Grinders

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

Jack pulls out another $40 and flicks it toward the dealer. "I gotta start tightening up here," he says to no one. "I'm playing too loose. I'll be going home early today."

On the following hand, Jack wins about $30 with two pair. But he still isn't willing to test his luck against the grinder. King stays in on the next hand, raising the second bet by $2. Again, everyone drops out. "I'm not crazy," Panama Jack says of his reason to actually drop out of a hand.

The loose players, who stay in almost every hand just on the off-chance they might come up with something, are the reason guys like King always make their money. At just about any of the 24 tables operating on that Wednesday, there are a couple of players who go through stacks of chips in an hour or less. At the end of King's table is a retirement-aged guy with a trucker hat that reads simply "Blue" across the front. At a few minutes to 1 o'clock, he puts down a $4 bet against Panama Jack. The guy has two pair, but Jack shows a straight, leaving the guy with about $8. He orders another $40 in chips from the dealer.

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.

Twenty minutes later, the loosest player yet comes to the table. He's a young guy with a baseball hat backward and an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt with the number 83 on the front. He's eating a chocolate ice cream cone and buys in for $100.

"Hey, what's up?" Lawhon says to the new guy. "You still working?"

"Nah," the new guy says, biting into the cone.

"I thought you were doing construction," Lawhon says across the table.

"Yeah. I lost that," he says.

The new guy says he's been coming to the Kennel Club so much that he's developed a few tricks with his chips. He demonstrates by pushing two stacks together with one hand and rolling a chip carefully across his knuckles.

Shortly after 2 p.m., Lawhon gets a call from a friend stranded on the side of the road and in need of a ride. Lawhon has already lost his initial stack and had to buy more from the dealer an hour before. "All right," he says. "One more hand. I'm still down $50." He stays in with a pair of kings, but Panama Jack takes a few dollars more from him with two pair. "That's it for me," Lawhon says, taking his $13 in chips to the cashier.

It has now been more than an hour since King has stayed in for a hand. But his pile has barely diminished, since he jumps in only when he's got a winning hand. At 2:16, he stays and faces the man who showed up with the ice cream cone and Panama Jack. King raises the bet $2, and the two other men match it. The first three community cards are a five, a jack, and a two -- nothing special. King bets, and Panama Jack raises him $4. The other guy drops out, one of the first good decisions he's made that day. The next community cards are a pair of sixes, and both of them continue to bet strong.

At this point, late into the hand, King is again leaning forward over the table, playing with a pair of chips in his right hand. He looks attentive, squinting at the cards, with a slight smirk on his face. It's hard to call it anything but confidence, but Panama Jack keeps putting in more money. The pot is somewhere near $70, the biggest of the day. Panama Jack raises the last bet to $8, and King matches it.

"Whatcha got," King says, flipping over a pair of queens. That gives him two pair, queens and sixes.

"I don't have better than that," Panama Jack says, flipping his cards to the dealer without showing.

King pauses before collecting his winnings. "I'll show you a trick I like to do with chips. It goes like this," he says, leaning forward with both hands, cradling the chips and pulling them into his pile.

At 3:30 p.m., King announces he's cutting out early. Typically, he takes his girlfriend to Applebee's on Tuesday nights, but this week, he pulled a muscle in his back playing tennis and couldn't do it. So today, he's going to make it up to her. He uses two plastic trays to carry his chips to the cashier. In three and a half hours, King has made $106. He tips the cashier $2 before stuffing the cash in the pocket of his running shorts.

In the parking lot on his way to the car, he says: "You see what happened today? I played smaht, and nobody else at that table today is walking home a winner. And that's the secret. You play smaht and you walk home with some money in your pocket. It's as simple as that."

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