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

The heavyset man reads first. He doesn't like to read aloud, that's obvious, but he does anyway. He picks up the pocket-sized book with a canary-yellow paper jacket and turns toward the gray-haired man to his right. "Gambling for the compulsive gambler is defined as follows," he reads. "Any betting or wagering, for self or others, whether for money or not, no matter how slight or insignificant, where the outcome is uncertain or depends upon chance or skill, constitutes gambling."

He stops and looks up at the gray-haired man, who tries to expound on the passage by telling his life's story. It's a sorry tale of 60 years of bad luck: the crazy lies he told his wife before she left him, the jobs he lost because he skipped out to gamble, times he would bring scratch-off tickets to work and play them in a bathroom stall on his break. "If I was flat-broke," he says at the conclusion, "I could sleep like a baby. If I had money in my pocket, I stayed up all night. I couldn't wait to blow it the next day."

They take turns reading from page 15, which lists 20 ways to identify a compulsive gambler. "Number four. Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?" Heavyset reads. "Number ten. Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?" the other one adds.

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.

Heavyset starts at the beginning with his story. "There was gambling everywhere around me when I was a kid in Massachusetts," he says. "I thought nothing of gambling. I used to bet the kid next door who could throw rocks closest to the wall." He joined the group a year ago when he lost everything. Not long after, he went out on the Palm Beach Princess gambling ship. He stayed on the top deck all night and resisted the urge and hasn't gambled in more than a year. "When I went out to gamble, I just wanted to escape my frustrations and responsibilities," he says. "But compulsive gamblers, they go till their last dollar, and then they'll keep going. It happens over and over and over until finally all debts just come in at once."

It's the politicians, Gray-hair says. "They say they're antigambling, but then here comes the money. The casinos put it in their face, just like they did with Jeb, and the politicians can't say no. This country is going down quick with it."

Heavyset knows the racetracks just make it worse. Now it's closer and easier. "Casinos, they love you when you've got money," he says. "Try to go in there when you're broke and they'll throw you out on your ass."

But it's not like this for everyone, they admit. Both of them have been the victim thousands of times over of the grinders, the methodical gamblers who never seem to lose control. Neither of them is sure what's different for the grinders. Perhaps something in the addict's genes makes him weak. "You can always tell the addicts," Gray-hair says. "They'll be sweating and twitching just about the whole time. Then they won't leave until they spend every last dime."

At the end, the two of them seem relieved to have spent the past two hours re-telling two terrible life stories. They walk out to Gray-hair's aging sedan. They car-pooled here since neither of them has much money nowadays and not much of a plan of how to make it.

Two weeks after all those sad stories at Gamblers Anonymous, King is methodically plotting his success, playing only the good cards and winning much more than he's losing. "I know some guys, they go crazy with it," he says of the addicts. "I don't know what's wrong with them." Just an hour into the day, King has already won a couple of hands and increased his messy pile by about 20 percent, simply by playing with patience.

Meanwhile, things aren't looking good for Panama Jack. He has stayed in almost every hand and won only a couple. "I'll raise it," he says, throwing in two chips, half of what he's got left. There are a jack, a nine, and a four showing in the community cards, all of different suits. The key to Texas Hold-'em is trying to guess what everyone else has, but those three cards don't hold many clues. A pair of jacks is the best hand anyone could have using the community cards. But for some reason, Jack raises.

To Jack's right is another guy who stays in for most hands and says he considers playing cards part of his livelihood. Chris Lawhon sold a business last year and spends most of his time now buying and selling real estate. That leaves the 34-year-old with a few hours every day for trips to the Kennel Club. He bought $40 of chips at noon and is down to a handful now. He matches Jack's raise, and the dealer turns over the next community card, a seven. Lawhon puts in another $2, a bet that forces Panama Jack to put in his last two bucks.

"I'm all in," Jack says, throwing in his chips. The next card is another seven, leaving two pair showing. Having no more chips to bet, Jack turns his cards over to reveal an eight and a jack, giving him a pair of jacks, a pretty poor hand. Lawhon shows a pair of sevens, giving him three of a kind. A lucky win.

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