Anonymous holds its nearest meeting to the greyhound track. Sometimes a few dozen addicts gather to tell stories of lost fortunes. This night, it's just two guys. They read from the little Gamblers Anonymous handbook and tell stories they've both heard a hundred times.

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