Part 5 - Never Count Your Money at the Table.
Especially if You Ended up Flat Busted.
What seemed like minutes later, because it was, I felt Matt's hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake.
"Stinky! Wake up. Stinky, come on, we have to go meet that Hollywood guy."
In a bleary haze, I mumbled something about how I was about to pull out a knife, but Matt always knows when I'm bluffing.
"Come on, jackass, get up. We've got to go meet this guy if we're ever going to be famous to anybody other than drunk weirdos at the Gold Spike."
I sat up. "Shit, I can't believe I forgot. Can't we just pretend we gave him the wrong date, and that we were actually here last week? We can act all huffy, even, like, 'Where were you, dude?'"
"Listen, get up, clean that blue crap off your face and comb your hair. We have to meet him in ten minutes at the Horseshoe. We're having breakfast."
While waiting outside the 'Shoe coffee shop for Chris Ryan, the entertainment manager from L.A. who had expressed an interest in trying to help us develop a Cheapo Travel TV show, Matt and I talked about what we should say when we met him. We decided it was best to be firm about our integrity and the integrity of the web site, not agree to anything that made us uncomfortable, and most of all, to treat the breakfast as a meeting between serious, responsible professionals.
Chris showed up, we sat down, and I said, "Okay, before we get started, let me ask you two things. First, is there any kind of movie magic they could do to make it look like I have six-pack abs, and second, what do you think about a sexy female robot co-host?"
Matt added, "And I think we need to talk about action figures. We've already got some that we made from Sculpey clay. Can they use those as a model?"
Chris suggested that we order our food before we got into too many details, so we each got a steak and eggs. I thought we'd already blown our chances with our outbursts, but Chris seemed unfazed. He probably thought we were kidding. He told us about what he does, and said he thought we might be able to put together a TV show that would fit on some of cable TV's less prestigious channels. All in all, it was a very productive conversation, and we felt pretty good about the meeting.
As we were leaving the 'Shoe, we invited Chris and the friends he'd driven out with to join us at the Soiree. As we parted, Matt called out, "So how important is it that the action figures look exactly like us? Do you think anyone will care if we give them huge pecs and really cool mustaches?"
We haven't heard from him since.
I wanted to start the Solar System Series of Poker at ten a.m. because I have no patience or compassion for crybabies who can't get their asses out of bed. I'd just as soon have it at six a.m. so that nobody showed up and I could walk away a forfeit winner. That's how I won a game in Little League. Plus, I learned that when the other team shows up, there's a good chance they will not only kick your ass but also make fun of your homemade jock strap.
We finally figure out why Lucky Ned hasn't been calling us and asking for money every few days.
Why Las Vegas hasn't collapsed under the weight of its own disorganization is a mystery. We walked over to the Horseshoe at eleven o'clock to confirm a noon start for the Solar System Series of Poker. The poker room manager said, "Huh?"
"The Solar System poker tournament," said Stinky, bleary eyed from the all-nighter. "The one I called and made reservations for, then called again to confirm."
I added, "It's only the most prestigious poker tournament in the world."
"Solar System," corrected Stinky. His eyes never left the nearby video poker machines as we talked.
The Horseshoe had no record of anything, not even the winner of World War II. The poker manager with whom we'd arranged the tournament "left the state for 90 days," apparently unexpectedly because he didn't tell his coworkers that 23 jackasses would be descending on the poker room. It was nearly noon and the SSSOP entrants started arriving, milling about and frightening the clientele. Some guy in a suit showed up and hustled together two tables, stacks of tournament chips, three dealers and a couple of stopwatches. We gave him almost all the details: a Texas Hold'em freeze-out with bets increasing every fifteen minutes and no re-buys. The only detail we failed to provide was that we were to pay $100 a table to the casino for the use of their facilities. On that minor aspect we used the same approach that served us so well in the Marines: Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
This was the first time over the weekend that I saw Burt Cohen, director of the Golden Globe-nominated "Presto, P.I." (it lost to a "Mr. Belvedere" rerun). In 2001, Burt played bridesmaid to me as I won the first ever SSSOP. In 2002, while I was home teaching my infant son how to count cards, Burt won the tournament. Needless to say, death threats had been sent to his house before this year's event, and I wasn't sure if he would have the guts to show up. I noticed he was still wearing his awful burgundy pants. "Nice pants... again."
Burt tugged the phallic-sized stogie from his maw and said, "I don't have a choice." While security restrained us, he explained that polyester changes phases from solid to liquid at a low temperature. The first time he wore the pants in the Las Vegas sun they melted into his skin. He'd be "wearing" those skintight trousers until the day he died. That's when I first noticed the pubic hair poking through.
By half-past noon, all the entrants and waiting listers received their T-shirts and drawn cards that determined which table and position they would sit at. Burt was at the other table, I was with the lousy-playing Stinky and Dan. I felt like a dog in a dog food factory; all I needed to do was tear open these bags.
The stakes were high: 50% of the pool plus the coveted SSSOP bracelet to the Ultimate Champion, 30% to the Champion and 20% to the Wheezer. That's the kind of money dreams are built on.
If you want to be a poker champion, I have two words for you: Palm Pilot. A downloadable Hold 'em can be yours for a pittance, if not free, and on the plane to Vegas, you have some time to bone up on game. I downloaded my particular version three days after losing last year's tournament, and had been playing it in every spare moment for the past year, i.e., every time I used the john. After a year of hard simulated gambling, and with my hand-help opponents wallowing in the negative dollars, I felt certain that my chance of winning this year was about 99.99%. And indeed, it was.
That rush, that thrill of playing poker overtook me as soon as I woke on Saturday morning. The first thing I did was put on my skull rings. There's only one way to lose at poker while wearing skull rings: if your opponent is wearing skull rings that are more bad-ass than yours. I threw on my pirate pants and a leather tunic, figuring to further startle any sartorial contenders that might appear. Too giddy to eat, I hurried down to the Horseshoe.
Burt Cohen, grinning like a fool over his pile of chips, just before Matt laid a well-timed haymaker.
After an interminable wait--chalk it up to Matt's and Stinky's incompetence--we finally sat down to play. I looked around the table, thinking that these folks didn't look to be much better players than those on my Palm Pilot. The very first hand I picked up was double aces, Alcoholics Anonymous, pocket rockets! I was off to a good start, and won that hand handily, laying down my high pair at the end and silkily intoning, "American Airlines." Smooth demeanor under pressure is good psychological warfare. Of course, a good hand helps, too.
I was excited about the poker tournament. Not because I was going to win -- I wasn't, I'm terrible at poker. It requires way too much paying attention, which is not my strong suit -- but because as one of the tournament's hosts, I didn't have to pay, which meant at least five-to-ten minutes of completely free gambling.
And besides, the T-shirts I designed were the best yet, so I couldn't wait to receive the accolades I was due. The shirts featured Casino Boy, dressed in a tuxedo and riding astride a rocketship, swirling up from Earth into space, while playing cards trailed behind him. I'm almost never immodest, but seriously, those suckers were beautiful.
The details of the tournament seem to have escaped me, thanks to the fact that I hadn't slept more than a few hours since Thursday morning, but I do know that I won at least one pot before going down in flames, chasing a straight like I always do.
For such a prestigious poker tournament, I was amazed at how bad everyone played. You'd think a $15 entry fee would keep out all but the best. To my left was a fellow who, after being dealt two cards, pulled three more out of his pocket and told the dealer, "I'll use these, thanks." Another player placed a King Charles Spaniel on the felt and asked to play a hand of "Dogs on the Table" for Mitzi. Some people were more competitive but still as clueless. Every time Phil had a hand he disliked he chucked it into the air and shouted, "Misdeal!" He only stopped after the four of spades stuck in a ceiling panel and Binion's refused to give us a new deck.
Last time Lucky Ned found a phone card with credit on it, he called and asked us first for a loan, and second to reserve him a seat at the SSSOP. He claimed to be working on an IncrediSystem for poker that was showing promising results. When I pressed him for details, he acted evasive and said, "I haven't finished yet, but I'll tell you this little rhyme: bet the pocket ladies and you'll drive a Mercedes!" Lucky Ned didn't show up for the tourney, but his words came back to me when I saw the winner board for the Horseshoe's second most important tournament, the World Series of Poker. Right at the top, two-and-a-half-million dollars richer, was Lucky Ned.
Sometimes, because of bad cards or lucky draws, even the best poker players get knocked out early. Sometimes it doesn't matter whether they play correctly. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for a jackass like myself to make it into the money. Unfortunately, it also left room for the other 22 jackasses. I was eliminated early. Sure, I played badly, but so did everyone else. At least I didn't vomit on the table.
When I busted out it felt like hot lead poured down my gut. As the dealer took away the chips I tried to grab back from the pot I remembered that this was my party and I needed to be gracious. No temper tantrums, no accusing the cheaters at the table of cheating, no kicking Stinky, biting Dan or squealing like a pig. Time to show the world what a big man you are. Time to squelch those nasty rumors about being a sore loser that started when I crapped in Burt's Jeep after he got to be the thimble in a game of Monopoly. I rose slowly, doffed my cap to the rest of the table and said "Fuck you very much," sort of mumbly so it sounded like "thank you very much."
After a couple more hands, Stinky busted out and the tables consolidated. Dan was still in the money, along with his brother Phil, Dave "Feldy" Feldman, Phil Sunbury, Canadian Oke Millett, a couple of guys whose names I've already forgotten out of sheer bitterness, Dave Dummler, Robert Stack and Burt "Cheater" Cohen. Jerks, all of them. Burt, with the biggest stack of chips, was the biggest jerk.
As the two tables shook out into one winners table, and one mob of losers, I wasn't surprised to see Matt standing skulkily with the latter group. Pretending to put a good face on it, he kept saying, "I'm so glad I get to stand up for a while. My legs were getting cramped under that table."
I had two words for Matt: Palm Pilot. My practice had definitely paid off. Several non-entities (in terms of poker) quickly dropped out of the game. I laughed to see them go bust, but not nearly as much as Matt.
Only the strong -- and the jerks -- make it to the final table.
Then my own brother Phil was cleaned out, and I realized this game was serious. If such a loveable zany as Phil can find himself suddenly bereft of chips, then maybe this wasn't as happy-go-lucky a game as the Palm version led me to believe. I knuckled down with the last six players: Oke from Canada, Feldy the Eldy, The Other Phil, Some Biker-Looking Guy, and Burt Cohen.
I glanced at Burt. He had a formidable stack o' chips in front of him and a wide grin clamped around the soggy end of an unlit stogie. Here was last year's champion--however suspect the circumstances surrounding the win--well supplied for another run at the title. I noticed Karefree Karen, his fiance, lingering within shoulder-rubbing distance. Since Karen and I go way back, I tried to convince her to tell me what Burt was holding.
"Aardvarks," she said, using the rare Mississippi gambler's term for double aces.
"Damn," I said, and folded, retaining a dwindling army of poker chips. My undoing was upon me. To make matters worse, when Burt tipped his hand up to take the pot, I saw that Karen had been totally lying! I guess that's why they call her Karefree: it's because she simply has no Konscience.
The tension was thick enough to cut like a black-jack deck, and I was desperately gunning for Wheezer. I didn't want to be the champion. Heck, I didn't care who took it. I just like the title, "Wheezer." I got dealt a king and a queen, off suit, but I was far from the dealer, so I stayed in along with the Biker and maybe another player. The flop was the kindest one I'd seen yet: king, queen, seven.
"I got this one," I thought. Biker knocked, I bet, everyone called. The turn was nothing special: a deuce, no flush. Biker knocked, I bet, Biker called. I started to wonder what he might have, but then the words of Lucky Ned occurred to me: "Don't pscyhe out other players: Instead, say your prayers." Ned always says "pray-ers" as two syllables to better rhyme with "players." For me, it was too late to do anything but ride this out to the bitter end. The river was an unspectacular six. Biker knocked, and I bet.
That's when I noticed that he was wearing skull rings. I had two, plus two scorpions and a lion. But my skull rings were just skulls. As he pushed his chips into the pot and raised me, I noticed that his skull rings were the kind where the skulls have wings sprouting from the zygomatic processes and long, forked tongues snaking from between their grim grins. In a word: badass.
If I called, I'd be all in. But if I didn't call, I had nothing left. Lucky Ned would have said "Go With Guts," and my guts were screaming: "Get out!" My fatal error was ignoring the sage advice of Ned. I called. Biker showed a pair of sevens in the hole: three of a kind beating my high two pair. Sad but true. And it's all Karen's fault. Ned's too, while we're at it. And Matt and Stinky certainly didn't do me any favors.
The rest of the game couldn't go fast enough for me. Disappointment washed over me, and I tried to come down with an asthma attack so at least I could be Wheezer in point of fact if not Wheezer in title. Since I couldn't muster a good lung rattle, I lit up a fat, smelly stoagie and puffed the hell out of it, while watching the game continue.
Mr. Skull Ring was soon to drop out, and the money players remained: Oke, Phil the Other, and Burt. Playing a hunch, I sidled up next to Burt and dropped a napkin on the floor. Bending down to pick it up, I took a good look at his pockets. There was a rectangular object in the left pocket. It wasn't soft like a wallet, but hard, like a metal or plastic casing. Bingo: a Palm Pilot! At that point, there was no doubt in my mind where the big money was going to go: to Karen and Burt's honeymoon fund.
It sucked losing. They say you get desensitized to that sort of thing after getting beat enough. If that were true, I would have stopped caring in the second grade. I was on the outside, standing at the rail with the tourists. One thing life has taught me, though, is that when life serves you lemons chuck them at somebody else. Naturally, I thought of Stinky, who busted out shortly after me. I probably should have kept an eye on him but self-pity had kept me from looking anywhere but inward. Now I realized losing meant his winning streak was over and the time for intervention was now.
Dan was still playing, though, so I told him to bust out quick. Dan thought Stinky could wait until after he won. I snapped, "How selfish are you? What if he had just been hit by a bus and needed someone to call 911? Would you make him wait?"
Although he smiles on the outside, it's killing Stinky to have to award Burt Cohen his prize.
Dan thought for a moment, "Why can't the bus driver call?"
"His phone is broken." I said, not wanting to waste time on a frivolous debate.
Dan frowned. "And nobody else on the bus has a phone?"
"Not even that weird guy with the scraggly beard sitting in the very back talking to himself?"
"No!" I shouted. "There's no God damn phone."
"In his fannypack?"
I paused. "Yes, okay, there is a phone in his fannypack. I didn't see it before."
Dan grinned. "I thought so. So the answer, then, is yes, if Stinky were hit by a bus I would make him wait."
Once again I couldn't argue with Dan's impeccable logic. I didn't need to, though, because by the time he finished, Stinky had vanished from sight, into the smoky depths of the Horseshoe.
By chance, the SSSOP was wrapping up just as the Kentucky Derby was about to start. I don't know anything about horse racing, although that's never kept me from betting on it at the track, so I thought I might try to recapture my lucky streak, which had taken a little break during the tournament, with a small wager on the ponies.
But just like always, I got lost trying to navigate through the patched-together layout of the Horseshoe. I can never remember where I want to go. Is it on the old Mint side, or on the original 'Shoe side? Was that the same snack bar that I just passed, or a new one? By the time I located the race book, they weren't taking any more action on the big race.
I stood, cursing under my breath, and heard a voice off to my left. "Hey, nice shirt," said a guy sitting in front of a video poker machine. "What's the Solar System Series of Poker?"
"Ah, just some stupid tournament that says absolutely nothing about your poker skills if you lose."
"Well, it's a great shirt."
And that's when it hit me. Just because the casino didn't want to take my bet, that didn't mean the race couldn't turn a profit for me.
I turned to the man and made my proposition. "You like my shirt? How about we bet for it? Your cup of quarters against my shirt in the Derby."
He looked at his bucket, which was half full with about $16 in coin. Then he looked at my shirt, stretched fetchingly across my belly. Then back at the bucket, and back again at the shirt. "Okay, you're on."
Like I said, those were some beautiful shirts.
I remembered Andrew Skier mentioning something about Funny Cide, a horse from New York, being in the race. The horse is from New York, I live in New York. What the hell? I've bet on horses for stupider reasons, so I asked the guy, "How's this sound? Funny Cide places, I take your money. He doesn't, and the shirt's yours." It was a big risk, and the odds weren't in my favor, but the race was starting, and I really wanted to make a bet. Any bet.
The bell rang up on the TV, and the horses busted out of the gate. Most horse races in Vegas elicit little more than a few casual glances from hardcore bettors, but the Kentucky Derby is a lot like the Super Bowl, an occasion when suddenly the whole world pretends to be interested. People were whooping at the screens, "Come on, Empire Maker!" "Get up, Brancusi!" "Attaboy, Outa Here!" "Honey, which horse is ours?!"
Funny Cide broke out of the pack, but stayed behind the two leaders. I was scared he'd already shot his whole wad, but my new favorite horse stayed steady, and I joined in the cheers. "Come on, you lousy son of a bitch! Don't screw this up, you worthless nag!" After the final turn, the favorite, Empire Maker suddenly turned it on, and started gaining on the leaders. But Funny Cide had been holding back, and he ran his little New York heart right into first place.
I turned to the man, snatched his bucket before he could change his mind, and tried to head back to the poker game and the relative safety of my big group of friends. Naturally, I got lost.
The final table whittled down to three players: Phil Sunburry, Oke Millett and Cheater Burt Cohen. Burt held the most chips, about twice as many as Oke and Phil, and kept stacking them into vulgar phallic symbols and shouting, "Chip boner!"
I didn't pay much attention to the final three players. My eyes were roaming the tops of the slots and tables, looking for a cocktail waitress or Stinky. I hoped to see him before he tumbled into the deep abyss of his addiction. Oke busted out first. Phil followed a few minutes later when Burt used his much larger stacks to bully him. Actually, the stacks did part of the bullying. Burt did the rest with a nasty wedgie. He also kicked Phil. As I was about to distribute the monetary prizes and coveted SSSOP bracelet, Stinky returned with his trousers riding ridiculously low. They were at his knees, exposing skin between his briefs and pant waist and causing him to walk funny, like a socialite in a dress two sizes too tight.
"Where've you been?"
He gave me a sly grin and jingled his pockets. They sounded heavy and full of coins. "That's all quarters."
I wasn't in the mood to celebrate his winnings. I didn't care if he won enough money to drag his pants all the way down to his ankles.
"Nah," he shrugged, "I only won sixteen bucks. I pulled the pants down myself."
SSSOP entrants, friends and family members waited impatiently in the smoky poker room for the awards ceremony. So, Stinky and I went out and did what we hated most; we gave away money. Stinky handed out the cash prizes and gave the bracelet (generously provided by Andrew Skier) to Burt's fiancé, Karefree Karen, who secured the solid gold ornament to his wrist. Burt graciously showed everyone the bracelet and how it hung on his arm, whether or not they asked him to.
On to Part 6