Jimmy King leans forward over the poker table with his arms crossed in front of him and glares at the few dollars in the pot, counting what he'll win. Tight poker players like King, who go to the casinos every day just to scratch out enough for a modest living, don't stay in if it isn't worth their time. So every pot, every single dollar he bets, has to be worth the winnings. "Two dollahs more," he says in his Massachusetts accent. "Who's in?" The bet is four bucks now, and eight out of the nine card players foolishly match his raise.
There might be eight other players in, but every one of them stares warily at King. Here in the poker room at the Palm Beach Kennel Club dog track, King is the local card shark. He doesn't look like one at first glance. He's wearing a gray T-shirt over a plaid dress shirt; both are tucked into running shorts with three white stripes down each leg. King's 62 years old, but he has few wrinkles across a modestly handsome face and a full head of curly black hair that crowns at the top of his forehead. As he leans across the table, he grimaces slightly, the right corner of his mouth arching confidently upward, in a way that could easily be mistaken for a bluff.
"Oh, King's in this time -- can you believe that?" dealer Bruce Smith says as he places three cards face up on the green felt. There's a two, a four, and a nine, all of different suits. A pretty terrible flop, as it's called in Texas Hold-'em. The players can use those three community cards to build a hand with the two cards dealt facedown to each of them at the beginning of the game. Two more communal cards will come out after rounds of betting, the last one mysteriously called "The River." But, if King's in, it usually doesn't get that far.
"All right," King says, throwing a pair of chips into the pot. "Two more. Who' s in?" Across from King, wearing a cream-colored Panama hat, sits 77-year-old Jack Pyms. A retired real estate agent with a condo in Palm Beach, he wears the hat so often that he introduces himself simply as Panama Jack. But most of the regulars know him better as the guy who plays just about every hand he's dealt, as if he doesn't care about blowing his money. He's toying with a pair of chips in his left hand, deciding whether to match King's bet. The sleeves of his gold dress shirt, sticking out of a tweed jacket, shine from heavy starch. "Not me," Panama Jack says, flipping his cards to the dealer. One by one, everyone else but King drops out.
"Everyone's out?" the dealer asks. "What's up with that, Jimmy? Is it out of respect, or do they know they don't want to face you?"
King stays silent. He's never one to brag. The dealer pushes him the modest pot -- about $25 -- and King uses both hands to merge it with the bulging pile in front of him. It's only a quarter till 1 in the afternoon on a recent Wednesday and already King has the biggest pile of chips in the room. There are 24 tables going with ten players at each in the Kennel Club's poker room. Another dozen men are waiting for spots to open up. And this is a slow day.
In just six months, the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach has become one of Florida's most popular places to play poker. A new state law that took effect in August allowed greyhound and horse tracks across the state to up the stakes in their poker rooms. No longer are bets limited to 50 cents and pots no longer cut off at $10. Now, there's no limit on pots (the big ones can get up to triple digits now), and bets have risen to $2 and $4, attracting a new class of serious gamblers -- and those who should know better.
The once slow-moving clientele of mostly retirees with time on their hands has become a diverse daily crowd of dedicated gamblers, who can be anything from hardened poker pros to young out-of-work dot.com execs to thrill-seeking tourists, with a lot of retirees in the mix too.
The stakes may still be lower than those at the casinos and gambling ships, but regulars say a skilled player can pull in $200 a day. When augmented with the occasional trip to Vegas, nights on cruise boats, and Internet gambling tournaments, it's not a bad living -- especially since Uncle Sam isn't included. (The IRS doesn't come after gamblers unless they win $600, which hasn't happened at the Kennel Club.) The Kennel Club also benefits from two simple features: a good location and low prices. While dog tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties compete with casinos on the Indian reservations, the Kennel Club is the only place to play poker on dry land between Broward County and Daytona Beach. And in terms of the house take, it's a real bargain. The Kennel Club takes only 10 percent of each pot, while most others take 15 percent. The business plan has worked like ice water in the Sahara. Since the law change last fall, the Kennel Club's poker room has seen its business quadruple; gamblers are now betting more than $2.5 million a month.
The more lenient betting rules couldn't have come at a better time for the Kennel Club and the state's 13 other trackside poker rooms. Gambling, and especially poker, has never been more popular. In the past decade, gambling has moved from a few remote resort towns to within driving distance coast to coast. Meanwhile, the World Series of Poker and celebrity games are broadcast nationally. Last year, casinos saw four times more visitors than the number of tickets sold to Major League Baseball games, perhaps making gambling the new national pastime.
It used to be that card sharks like King moved to Las Vegas or Atlantic City or made a few trips a year there to collect some extra dough. Now, the Kennel Club helps support at least a dozen card players who claim to make their living off the bad luck of losers. Like most who claim to be local pros, King says he's really not a gambler at all. He describes himself as a "grinder," playing only first-rate hands, with a goal of winning maybe one in nine. "I'm not a gambler, and I've never been one," King says, dismissing the high-stakes pros, who play a risky roller-coaster kind of game. "I've been playing cards all my life, but never once -- never once -- have I gambled on a hand. I stay in if I'm going to win."
The Kennel Club's poker room closes on Tuesday, but on every other day, somewhere near 50 or 60 card players line up at the doors like impatient Christmas shoppers. Many arrive an hour before the opening deal at noon to make sure they get their regular seats. Mostly they're retirees. Some are unemployed or have jobs that don't miss them at midday. Many come and play as if it were an occupation, eating lunch right there at the table and checking out around 5. Sometimes, regulars stay right up until closing time at midnight, for a full 12 hours of gambling. King is always there for at least six hours, usually more like eight. He never misses a day. "People kept asking me, 'King, you gonna have a good Christmas?' And I told them no, because Christmas didn't fall on a Tuesday, so now I got two days off that week."
The poker room, with its plastic chairs and discarded losing tickets scattered across the floor, is quite a contrast to the rest of the Kennel Club's beige main hall. The card room looks plucked from the bowels of a Trump casino, with cushy chairs in front of tables with leather padding along the edges. A tuxedo-shirt-wearing employee takes names of gamblers at the door and shows them to a waiting area in the foyer where they'll wait for one of the tables spread across two rooms the size of a full basketball court. There's a bar in the back, and everywhere is velvet, shag, or leather in calm, soothing crimson, green, and black.
By noon every day, King buys $100 in chips and spills them out in front of seat number nine at table number three. Unlike most card players, he doesn't leave his chips in neat stacks so they can be counted and sorted after each hand. His chips sit haphazardly in a mess that spreads to his crossed elbows. Right at noon, the poker-room manager, Carmine Mamora, calls out over the intercom "Put 'em in the air," and games begin for the 200-plus card players. Immediately, the room fills with an overwhelming sound of clanking chips. By midday, dozens have streamed in and put their names on waiting lists for tables. Every few minutes, Mamora calls out for those who are waiting when a seat becomes available or a new table is formed: "Dan for Hold-'em. Steve for Omaha."
Those who have been here for a while note some big changes. When the state first allowed poker rooms at greyhound parks, horse tracks, and jai-alai frontons in 1997, the Kennel Club's room didn't fare as well. It was a novelty at first, and gamblers filled tables for the first couple of months. But serious gamblers moved on to better games elsewhere. It was impossible to bluff someone with a half-dollar, and a good poker player would be lucky to go home with $20 in winnings. The stakes were so low that homeless men would sometimes bet with a couple of scrounged dollars, and the city erected a no-panhandling sign outside the Kennel Club.
So the tracks began to lobby for changes. At first, Gov. Jeb Bush was adamant in his opposition to changing the rules, having campaigned against expanding gambling. In 2002, Bush vowed to veto a bill that would have greatly expanded trackside poker. In response, the tracks hired former Florida House Speaker John Thrasher, a politician turned lobbyist, who was clearly armed with a history of favors owed to him in Tallahassee. Thrasher helped pen a new law that lifted the pot limits and raised the betting restrictions. Thrasher, who didn't return several phone calls to his Jacksonville office, somehow convinced Bush last year to approve the increased stakes. Asked to comment on Bush's reasoning for allowing the law to go into effect, Bush's press office issued a copy of a letter he penned August 5 that reads in part: "While I strongly believe that gambling should not be used as a generator of new revenue or promoted as value-neutral public policy, recommended changes to last year's legislation were made to make this bill acceptable."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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