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Desert Companion

So you came here to be a pro poker player

An open letter from someone who tried


Dear New-to-Town Grinder,

I’m not surprised to see you here. It was only a matter of time. There’s a lot I want to tell you, very little of which has anything to do with poker. (I stink at cards.) The real game, the one at which very few of you will come out on top, is surviving in Las Vegas. Spare me your stats. Your online hand history is irrelevant. Longevity in this city depends on your reads away from the felt.

A good rule of thumb? Don’t trust anyone.

These are not your home game buddies. The friendlier they appear, the dirtier they are. For instance, when that cool-ass regular Marco makes good on repaying a $100 loan, it’s because he doesn’t plan to return the $500 he borrows down the road. Or when that 60-year-old woman you meet in the poker room invites you to her house for meat loaf and impossibly fluffy mashed potatoes, it’s to ask if she can borrow $8,000 for a shady business proposition.

It will inevitably leave you leery and lonely. So when the cute massage girl/cocktail waitress agrees to let you buy her a drink after her shift, you’ll be thrilled (and slightly incredulous). It might even become a regular thing. If you continue to make decent scores, you’ll eventually help the poor girl with a past due bill — that’s when one can officially declare, “Game over.” Chances are the final tab for her companionship will far exceed the price of an appletini.

Support comes from

It’s not always a miserable grind, though. For one thing, there’s a sense of camaraderie (however minuscule) that comes with your tenure in this parasitic microcosm. Stick around long enough and the crabby man who once screamed at you for beating him on the river might see you on a smoke break and decide to tell you his life story. Or you’ll befriend someone like Margaret, a retiree who shares IHOP coupons with local players between hands. Poker dealers will invite you to their children’s christenings; the player who praises [enter your least favorite presidential administration here] will become your best friend; the guy who hasn’t said a peep for hours will suddenly mention Chuck Klosterman’s last book and make your day. (Fine, the last one probably applies only to me.)

It’s beautiful, in a dysfunctional way. Outside of a poker room, it’s hard to imagine a place where a Libertarian grandmother of three, a fast-talking Armenian real-estate developer and a socially awkward British expat — all bound by a shared interest in protecting their cash and egos — would engage in hours of friendly discourse (feigned or not) by choice.

Perhaps you’re not interested in making friends. Maybe you’re already well acquainted with the unsavory types I’ve described. In that case, you’ll probably fit in just fine. But even the most jaded grinder will tell you that professional card playing attracts no shortage of outlandish characters. If you’re lucky, you’ll at least have some incredible tales for your mates back home — like the time that drunk woman, er, had a bladder malfunction in the middle of a cash game at the World Series. (If you’re running like garbage, you’re probably the poor schlemiel who had to sit next to her.)

One anecdote I like to tell newbies is about the night I watched a young guy bet his entire stack under the belief that Q-K-A-2-3 qualified as a “wraparound straight.” It’s a good thing he wore the standard poker-player uniform (hoodie and sunglasses) because it helped him literally save face as he was laughed out of the room.

Just for the sake of clarification, that’s not a legitimate hand in Texas Hold’em — but don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t know that. We all have to start somewhere. In fact, we probably have a lot more to discuss. Want to chat over a game sometime? Let me know when you decide on a regular room, and I’ll give you a crash course on the dangers of this city in person. Just save me the seat on your left (it’s my favorite).

See you at the tables,

Debbie Lee