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Card Boom

In which our intrepid reporter discovers the hipster joys of playing poker, makes new friends and, not incidentally, wins 242 bucks

By Kevin Jamieson

For American males under 18, baseball may be said to be the national pastime. When they grow up, it becomes poker.
--Carl Sifakis, The Encyclopedia of Gambling

Sonoma Joe's is hard to miss, even if you're not looking for it, its cool-blue neon burning along the trim of the facade facing Highway 101 outside of Petaluma. Inside, the cardroom is bright with overhead lights and white walls, and, unlike in Las Vegas, the noise of slot machines is nonexistent. Instead are the noises of chips clicking and the occasional hiss of cards sliding across felt, interspersed with patches of conversation. Tonight is a tournament night, and the game is no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, easily the most popular form of tournament poker around today. Forty-five dollars gets you a stack of tournament chips and a plastic card assigning a random seat at one of the low-slung tables.

After handing over my entry fee, I walk through the double doors to the bar, which is darker and just a bit cozy. I order an orange juice and begin my pretournament ritual of boosting my blood sugar. Alcohol isn't good for poker, anything that clouds judgment is pretty much out. In Vegas, you can drink and play games like blackjack without a lot of trouble, because the odds are always against you: you will lose. But poker is a game of skill, and alcohol doesn't enhance your poker skills any more than it helps you drive a car.

Before a tournament, I'm always a little bit jittery, kind of like Christmas morning, except you don't know if Santa is going to leave you a gift or snake a 50 out of your wallet. The orange juice helps, and I'm feeling ready to play when the floor man sweeps through the bar and tells us it's time to begin.

Everyone starts with the same number of chips, and once you're out, you're gone. The only way to win money is to make it to the final table where the order in which you are knocked out indicates the prize you'll take. The longer you last, the bigger the prize. Looking around the room, it seems like the whole place is filled and it will be an impossible task to last into the money.

There are a lot of young guys like myself, which is encouraging, but that is tempered by the looks I am receiving from some of the more experienced clientele. Sharks can't drool, but they must have some reaction when fresh chum is dropped into the water.

I play tight, solid poker, meaning that I pretty much fold everything, but pick up a few pots here and there with some strong pairs. Then, the moment arrives: sitting in the small blind, directly to the left of the dealer, I find the best starting hand possible. Two aces. American Airlines. Bullets. It just feels good.

As the initial round of betting cycles around the table, a few people limp in, paying just the minimum in the hopes of seeing the flop, the three cards that will come out after the betting finishes. I know with my pocket aces that I am not going to let them see it without putting in a lot more chips. A few more players fold, and the guy sitting on the dealer button decides to raise it up to about 3,000. Of course, that's just 3,000 in tournament chips, not actual dollars, but it's an imposing bet nonetheless.

It's my turn to act. I don't even know how many chips I have, but I croak "All in," and nudge them vaguely toward the center. It's only a nudge because I am barely in control of my major bodily functions. At this point, breathing certainly doesn't seem involuntary, and my ears are buzzing with the sound of my lungs and the creak of my chair.

Everyone folds except for the guy who raised. I look over at him, and he's dressed just like a famous poker professional, Dave "the Devilfish" Ulliot, right down to the slicked-back hair and glasses. The real Devilfish is from Hull, England, and plays an exceptionally aggressive style of poker. This Devilfish is probably from Petaluma, and I have absolutely no idea what he's thinking right now.

Petaluma Devilfish stares at me for a few moments, and I manage to calm down. I really don't care if he calls or folds, I'm just happy. Finally, after a few minutes, which were actually probably no longer than 15 seconds, he folds. The dealer gathers the pot and pushes it to me, and now the adrenaline is replaced by relief and the resumption of normal oxygen. I decide to show the table my aces so that when they try to screw around with me in the future they'll be thinking about those bullets bearing down on them.

"I made a good fold," Petaluma Devilfish says, looking over the top of his glasses at me. "That's how I make my living. I read people."

The absurdity of the statement comes to me in a rush. He's quoting Phil Hellmuth, the young poker brat and renowned egomaniac who won the 1989 World Series of Poker. We're sitting in Sonoma Joe's, not anywhere close to the World Series, and his statement seems hilariously out of context. But I realize that I, too, have been taking this small tournament too seriously. I can't help it; it's my body's natural response. My body doesn't know that it's only $45.

"Really?" I say, flooded with relief. "I shit my pants for a living."

This is truly how I feel every time I go all-in. The table erupts in laughter, and Petaluma Devilfish turns red. Later, at the final table, he will be cursing and angry, tilting like the pinball machines in the bar next door while a beer-toting spectator commends me for my scatological comments. I don't mind taking the piss out of him and myself at the same time--poker isn't always pretty like on TV.

After the tournament ends, I think for a bit about just how far away this small-stakes tournament is from the World Series of Poker. While the series was played and won way back in May, it is being meted out in 22 segments each Tuesday night on ESPN through mid-September. Fox Sports Net aired the first live professional poker tournament ever shown in the United States, on a five-minute delay to prevent cheating, last month. And according to ESPN, while some 20 million Americans play golf, a full 50 million play poker.

Ten thousand dollars in cash is required up front for entry into the World Series, but not everyone ponies up the cash directly out of their savings accounts. More and more people win their place at the World Series by winning smaller tournaments called "satellites," or even smaller ones called "super-satellites." In 1989, 150 players vied in the series. This year, 2,576 gamers participated, 1,500 more than did last year, a number prompting officials to consider doubling the $10,000 buy-in to discourage amateurs. Many of these amateur satellite tournaments are held at online poker rooms that run tournaments of all kinds day and night with people participating from all over the world.

"Of the 2,500 or so entrants this year, you had at least a thousand who won their entry on the Internet," says Bill Marsden, the director of gaming operations for Sonoma Joe's in Petaluma. Online poker satellites were made famous last year when Chris Moneymaker entered one on PokerStars.com for $40 and ended up winning the World Series of Poker main event that year. Moneymaker, whose apt surname is real, has been both criticized and praised. Many claim that he made far too many bad plays and insinuate that his title win was a lucky fluke. Regardless of how he is perceived by other players, he showed the world that an average Joe has a chance to grab the gold.

And so, more and more of those people are showing up at the local cardrooms. "There are two primary reasons: television and the Internet," says Marsden. "You combine those two and you've got a breed of poker player out there now who is becoming more educated about the game and they're now starting to want to venture out to play against a human face, versus sitting at the computer screen or watching it on TV."

The increase in human faces is impressive, indeed. "In the past year, we've seen 30 to 50 percent growth, and tournaments have run rampant," Marsden says. "We've gone from a tournament where we might have had 30 players to now having 85 players. They come in an hour and a half early to be sure they can get a seat on Tuesday nights."

Even regular nontournament play is up, Marsden says. "Our live games have picked up an increase that varies from one to three tables of people. I come in five nights a week, and I see new faces every night that I've never seen before. Most of them are younger, between 21 and 34 years of age."

Sonoma Joe's is on top of the boom. An entirely separate building is planned for the same property, with an increase from eight to 15 tables, a full sit-down restaurant, lounge and bar with a stage for weekend entertainment such as comedy and live music. "It's going to be glitzy and jazzy, but it's still going to be a cardroom," Marsden stresses.

The River Card Room is in many ways the opposite of what Sonoma Joe's is going to be. Located in the back of Bank Shot Billiards in downtown Petaluma, the first thing you notice walking through the door are the large windows that give a nicely elevated view east toward the freeway. The half dozen tables have plenty of walking space between them, and the room is large enough to accommodate two large sofas, a wide-screen TV and a small table with a chessboard. With plenty of natural light, the atmosphere is relaxed and easygoing.

Although they do play Texas Hold 'Em at the River Card Room, they also play another game called Omaha. Omaha is very similar to Hold 'Em, except you receive four down cards initially instead of just two. "Omaha is a much more complicated game and harder for new players to grasp," says Mike Giacomini, one of two owners of the River Cardroom. "Even experienced Hold 'Em players have trouble picking up Omaha when they first start. Strong Hold 'Em hands are mediocre Omaha hands in many cases, and it's hard for them to visualize that."

The game has just started this afternoon, and I am by far the youngest and most inexperienced player at the table. I have actually played Omaha a fair bit online, but none of my friends seem to be interested in it, so this is my first time playing live.

The game today is being played "3-6," which means the first two bets are $3 and the second two are $6, so I buy in for $100. My chips look ready for battle, lined up in stacks of 20. After introducing myself around the table, I begin to pick up the rhythm of the game. Everybody knows each other here, and the ages seem to range from early 40s to late 60s. Plenty of inside jokes and comments fly around, and one player tells a story about a plumber remodeling his bathroom while another asks me if I've played Omaha before. From the way I'm holding my cards up in front of my face (instead of covering them with my hands on the table), it's clear that I haven't.

In Omaha you're not supposed to be playing every hand you get, although a lot of players do. There are simply too many "second best" hands you can make in Omaha, and that results in your woodpile of chips being reduced to a splinter fairly quickly. Compared to Hold 'Em, Omaha has a reputation of being an action game, with plenty of chips flying into the pot. Between the four cards in your hand, the seven other players at the table and the five cards you see in the middle, a lot of different hands can be made, and it seems for the first hour I can do no wrong. I hit flushes, straights and low hands all in a row.

The table begins to wake up and look at me, wondering just what to think. I don't even know what to think, as the stacks of chips begin to build in front of me. It seems as if I fold at all the right times and make my draws on the last card. I am pumped, I am seeing stars, and after just a few hours, my stacks are forming an impregnable castle wall. Chatting and laughing with the regulars, I can see myself spending a lot of time here.

"People come in here and they're friends," Giacomini says. "If the guys didn't have a good time, they wouldn't be coming in here three or four times a week to play. They enjoy each other's company, they enjoy playing off each other and the banter back and forth." Since the River usually only has one game going on in the afternoon, Giacomini does everything: answers the phone, takes over the deal when one of his dealers needs a break, cashes chips in and out and even plays in the game when there aren't enough people.

"People think we're some big company, but we're not; we're two local guys sitting here," Giacomini chuckles. "[Co-owner] Ray Allena and I, our families go back in Petaluma a long, long time."

With almost everybody able to play poker online, day or night, there has to be something more to coming out to a cardroom. Giacomini explains it in simple terms. "You don't have to come to my place to gamble. We have to be unique to keep drawing the people to us. We have to offer something; our personality has to make people want to come back and see us again."

After just two and a half hours, I ask for some clear Lucite racks so that I can stack my chips to cash out. I am dizzy with what to me is such a large win. For any professional, or even the regular guys here, I'm sure this is no big deal. But for my first live Omaha game, I am ecstatic. Sliding the chips across the cashier cage top, Giacomini counts out my winnings in cash. Three hundred forty-two dollars, for a total profit of $242. A smile hurts my face. I resolve to come back to play again real soon.

Over the next week, I get to know many of the regulars at the table, but not many of the great hands I picked up on that first day. Little highs and little lows accumulate, with my first big win still fresh in the back of my head. On my third session, my $100 buy-in is reduced to $60 and then to $40 in a monumentally bad play on my part. I begin to doubt my ability. Slowly, a quotation comes back to me: "If, after a half an hour at the poker table, you don't know who the sucker is--it's you." I'm a slow learner, because it took me damned near a week.

The weekly poker game I go to on Monday nights has doubled from roughly 10 people to 20 in the last month. All of them are out of high school but not a lot are over 25 years old, so they perfectly qualify as the "next generation" of poker players. As we play a $20 no-limit tournament, I realize that the game's lure comes down to two basic ideas: poker is something to do, and we can do it. We'd normally be plugged in watching TV or playing video games, and this is something to do with our friends that is relatively cheap and easy to set up. It's something everyone feels they can do.

The television coverage of poker has certainly swelled the number of entrants to the World Series of Poker, but it's also given people the idea that they can do the same thing in their own house. "It's spread by word of mouth, too," says one of the new guys who recently joined our Monday night games.

Considering the price of going out to eat and a movie, a poker night can be an incredible value for money. It's inexpensive and it's a way to compete with each other all on the same playing field. We probably couldn't put together a coherent sports team, but we're able to play cards, and with the luck of the draw, we all feel like we have a chance to beat each other. But even with this kind of competitive urge, I have never once seen an instance of cheating.

"It's simple, there are three rules," says Joel, one of the founders of the weekly game. "Rule number one: no cheating. Rule number two: no violence. Rule number three: rule number two can be broken if rule number one is broken."

I had a birthday party for my son, and it was a poker party," says Armand of Ausiello's Fifth Street Grill, who lets me watch poker on the TV behind his bar. "It was unbelievable. Seventeen kids showed up and they each put in 10 bucks and played for nine hours. They had a great time. Some parents are worried about their kids playing poker, like it will turn into a huge gambling problem." He pauses and shakes his head.

"Poker is a game about people," he says, adjusting the TV's volume, "and this is something that gets kids to sit down and learn about each other instead of plugging into video games."


American Airlines, bullets, pocket rockets: Hold 'Em slang for a pair of aces, the best possible starting hand.

Bad beat: When the odds are in your favor and you get beat by a statistically worse hand, you've suffered a bad beat. It happens all the time, and every player has a million bad-beat stories, some more excruciating than others. Just the other day I had a pair of tens and this other guy had . . . well, you get the picture.

The blinds: If nobody had to put any money in the pot, there wouldn't be much to fight over, would there? The blinds are bets made by the players to the left of the dealer to start the pot. On the first round, you must call the amount of the blind to stay in the hand. If you're new to a card room, the dealer will remind you when it is your turn to put up the blind.

Cash games (also called "ring games"): These are played with chips that have actual cash value, such as $1 or $5. When you hand the cashier a $100 bill, she will hand you a rack with 100 $1 chips in it, which you then play. At the end, you hand those chips you still have back in and the card room gives you cash.

Check and knock: Both knocking on the table and saying "Check" indicate no bet.

Flop, turn, river: After the initial deal in games like Hold 'Em and Omaha, there is a round of betting where people decide whether to stay in the hand by betting or to fold. After that, three cards are placed in the middle of the table (the flop). After another round of betting, the fourth card to come out is called the "turn," and after another round of betting, the last card is called the "river." Collectively, these cards are referred to as the "board" or community cards, since everyone can use them in their hand.

The nuts: The best possible hand. In Hold 'Em and Omaha, it is essential to figure out what the best possible hand is given the cards on the table. Having the nuts yourself is one of the best feelings there is in poker.

Omaha: Like Hold 'Em, but played with four cards instead of two. You must use two of the cards in your hand with the five on the board to make the best possible poker hand. This is often played high-low, where the highest hand and lowest hand possible share the pot.

Texas Hold 'Em: Also just called "Hold 'Em," this is the most popular poker game played today. Each player gets two cards (called "down," or "hole" cards) and combines them with the five cards placed face up on the table to form the best poker hand possible.

3-6, 4-8, 5-10: These refer to the betting limits in Hold 'Em and Omaha at local card rooms. If you are playing 3-6 Hold 'Em, the first two bets are $3, and the second two bets (the turn and river) are $6.

Tournament: In a tournament, you pay one fee and are issued tournament-only chips. Once you are out of chips, you are knocked out, but the order in which you are knocked out determines your prize. If you are the last one standing, you have won first place.

Cardroom Etiquette

The best way to show that you're an experienced poker player the first time you go to a cardroom is simple: tip the dealers. When you win a pot, slide a couple bucks to the dealer; dealers rely on tips to make their living. With all of the new players coming in who don't know this, you'll stand out as the old shark you are. In general, don't worry about looking confused. If you need some extra time to decide or make an action, just say the word "time" and the game will pause. When in doubt, ask questions and the dealer or floor man will be more than happy to answer. You're a customer, they want you there and aren't trying to intimidate you.

Poker Websites

www.sonomapoker.com: Although Sonoma Joe's and the River Card Room don't have websites of their own, Sonomapoker.com can tell you what is happening with tournaments and other events at the local cardrooms.

www.pokersavvy.com: A great resource with articles on improving your game.

www.pokerpages.com: Plenty of articles about the professional poker scene along with online strategy.

www.posev.com/poker/holdem/strategy/index.html: Abdul Jalib's website about low-limit Hold 'Em strategy is absolutely priceless for the beginning online player.

www.guinnessandpoker.blogspot.com: A blog by a man named Iggy who always has the best links and stories about poker news with a personal twist.


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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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