Poker Face or Baby Face
Updated: Sep 4
From the Travel Desk: A freshman experiences New York’s underground poker scene
On a particularly boring Wednesday afternoon I received a text from a contactless number: “Use the door halfway down the alley, take the elevator down to the basement, and tell them that Kevin sent you.” A few hours later I step up to a nondescript gray metal door and a large man dressed in all black stepped out as if he knew I was coming. With eyes mostly focused on his phone and a casually skeptical tone, he rifled through my backpack while I shuffled awkwardly in his shadow. Quick glances at my uncomfortable stance just confirmed how obviously out of place I was. As much as I tried to feign confidence, he could sniff me out like any good bouncer should. Thankfully, my awkwardness communicated innocence and ignorance more than anything else, so after the bag search and a full pat down, I was in, to a New York underground poker game.
The standoffish attitude immediately gives way to a much more welcoming environment as I step inside. I quickly receive professional but friendly greetings by the particularly buff staff, followed by a supportive, “Is this your first time?” It is, and it’s magnificently nerve-wracking.
At the front desk I handed over $150, what I imagined to be respectably more than the $100 minimum, to receive tiny stack of red $5 chips and a seat placement. They pointed to the open chair at the opposite end of the small wood panelled room. I’m surrounded on both sides by two wall-mounted flat screens that showed a dozen different streams of security camera footage. I can see everything from the street level to the front door, and so can everyone else. I guess they really did know I was coming.
I’m dealt in before I can even glance at the crowd of characters sitting around the expensive felt table. I’m up against a few middle aged business men in suits, a couple of younger regulars in casual clothes, an antisocial wanna-be pro donning sunglasses and noise canceling headphones, and a woman wearing a particularly ordinary outfit accented by a not-so-ordinary Rolex and a noticeably large stack of chips. Most had been playing for hours, as this particular cardroom runs through the afternoon and into the night every weekday. Those who organize the underground game collect a sizeable rake, a percentage of the money wagered at the end of every hand that goes to the house. This brings in hundreds of dollars every hour, and that’s not including the drinks sold and the money made by players employed by the house. One sits just to the right of the dealer with several hundred in chips, flitting between chummy conversations with other employees and deadly serious play. The skill is immediately apparent and the intensity of both the demeanor and bank roll of the other players throws me into a shocked fascination.
I fumbled with my chips and cards, stuttered through verbal actions, and completely misunderstood the slew of home rules and special bets with which every other player was already familiar. I sat in awe, wasting away at my meager holdings with a timid playstyle adopted in fear of going bust within a few minutes by naively clashing with the bigger players. In poker, as in life, those with a lot of money have a significant statistical advantage against the little guys. As much as I thought I was talented, or at least good enough to justify this adventure, I was quickly proven wrong. I learned to play through games with friends, a decent amount of online poker, and an embarrassing number of Youtube videos, but nothing compared to the intensity of live poker for serious money. Everything I knew melted away when I watched two players showdown for a pot that ballooned to about fifteen hundred dollars, and watched a talented player call it quits after swallowing a $800 loss in 5 minutes. It’s far too many jumbo slices and MTA swipes for me to comprehend in the moment.
In trying to look the age that I claimed to be to get inside, which happens to be 2 years older than I am and about 5 years older than I look, I assume a self-consciously timid posture. The common practice of staring down your opponent is employed here, and I wither under the panel of eyes boring into my soul; my body language is leaking every bit of the nervous internal dialogue buzzing around my head. I know the rest of the table is probably making more sense of these scattered thoughts and careless strategies than I am. Their collective conscious behaves like a friend that knows you better than you know yourself. But instead of a comforting friendly understanding, this knowledge is a means of taking my money with scary efficiency. While these inquisitive looks were able to rip apart every live tell I could have, all I can muster are quick glances that break my anxious shoe gazing.
I get up and stumble through a back door onto a fire escape that serves as a smoking area to take a deep breath and compose myself, and the feeling of not being watched for just a moment is a welcome escape. But, as if my newbie persona wasn’t embarrassing enough, the universe decides that my day-to-day awkwardness ought not to escape me when I need to avoid it the most. Futile jiggles of the door handle indicate that I’ve locked myself out. In a stubborn refusal to sheepishly knock on the blacked out windows and ask for help, I wait until another player steps out and slither inside as though my fake smoke break just ended.
At the end of the day, from being up a hundred dollars to down two hundred and then back to just seventy short of break even, those three hours in that surprisingly fancy backroom were some of the most stressful hours of the entire semester. A stress so refreshingly different from the day to day academic strain of Columbia that I could never be upset with what it cost. It also reinforced the humbling notion that this school teaches all it’s students, that you’re not nearly as talented or clever as you might have hoped.
The heat of the moment drowned out the constant jokes and respectful gamesmanship, but in retrospect it really was a thrilling and high stakes versions of the home games I’d play with close friends. Nearby players would strike up conversations despite my best efforts to go unnoticed, offer whispered comments when I had no clue what to do, compliment my few good hands, and I even spotted someone across the table player wearing a Columbia sweatshirt. The excitedly anxious daze contained sparks of familiar comfort.
The game’s seedy set-up is ultimately a product of strict New York State gambling laws, the lack of casinos around New York City, and a Giuliani administration crackdown in 2000 on famous poker clubs of the 80’s and 90’s. These underground games allow people to compete in a game of skill which they carefully study and thoroughly enjoy, and they allow the most skilled to make a living or even train to play professionally. Most of all, New York’s underground poker scene captures the decades old spirit of a thrillingly secret and cut-throat illegal competition.