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I sat down next to him at a table in the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, where he plays about 25 hours a week. It was past 1 a.m. Right now, four Broward poker rooms are open around the clock: Coconut Creek and the other two Seminole casinos, and Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Hallandale Beach. A poker room in the middle of the night is a symphony of coughing, clacking chips, and loud sports television played over a sea of sunken eyes and crooked backs. Behind all the interaction is the mutual understanding that nobody in the room will be doing anything productive for society the next morning.
While we played, Brian took several smoke breaks, and each time he returned, he made his way around the room to see how his friends were doing. His mother taught him to play Uno and Yahtzee as a kid, he says. Then gin rummy. Then a handful of poker games he can list off in his Brooklynese: "Omaha, acey-deucy, follow the queen." His father trained — and bet on — racehorses. By 18, he had a fake ID so he could play poker and blackjack in Atlantic City. By 23, he had spent every dime of his bar mitzvah money and pawned every bit of jewelry he owned just to keep gambling.
One night he broke into his roommate's safe to get the $1,500 inside. When he came back from the three-day binge — where he lost it all — his stuff was gone and his key didn't work.
He says he's finished with betting on sports and playing blackjack. But not poker. Here, he has some control of the outcome. And there isn't much in the world that feels like a good run of cards. He's seen people turn $100 into $20,000 in hours. Brian says he doesn't keep very good records, but he places his annual poker income at $50,000 to $70,000 before taxes.
Recently, he's played more live games and less online. He doesn't trust the offshore gambling companies that run now-illegal sites such as Pokerstars.com and FullTilt.com. For years, players have worried about the validity of online games that benefit from two players both getting top-quality hands at the same time, so they both end up betting a lot, raising the rake.
"I'm a dealer; I see thousands of hands every day," Brian says. "You just don't see four-of-a-kinds and straight flushes like you do online. It's gotta be fixed."
While we spoke, a bearded old man at the table was telling us how close he was to the bad beat earlier that day. Most casinos display an ever-growing "bad beat jackpot" to be split among everyone at the table after the most improbable poker defeats. Which hands qualify as the bad beat vary from place to place, but generally, if someone loses with a full house of aces over kings or better, the hand is jackpot-worthy. Each casino also has a complex set of fine-print rules and technicalities for the bad beat, so no player is sure what qualifies at any given time.
"I was an ace away," the old man said. "I've been at the table when we hit once. We couldn't believe it. We split more than $100,000. Dealer, let's get a bad beat."
The dealer had just told the table about her new baby grandson. She had pictures. When any of the men around the table folded his cards to her, she'd say, as if talking to the toddler, "Bye bye now!"
Brian got into a hand with an older Asian man. He was disappointed that the guy had stayed in — and won — with a jack and a seven, which is, by any standard, a subpar starting hand in Texas hold 'em.
"What kind of asshole calls two raises with jack-seven?" he grunted to the other end of the table, showing that he had a pair of aces.
"The winner, that's who," the Asian man replied, stacking Brian's chips.
Brian unfolded another $100 bill and slid it to the dealer. "Jackasses who stay with jack-seven..." he trailed off.
When I asked him about the hand an hour later, he was still bitter. "You should call your story 'Fishes of the Sea,' " he said. "Donkeys like that, they don't know the right way to play. I guess in the long run, you want guys like that, but then sometimes, they get lucky and get you." He pursed his lips. "That's poker."
The expression "That's poker" has come to symbolize the ultimate noble defeat at the whim of the poker gods. Playing poker is one of those rare opportunities in life when you can do everything right (go all-in with a pair of aces in your hand, for example) and still lose all your money (to some horrible, lucky schmuck with a two and a seven). No matter the pronouncements in movies like Rounders about poker being a game of skill; it is popular, in part, because a donkey (a popular nickname for a bad player who gets lucky and wins) can beat a pro on any hand, given the order of the cards.