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Straight to the Queen

Queen of Hearts A few years ago, HarperCollins had embarked on a project to publish essays on each of the fifty U.S. states. The essays were to be collected in a series of regional guides, but only two were published before the plug was pulled. This was a shame, because I had submitted the (embellished but mostly true) essay below for their New England edition, and it had been accepted. Dang.

I stumbled across this piece when I was trolling through old writing projects looking for inspiration and I kind of still like it. So, I thought, what the heck, let’s share it.

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Straight to the Queen
By Len Vlahos
©April 2010

October 28, 2003
The beast’s blood-soaked fangs buttress four alabaster teeth, each etched with a different suit from the deck. The diamond has a little stud at its center that twinkles when it catches the light just so. His soulless eyes stare down at me through polarized lenses—from their seven-foot-two-inch perch they look like meteors falling to Earth. He has a silver cross dangling from one ear, its bottom sharpened to a lethal point. A two-day growth of steel-tipped stubble spreads across his chin like a plague. When he speaks, it’s as if demons have been called forth from the deepest reaches of hell, steam seeping slowly from his nose.

His name is Jim, and he is the most ruthless poker player in the room.

Of course, if you were to come across Jim, you would see a five-foot-six-inch picture of nerdish congeniality, his striped polo shirt stretched thin from too many Heinekens, his pants riding up over his ankles. Your first impression would be that Jim is an actuary or an accountant, but not the fun kind of actuary or accountant. The forgettable appearance is only part of Jim’s game—lull you into a false sense of security, then rip your throat out. Anyone who’s spent any time here knows this.

“Here” is Foxwoods, a mammoth casino hidden in the backwaters of Northeastern, Connecticut. The pride of the Mashanpequot tribe, Foxwoods is one of two grotesque compounds—the other called Mohegan Sun—lighting up the otherwise sleepy towns that dot the Rhode Island and Massachusetts border.

To most people, Connecticut conjures images of Greenwich mansions, Mystic Seaport, and Yale Univeristy. Of docksiders, khakis, and sweater vests. Of Joe Lieberman’s hang dog, droopy face that is just impossible to like. But for me, in 2003, Connecticut was all about poker.

Jim sees me walk up and smiles. I take his outstretched hand.

“So you playing in this thing today?” He’s referring to the $300 No Limit Hold ‘Em Tournament, a side event in the World Poker Finals taking place at Foxwood’s.

“I am,” I answered. “I see your face is on the wall of fame over there.” Jim had won a seat into the $10,000 No-Limit Tournament, the week’s crowning event, and they posted his photo alongside the other cardsharps. “Make the rest of us amateurs proud,” I tell him.

His smile is sly but unmistakable. We wish each other luck, joking that we’ll meet later that night at the final table. He heads off in search of his seat.

I say goodbye to Kristen, the woman I’ve been dating for the past month. She has perfect, porcelain teeth that stretch to the ends of the earth when she smiles, her cat-like eyes have a glint of mischief, and her chestnut hair falls on her shoulders like a flowing robe. She has tall, lean legs covered by black tights and a plaid skirt. In stark contrast to my vision of Jim, Kristen’s eye-popping appearance is not a figment of my imagination.

I start to walk away when Kristen puts a hand on my shoulder to stop me. She looks into the very center of my eyes. Her gaze is so intense I can feel it on the back of my head. “Kick ass,” she says with Pacinoesque intensity and kisses me on the lips.

A little light-headed I enter the tournament room in search of Table 34, Seat 3.

With a record number of people signed up to play—726—they’re dealing the game 11-handed instead of 10-handed. I’m literally rubbing elbows with the players in seats two and four.

Seat Two, to my right, is a burly man in his mid-thirties who doesn’t say a word, just puckers his lips like he’s sucking a lime. I silently name him “Eeyore.”

Seat Four, a garrulous young black man, plays Yin to Eeyore’s Yang. He’s talking a blue streak and he’s kind of funny, so I dub him “Chris Rock.” Chris is either the friendliest guy in the world, or he’s trying to distract the rest of us to throw us off our game. It’s not an uncommon tactic. Just yesterday, a salty old dog who called himself Hollis used the same strategy to bust me out of a single table satellite tournament. Chris Rock makes Hollis seem like Shields, or maybe Yarnell.

The first hand is dealt and I’m staring at a jack of clubs and three of hearts. Instafold. It goes like this for the next hour. In that time I have exactly one playable hand, Ace-Queen off-suit. I play it, and win a small pot.

A few hands later, I get six-seven suited in the big blind. I check my way into the pot and watch an open ended straight draw hit the flop. By the time the last card falls half my stack is gone, my straight unfilled. The other half of my stack disappears ten short minutes later, my Ace-Jack bested by quiet Eeyore’s Ace-King.

T.J. Cloutier, in his book on playing in No-Limit Hold ‘Em Poker Tournaments, says “to win, you have to win with Ace-King and you have to beat Ace-King.” It’s the fifth time in the last 48 hours that Ace-King has kicked me in the nuts. Everything in the way Eeyore bet SCREAMED Ace-King. He practically had a tattoo across his dull, wrinkled forehead that said, “Hey jerkwad in seat three, I’ve got Ace-King. Ace-King, Ace-friggin’-King!”

The tournament is likely to run until midnight or later. My goal, as a new player, was to make it to dinnertime. I am gone by 11:30 AM.

As I make the walk of shame out of the poker room, I spot Jim. He’s already so far ahead that he looks like a disembodied head floating atop a mountain of poker chips. I shrug my shoulders and smile at him, as if to say “Oh well, happens to the best of us.” Jim nods at me, but then whispers something to the player in the next seat, who turns his head in my direction. The two of them laugh.

Wankers.

I wander out of the casino shielding my eyes from the bright Connecticut sun, and before I know what’s happening, I’m sitting in my car headed for I-95 and the long trip home. It’s then that I remember my date. I double back.

To her credit, Kristen laughs when I tell her that I drove away without her. It’s a transformative moment in our relationship. She had every right to punch me in the nose, but instead, she plays the hand I’ve dealt and finds the humor in it.

When we finally get on the road for real, after I have apologized for the fifteenth time, I pour over the details of my early exit from the tournament as she listens patiently, right up to Jim’s mocking glare. “I guess poker isn’t for me,” I tell her.

“Whoa,” she says, and this time there’s an edge to her voice. “Busting out early, or being in such a fog that you drove off, those things I can understand. But quitting? One small setback and you give up? Is that really who you want to be?”

Who is this girl?

We careen past New London and the Navy’s fleet of nuclear subs. I wonder if the fish in the Sound are glowing. I’d kind of like to see that.

“They have this tournament every year, right?” Kristen asks.

“Yeeeeah,” I say, drawing the word out in hesitation, not sure where she’s taking this conversation.

“Then practice. You have a year to practice, a year to get good. To come back and win.”

“It’s not that simp—”

“Ahp!” She holds her hand up, “No excuses.”

I’m not sure why this woman, who I’ve only been dating for a few weeks, is so interested in my poker career. I wonder if she has some mob connection, or if she’s part Mashanpequot Indian. (It turns out she is part Indian, but not from a tribe that owns a casino. Too bad.) But at the end of the day, I figure she’s giving me encouragement because she knows I want to play.

“I’ll come back with you,” she says.

And just like that, with no vote of cloture, the debate is ended and the deal is done.

Halloween, 2004 – One Year Later
The drive to Foxwoods—a 100-mile stretch of the 2000-mile-long I-95—alternates between devastatingly boring and colossally ugly. The highlight is the bend in the road at New Haven, which is perpetually under construction; traffic clogs this main vehicular artery of the northeast like too much cholesterol. Eisenhower would be proud.

I’ve made the trip up 95 a dozen times or more in the year that’s passed since my early exit from the $300 No-Limit tourney. Today, on the trip back, to tempt fate a second time, I’m quiet, contemplative. Kristen, as she promised, rides with me. She stares out the window, singing softly along with Angel of Harlem.

For 365 days, I’ve focused on all things poker. I played at Foxwood’s and in Atlantic City. I found home games, and I discovered PartyPoker.com. I played ring games and tournaments—Limit, No-Limit, Omaha Hi-Low, and Stud. I played thousands—tens of thousands—of hands. I saw every conceivable combination of cards. I filled flushes and houses full. I made straights and flopped quads. I watched my rag cards turn to riches of chips. I ate, breathed, and crapped poker.

And while all that was going on, I fell in love.

Kristen and I went on dates. Innocent, simple dates. Dinner-and-a-movie dates. The relationship we build is subtle, quiet, and confident. It’s not a fueled by the hot passion of New York’s fire, nor does it luxuriate in the burning glow of a California sun. It’s a steady, stable, and deep Connecticut bond we’re forging. There’s nothing ostentatious or garish about it. It’s like a heated pool on a cool night. Surprising at first, but so comfortable so quickly in the way it envelopes you, that you never want to get out.

Halloween is the day before Kristen’s birthday, so she’s forsaken her annual right of both demon worship and personal celebration to join me on this sojourn. It gives me that much more incentive to win.

9 a.m., November 1
“Shuffle up and deal!”

The very first hand I’m looking at a pair of kings, two cowboys ready to lasso a nice phat pot. They easily best a busted straight and I’m up more than five grand only a few minutes into the tournament. Last year’s “nojo” is this year’s “mojo.”

I manage my money well and play for hours. And hours. And more hours. My legs cramp, my back stiffens, and my ass-bone turns to rock. I imagine this is what it feels like to be 80 years old. But I achieve in year two what I failed so badly to do in year one: I make it to the dinner break.

There are fewer than 200 of the original 856 players left, so I don’t have to last a whole lot longer to ease my way into the money. The prize for the bottom rung on the payout scale—the top 80 players will earn a paycheck—is nearly double this year’s $500 entry fee, and I could use the money.

I call Kristen during the break. She’s back in the hotel room taking a nap, something she loves to do. Kristen is a mystery at the center of a riddle wrapped around an enigma, with an outer shell of beauty and grace. She has cage-danced (sort of), has been arrested (in a manner of speaking), and has won big at the poker table (this is true). I could spend a lifetime with this woman and still be surprised almost every day. For a gambler, this is a huge plus. I need uncertainty, unpredictability, and action. With Kristen, I’ve hit the trifecta.

A few more hours pass, and we’re down to 90 players. Only 10 more to go, and I’m a winner.

I’m under the gun (the first player to act) with a pair of tens. No-Limit Hold ‘Em is all about position, and my position is as bad as it gets, so really, this isn’t a very strong hand. But with the remaining players so close to cashing a check, the table is playing very tight; I decide to gamble. I raise the blinds and bet more than half of my now meager stack. This is my first mistake.

Everyone folds around to the button and I’m thinking that I’ve just stolen the blinds and antes when the last player to act reraises me, all in. He has a square head and a greenish tint to his skin. I’ve silently nicknamed him “Gumby.” He must be a good poker player, because his face is a blank slate. I just can’t put him on a hand.

Gumby raises enough—his stack is three times mine—that to call, I have to risk all my chips. I have no choice. Too much of my money is in the middle, and I’m not going to see anything as good as 10s again for a while. I make the call. This is my second mistake.

If you’re paying attention, you should know which two cards Gumby flipped over. Can you guess? That’s right, Ace-King. Truth-be-told, a pair versus Ace-King is, for all intents and purposes, a draw. No one has an edge. But I know these cards and know that my fate is sealed. The flop shows a King, and I’m dead in the water. There’s a second King on the river, just to make sure.

It’s 10 p.m. I’ve been playing for 13 hours, but I’m playing no more. And I have nothing to show for it but a sore butt.

When I tell people this story, they say “wow, 90th out of 856, that’s great!” But it’s not. In some ways it would have been easier to finish 700th. To come so close and have been so far, well, it stung.

Kristen woke up when I made it back to the hotel room and gave me a big hug. It was one of the best hugs of my life. You never know how much you need a physical connection until you get it. Then you can’t figure out how you lived without it. I didn’t waste anytime giving her the birthday surprise I’d planned before we left for Foxwood’s.

It turned out that in all my poker practicing, I’d gotten kind of good—I earned more than two grand playing ring games online. I’d cashed most of that out, and booked a trip for the two of us to spend a long weekend in Rome a month later. She was floored, and I was happy.

Present Day
Kristen and I are now married, and we’ve returned to the scene of the crime: We live in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I haven’t played poker in a few years, so now when I think of the Nutmeg state, I’m not dreaming of mountains of chips and wired aces. Its fall leaves, early tee times, and the smell of barbeque that come to mind. It turns out that the casinos are a Connecticut anomaly, because this place, more than any other I’ve ever known, feels like home.

But sometimes, very occasionally, I think I can hear a distant, muffled call of “Shuffle up and deal” and I find myself wanting to take a seat.