About a month ago I was in Shreveport on the back end of a 10-hour poker session. I was struggling to keep my eyes open. The cocktail waitress who was ostensibly en route with my coffee hadn't materialized. It was hardly surprising. The employees at the Hollywood Casino move (and, unfortunately, look) like arthritic septuagenarians.

Not for the first time, I bitched to the captive audience at my $4-to-$8 "hold 'em" table that Hollywood--the only casino with a poker room in that wreck for a town; the only casino, for that matter, with a poker room within driving distance of Dallas--was home to the "world's worst card game." (Hold 'em is a poker game. At my table, $8 was the maximum bet. If you still don't understand what I'm talking about, please come play at my table some time.) From D-FW, you have to trek three hours to play on torn-up tables that are crammed behind loud slot machines on the top floor of the casino. The dealers are surly, and the clientele is straight scary. (I once played at a table with a gruesome threesome: Melty Face Guy, whose face, appropriately enough, was melting off; Breathing Apparatus Guy, who, for added comedic effect, was sitting next to a smoker; and a Tom Cruise look-alike from the end of Born on the Fourth of July--dirty Army jacket, scraggly beard, wheelchair, no legs. All true.) All that, and you generally have to wait two to four hours just to get on one of the precious few tables. I once waited six hours. I'm a loser.

"You know," the guy next to me said in a low whisper, "I can put you on to a game that's closer to Dallas. I'm headed there now. Wanna come along?"

I wondered for a moment if he was being real, or if he was a serial killer hooked on Cuban-Italians with little luck. Either was possible. I took a shot. We got up and headed off into the night. Turned out to be the best gamble of my life.

The stranger introduced me to an illegal card game much closer to Dallas than Shreveport. (I'd tell you where it is, but you're probably a better card player than I am; you'd probably take my money; then I'd have to jack your ass in the parking lot to get it back; and who wants that?) If you've seen Rounders, a fine poker movie in my opinion, you probably have some romantic notion of underground card rooms--secret knocks, leggy women handing out stacks of heavy clay chips, sleek décor, mad, mobbed-up Russians, the works. That's what I had in mind, too.

This place? This place is a little different. It's in a nondescript building on a nondescript street. There's no doorman or security cameras. Knock or ring the bell, then you're in. The guy who runs it--let's call him "Chip" for secrecy purposes--has rented one small room for the past year. Inside, on a carpet stained with many different, sticky unidentifiables, are three tables, a bathroom and a small kitchen. That's it. The air is thick and musky; the air conditioning runs, but not well. It's heaven.

Once the games begin, they are run in first-class manner. Chip provides all drinks (soda, coffee, water, beer) and food (candy, cookies, sandwiches, pizza and the like) for the players, and he has a rotating staff of six dealers who are better than any of the bums employed in Shreveport. (An aside: The first night I played at Chip's, the dealer at my table was an elderly gentleman. A grandfather, as it turns out. I know this because he brought his granddaughter to work that day. She couldn't have been older than 6 or 7, but she busied herself nonetheless by running drinks to the players, who promptly tipped her a buck or two for the effort.) I went there that evening for the cards, but I kept returning for the grit.

"For the budget we work on, we give our players a good environment," Chip says. He's not lying. "Maybe we do understand the casino biz better than the casinos [in Shreveport], because we treat our players right. We have respect for them. We talk to them. We treat them like people. That's a place that makes people want to come back."

Chip won't say how much they clear on a given week, but I'm guessing it's a good bit, considering he has overhead and employees. He's a bright guy. Chip loved to play cards and wanted to play more regularly. So he started a game a little more than a year ago. Five months after opening his shop, Chip was running a lucrative, albeit unlawful, game that was well-established with a regular clientele that now includes at least one doctor, a lawyer, a few Marines and one shifty columnist. (In another life, with a few more breaks, Chip would have been one of those start-from-nothing businessmen who's suddenly featured on the cover of Forbes; a Mark Cuban type with more personality and less hair.)

I've been playing at Chip's once or twice a week for the past month or so. Each month he hosts a no-limit hold 'em event. It's the same type of structure that determines who takes home the more than $2 million first prize in the World Series of Poker that's held annually in Vegas. The guys who play in the WSOP are legends; you can catch them on ESPN and the Travel Channel almost nightly: Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, the list goes on. They're my heroes. They're also exponentially better than I am. Luckily for me, they don't know about Chip's place.

Despite being nearly broke after a rash of car problems, I decided to enter the $100 buy-in, no-limit tournament last weekend. First place was going to pay a cool grand. That's, like (hold please while I do the math: 1 + 3, carry the denominator...), a whole lot more than I make at the Dallas Observer. If I won, that is. If I lost, it was Chicken of the Sea for at least a week.

In preparation for the big event, I went into training. I studied many books and played many computer poker games. I dieted. I exercised. I was on a mission. I was like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III, minus the cool calf-high colored socks. I was ready.

Yeah. I lost.

I won't bore you with the details, because to do so would mean explaining all the rules and intricacies of Texas hold 'em, and what hand beats what and the situation I was in that forced me to lose all my f-ing money, and there simply isn't enough space left here for all that. Plus, I don't want to relive the horror. All you need to know is this: I finished 12th out of 23. I went out of the tournament when I didn't hit my straight or flush draw and the other guy won with a pair of jacks. He'll be eating hearty this week; I'll be keeping Starkist in the black.

I suppose it could have been worse. I could have driven three hours to sit next to Melty Face Guy.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez

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