Swimming with the online card sharks

In the world of virtual Texas hold 'em, the money is real and so is the addiction.

By Stephen Elliott

Published May 2, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

"Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways, women, gambling, and farming. My family chose the slowest one."

-- Pope John XXIII

I have a poker table that dominates my studio apartment in a seedy neighborhood in San Francisco. I have clay chips that were given to me as a present last Christmas. The difference between the clay chips, which go for $10 a pack, and the cheap Walgreens plastic numbers is palpable.

I grew up playing spades in state homes for wayward youth. In college I won the dorm euchre championship (we cheated, but that's how you play euchre). My compulsive card playing reflected disastrously on my college transcripts. My friend Louie got me into blackjack laying around our squat in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green while the men rolled dice on the sidewalk out front. I lost my last $600 the first time I played poker in West Yellowstone on the way to see my girlfriend in Seattle. Our relationship never recovered.

Grandfather was a cardplayer. The Nazis killed off his entire family and all anybody knows of him is that he worked hard and played cards every day until he died, whittling away his final years playing pinochle for pennies down at the Levy's center in Chicago. One time he smacked another man in the teeth over 20 cents. Old age made him cheap, but he could still smell a rat.

Now 30, I host a poker game every Tuesday night with anywhere from six to 10 participants. We play low stakes while the hookers scream on Folsom Street down below. My editor likes to come over and stay for every hand, bragging loudly that the pots are too small to merit taking, the bets not worth folding over. My editor drinks too much and has a tendency to lose, and everyone is always happy when he shows up to give us his money. Like most losers, though, my editor wins sometimes too.

Among my group I'm one of the better poker players. We play 10 cent, 25 cent, 50 cent. Some people show up on Tuesdays ready to lose $10. They figure it's a small price for a pleasant evening with friends. Like my editor, these people are also welcome.

One Wednesday, after a particularly invigorating night of playing, I start searching online for poker tips but find instead poker rooms where I can buy in with real money online against real players, 24 hours a day.

"The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket."

-- Kin Hubbard

I put $500 into an account with Firepay, part of Surefire Commerce, a publicly traded company based in Canada. I put it on my credit card and they ask me before I am done if I intend to use the money for gambling. I check the box that says "Yes."

I log onto Pokerroom.com. I don't have to download any software. I sit at a 3-D table with stereotypical gambling types: the bald man in the bad shirt, the chubby black woman with tight curls, the fat guy with the white suit and cigar. And of course the babe, in the thousand-dollar dress, half cleavage, half legs.

I make rules for myself. Whenever possible I will play as the bombshell. (Very few women play poker so you pretend to be the woman and maybe the guys will give you a break.) I will stay out of the high-roller rooms. I will quit when losing. I will lose my $500 or win $1,000, then I will write an article about winning $1,000 playing online poker and get out for good.

There are five rooms for Texas hold 'em. $1/$2, $2/$4, $3/$6, $5/$10 and $10/$20. I decide that the suckers are in the $3/$6 room. They have too much money to be bothered with $1/$2, but aren't good enough to keep up with the high rollers. I want to find a room full of my editor: people who think the stakes are too low to matter, who will stay in when they should fold and chase inside straights with two aces showing.

"God doesn't play dice."

-- Albert Einstein

Texas hold 'em is a simple but popular poker game in which the dealer has an incredible advantage and the deal rotates after every hand. Every player at the table is dealt two cards down -- hole cards -- and then there's a round of betting. The first two rounds are low, meaning on a $3/$6 table in the first two betting rounds you can only bet in increments of $3, and in the last two rounds in increments of $6. After the first round of betting, three cards are laid in the middle of the table. This is called the flop. The three cards belong to everybody. Then another card is dealt, called the turn. Then a fifth, the river. Between the two cards in your hand and the five on the table, the winner is the one who can make up the best five-card hand -- unless everybody else folds, in which case the winner is the last one standing. Everything is determined by how well you play your cards in the hole. In his book "Hold 'Em Poker," David Sklansky, a world-class player, says you should never play hole cards worse than a king-9 unsuited (belonging to different suits).

One of the ways you can recognize a sucker is by what they win with. For a player to win he has to show his cards. If a player wins with a 7 and a 2 you know you've got a sucker, because while any cards can win sometimes, nobody should pay an ante with a 7 and a 2.

On my second day I beat a player named Morenos with two pair to his two kings. He starts referring to me in the chat rooms as an ass. I don't respond to his criticism but I don't go online to get abused. Asleep at night I dream I am at court with my queen, my jack, 10 servants and my grandfather. We're all wearing velvet shirts with hearts across the stomach. We are ready for anything.

I pull $600 in my first three days in 10 hours of play and find myself hooked.

On the third evening I am out with my closest friends, two couples very much in love. We have a few drinks and then go for pizza where we order a bottle of wine. Everybody decides to go back to Ben's house and play board games: Boggle, Trivial Pursuit. I say I am going to go home and write a student recommendation. Wendy keeps asking if everything is OK. She says I seem fuzzy. I say, c'mon, I'm the only single one here. Online aces are floating across the landscape of my mind. My friends beg and cajole and rib but my mind is set, I have things to do. I lose $150 standing in front of my iMac, hardly trying in my dulled, drunken state, the moonlight slashing across my walls. The same rules apply: Don't drink and play poker, anywhere, anytime.

Day 4

"Nobody is always a winner, and anybody who says he is, is either a liar or doesn't play poker."

-- Amarillo Slim

I wake up on my fourth day, a Saturday. There's a message on my machine from a girl I used to like but who hadn't returned my calls. Now she wants to hook up. I don't feel fresh; in fact, I have a little bit of a headache. I have a plane to catch at noon for a reading in Los Angeles. I was supposed to leave last night but missed my flight. I log on in my socks to check out the action. Major Tom is sitting alone in the $3/$6 room. We spar mano a mano and I find him an easy hustle. I bluff him out for a quick $30. We are soon joined by more players, including SeeMePlayBad sitting in the sexy blond's chair. It takes me $200 to realize that SeeMe is a ringer, a serious poker player. I scope the online lobby. Early Saturday morning all the $5/$10 rooms are empty. So my theory that the best players stick to the $5/$10 rooms doesn't wash. Our little $3/$6 room was the only action going, and I was up against a pro. Frustrated again, again I log off, my winnings down from $600 to $250.

This wasn't how it was supposed to go. If I don't win $1,000 then I can't write my article. Worse, I may not be as good a poker player as I like to believe myself to be. If I can't win $1,000 then online gambling is nothing but a dirty con, and I am a fly caught in its net.

I duck into the $10/$20 room. Two early-morning high rollers are betting back and forth, with the pots reaching upward of $100. Mark W. from Sydney has $4,000 in his account. TPF has only $200. I am down to $250 (I have withdrawn my original $500 stake). I like the action. The low player is running scared. I take the seat immediately to the left of the high roller so I have him in position. (Rule of note for aspiring online gamblers: Sit to the left of the best player at the table. You have an advantage over whom you follow -- it's why the dealer is at the best seat on the table: The dealer follows everybody.) Twenty minutes later I have cleaned TPF out with a full house, 2's over aces, to trump the three-ace hand she had bet the farm on. These things happen. I am back up $600.

Who is TPF, I wonder, clicking offline. And what am I doing in the high-roller room? That's against my own rules. Rules in poker, like in writing, like in life, stand to be broken like Buddhist statues in the Afghan countryside. I wonder if TPF is struggling to support a couple of kids, living in a trailer with a 14.4k AOL connection. Does TPF have the money to lose? I doubt it. And all the while, the casino, online like any other, silently pulls its 5 percent rake. That is, the casino pulls $1 out of every $20 clicked into the pot.

On the way to the airport I close the car door on my pinky finger.

The Poker Room is not an American company. In fact, its Internet domain registration lists an address in Costa Rica. Gambling online is not legal in America, so American companies are not allowed to operate online casinos. This drives Harrahs and other big American casinos nuts. As far as they are concerned, American money is being lost to foreign merchants. It's not enough for these chains and the powerful casino lobby that gambling is now legal in 28 states. The big companies tout the benefits of gambling, as their boats and their rising crime rates sail into communities like Joliet, Ill. They talk about the neighborhood benefits. The fun, the jobs, the economic development. When that doesn't work, they talk about their rights to a bigger piece of the pie.

Current estimates list approximately 2.5 million people as pathological gamblers, another 3 million as problem gamblers and another 15 million people as at risk. Casinos and lotteries survive on problem and pathological gamblers. The economist Earl Grinols calculated that 52 percent of casino revenues come from problem gamblers. Of course, you never have a problem as long as you're winning.

Day 5

"He had the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces."

-- Mark Twain

It's Sunday morning. In five hours I have a reading at a bookstore in West Hollywood and the cafe on the corner offers Internet access for $5 an hour. The $7 left in my pocket buys me in for an hour and a cup of coffee.

TPF is back in the $10/$20 room with $500 in her account. Somebody bought back in because I wiped TPF out yesterday. We play one-on-one but it's early and she catches me chasing a flush with a pair of queens. It only takes a couple of hands to lose $300 and now I'm staring across cyberspace at TPF, her three dimensional graphics, her cartoonish smile. I type into the chatbox, "I am going to take you." She types back, "You are not going to take anything, never have."

The room fills and I play tight. There's five of us betting $10/$20. But pots are only $50 or $60. This is a room of people that can't afford to be here. The slow betting proves that. I buy a couple of small pots and sit tight for the monster hand. Then we're joined by Jeffage with $2,100 in his account. High roller. He bets fast and loose and players drop out but I'm winning and soon it's just Jeff and I alone. Jeff's got a tendency to bet and then fold, and once I figure that out it's time to plug in the vacuum cleaner. By the end of the hour my bank account is at $804, only $196 away from my stated goal.

The cafe waitress is tapping my shoulder when I sit out. You can win or lose $300 in a $10/$20 room in 10 minutes. It's like driving a fast car through a back-alley shortcut or drag racing in heavy traffic. You get where you're going quicker, but the harder you speed, the greater the risks.

"Where are you going?" Jeff types in.

"My time is up," I tell him.

But before I split I take one last look into the lobby. Flushdraw is there as usual. A regular, a steady. So is Major Tom, a sucker, a mark. Morenos is not around, probably sleeping off Saturday's losses. I've got a reading to go to. I have to prepare myself emotionally to talk about my topic, group-home children, wards of the court. A state system that preps our lost children for failure. I'm an expert on this topic. Perhaps I'll tell my small audience that group-home children, among other problems, are prone to excessive gambling as adults and compulsive behavior. What can we, as a society, do about that?

Day 6

"It is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck."

-- Joseph Conrad

Major Tom leaves the room shortly after I walk in. I have his heart, and he knows it. It's early Monday and I resisted the urge to play last night after having two beers and witnessing a spectacular car crash where a pickup truck trying to beat the light at Ninth and Harrison got pegged by a two-door and skidded on its wheels, then flipped over onto its hood.

I follow Major Tom from the $5/$10 to the $2/$4. I'm up $850. I'm so close to my goal I can taste it. It could take hours to make $150 on the $2/$4 table. So I head back to the $5/$10.

There's a couple of players I'm afraid of in the $5/$10 and the boards are slow. The $10/$20's empty, making this the high-roller room.

I sit for an hour running between $796 and $904. I fold time and again on jack 7's, queen suited, two 6's, only to see two of my cards flop. Playing loose I could have taken $500 easy. But I do notice a trend. With the exception of Roger666, nobody is betting very much and Roger is pulling a lot of small pots. Finally, I'm dealt an ace-4 diamonds. Roger raises and I stay in. The flop brings me two more diamonds and another ace. I have a pair of aces whether I make the flush or not. Better still, I'm one card away from a straight. I've got a great hand and all of the "dangers" point in my favor -- any additional card that improves the hand on the table improves my hand also. I raise, Roger raises back, I have a fish on the line. The hand ends with a 5-high straight to beat Roger's three aces, bringing me to within $20 of the end zone. A few hands later I come out of the big blind with two jacks and I call it a day, $1,016 to the good, pure profit for a cumulative workman's average of $50 an hour over six days of playing.

When I play poker I think about my last girlfriend. Her name was Wilhelmina and she was a bitch. But she released certain chemicals in my brain that felt a lot like folding on a 5-8 suited only to see two 5's and an 8 follow the dead hand. She made me feel the way a nice girl never could, like a loser with a chance.

I call my friend Laura in Vancouver. I confess to her that I've been playing poker online in my apartment for a week. She says that sounds like a bad idea. I tell her actually I won $1,000. She asks me if I'm going to quit. I tell her I intend to. Of course, nobody can see into tomorrow, but I did cash out. Laura worries maybe they won't send me my check. (They do, two weeks later.) Her consumer confidence is low. Seems to be a lot of holes in the chain, places to fall through. But I figure the casino is already making 5 percent on every dollar that's bet, and I must have bet at least $20,000 together, so they've already made their $1,000 off of me.

In poker the casino is just a middleman, like a credit card, getting in the middle of a transaction, taking a cut and giving nothing back in return. You never beat the casino. Like stockbrokers, the casino gets paid no matter what, win or lose. The $1,000 I took came from real people. And I don't know if they are rich or poor or what their story is. I don't know if they can afford it, if they're guys or girls, or if they've ever looked straight into the sun. In fact, the 5 percent we all pay the casino is the only thing any of us have in common for certain.

Worse still, while winning, I realized all the ways a person could cheat playing online. Two people could play together while on the phone, doubling each other's raises, eliminating cards from play, not a huge advantage but enough to tip the scales. Also, if your connection is severed, you automatically go "all in," which allows you to play your cards and potentially win, without having to match a bet that your cards don't justify. Sometimes pulling the plug is the right thing to do. Still, there're so many suckers in cyberspace, they counterbalance the pros.

In 2000, Harrah's Entertainment took in $3 billion. All of that without ever producing a product. Maybe if there were no casinos the world would be a better place. But what's the alternative? Everybody wants to find a way out of the day wage. If asked, I would vote that gambling be illegal everywhere except Vegas. But I wasn't asked, so of course, I have to get mine too.

The rules of the game

"In a bet there is a fool and a thief."

-- Unknown

Here's all I have for you if you do decide to go online.
1) Don't, it's a bad idea. I didn't get a thing done last week. Deadlines passed, phone calls went unreturned, my life fell apart.
2) If you think you're in a room with good players, leave the room.
3) Always stay in with a pair in the hole, even 2's: Take it to Fourth Street [the fourth flop card] no matter what the cost.
4) Don't do it, it's not worth the risk, there are six losers for every four winners, somebody has to lose for the house, the odds are against you.
5) Sit to the left of the chaser, the guy throwing money after every card; this will enable you to pick up double bets on your good hands.
6) Fold when you don't have it.
7) Don't drink and play; I know I said that earlier but it's important. Not a single beer.
8) The dealer seat is worth extra; if nobody has bet yet and you're the dealer, you bet.

"The track takes 15 percent, but what's 15 percent of a dream?"

-- Charles Bukowski

Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including "Happy Baby." His next book, "The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder," is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

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