Texas Hold ’Em, a variation of seven-card stud, is the acknowledged Cadillac of poker. Each player is dealt two “pocket” or “hole” cards (face down) and shares five “community” cards (face up). After a first round of betting, the first three community cards are turned up. The two remaining cards are turned up one at a time after further rounds of betting. Players combine any of three community cards with their pocket cards to form a five-card poker hand.
What you need, throughout, is confidence. If you don’t have any, pretending should work just as well. That’s why I’m glad the skinny guy (let’s call him Slim) standing at the back entrance to the Montefiore Club, waiting to be admitted to the first-ever Montreal Texas Hold ’Em Charity Championship, is looking the other way when I park my ’91 Escort (“Rust with a bit of car,” is how my wife refers to it) between a Jaguar and a BMW SUV. In Hold ’Em, this is called limping in.
“You just missed some serious-looking customers,” Slim says. He’s helpful, sharing potentially valuable information. Immediately, I’m sus-picious. There will be 280 entrants in this tournament (each buying in for $250); while he and I probably will not meet again, he’s still competition. He survives at my expense. And, of course, vice versa—which explains the helpfulness. He’s looking for a tell, some gesture or tic that will reveal my true character: serious customer or bluffer?
“Play much?” I ask.
“Nah, it’s for charity.”
“You bet,” I say, bluffing. I’ve been playing Texas Hold ’Em with the same group of guys since 1992, long before the Internet and all the televised tournaments turned the game into a craze. My reason for being here isn’t charitable either. I’ve been in a slump lately. Entering a tournament like this, when I’ve never played in one before, never even played with strangers, is probably not the best way to get my confidence back. But then, that’s what poker players in a slump do: they calculate the odds and, in spite of them, bet.
When the back door finally buzzes open, Slim puts on a pair of serious-looking sunglasses and hurries past me, though he pauses for a moment to point to the parking lot and say, “Your lights are on.”
Ask the organizers, a group of young business types, why they put the charity championship together—in less than six weeks incidentally—and they respond the way you’d expect young business types would. They are “leveraging the appeal of poker to serve a greater purpose,” building “a major charity brand.” The money is indeed for good causes—street kids, teaching hospitals—but, really, they just want to play. Texas Hold ’Em, specifically. Hardly surprising since for high rollers and poker rookies, for every celebrity from Ben Affleck to Martin Amis, it’s now the obsession of choice. Johnny Moss, legendary Vegas gambler and winner of the first World Series of Poker in 1970, summed up the game’s appeal: “Hold ’Em is to stud what chess is to checkers.”
Which explains why one of the organizers, Jonathan Goodman, has been cramming for the tournament, staying up nights reading Hold ’Em books by champions like Doyle Brunson and T. J. Cloutier. Goodman, CEO of the Paladin Labs pharma, explains that while other charity events in town may have featured gambling, this night’s different. This is a poker event; the proceeds just happen to be going to charity. As Montreal’s casino has no poker tables and hosts no tournaments, it’s also the only legal game in town.
The Montefiore, a posh 125-year-old private Jewish club, has been transformed for the occasion. The downstairs dining hall is crammed with twenty-eight green-felt tables. Professional dealers are on hand, in dress shirts and bow ties. The point is to simulate, as closely as possible, the TV tournaments, like the annual World Series of Poker held in Las Vegas. The Montefiore, however, can’t quite run that bluff. The atmosphere is that of a Vegas-style bar mitzvah. There’s a buffet and a sweets table upstairs, and mini-knishes and egg rolls circulating on trays. The majority of male players milling about look like they could be my uncle.
Or, in the case of clean-cut Jordan Steiner, like the bar mitzvah boy himself. Actually, Steiner is nineteen, a top-notch commerce student; he’s been playing for three years, online for one. His father, a psychiatrist, worries about him “setting reasonable limits.” But the Kid, as I can’t help calling him, is level-headed. He’s calculated his odds of winning the tournament at 100 to 1, at best.
Steiner’s presence—or that of bub-bly Jennifer Lipkowitz, who’s twenty-two, in sales and who had never played Hold ’Em until she learned it online two months ago—reminds me that
I should be on the lookout for “serious customers.” Except who would that be?
The surging popularity of Hold ’Em means you just never know. The game’s public profile exploded a couple of years ago when an accountant with the implausible name of Chris Moneymaker parlayed a victory in a us$39 online satellite tournament into a us$10,000 buy-in at the 2003 World Series of Poker. Moneymaker won us$2.5 million, beating a field of 839 players that included all of the top professionals. The story transcended poker. It was Cinderella at the ball. What’s more, it was on TV: just like Survivor, only sitting down. Moneymaker didn’t just defy the odds, he defied the first rule of poker—that anything is not possible. “Good players win,” according to Lou Krieger, author of Poker for Dummies, “and poor players lose.” Moneymaker proved there are no poor players any more.
Five of the dozen or so women entered in the tournament are at my table, and each seems determined to undermine the Moneymaker Effect. They’re betting recklessly, losing consistently and giggling non-stop. So much so, we’re shushed by players at a nearby table. “What do three pairs beat?” the woman next to me asks. I entertain a charitable thought, but not for long. “Two,” I say.
If chivalry is dead, so is chauvinism. This isn’t about who my opponents are—women are welcome at the big Vegas tournaments and do better every year—it’s about how bad they are. In Hold ’Em, there’s always a place at the table for players with no chance: dead money.
Rich on dead money, I’m the man at the table for a brief time. I knock out the five women in quick succession. I’m getting cards too: three fours or a set on the first three community cards turned up (known as “the flop”), an inside or gut-shot straight on the fifth and final community card (“the river”). Players are knocked out, tables are consolidated and new players show up with bigger stacks than me, but so what? The young, brawny guy next to me, whom I immediately nickname Mr. Hotshot, talks big, but when an ace comes up on the fourth community card (“the turn”), I re-raise and he folds his pair of jacks. I have six-high—nothing. This is why you play poker: to get away with murder.
It feels good to take down a bully too, but poker doesn’t give you much chance to enjoy your nobility. As in evolution or capitalism, beating a bully means you’re the bully now. So you better act like one. Unlike evolution or capitalism, though, poker makes room for justice. The poetic variety, that is. I try the exact same bluff I succeeded at earlier on a new player. But I misread him and he stares me down with a pair of tens. When the final card comes up and I miss the kings I was hoping for, I can’t even bring myself to see the bluff through. I’m beat—a rustbucket next to a Jag. So I check and, to my everlasting shame, giggle. The ultimate tell. I’m an open book. Hell, I’m large-print. My nickname should be Giggles. I lose most of my chips, and from here on in there’s no exact Hold ’Em term for my circumstance. Call it limping out.
Bar mitzvahs separate the men from the boys, and so does poker. After two hours, it’s crowded upstairs as the players who have been knocked out stay to eat cheesecake and to whine. Evidently, no one loses because they played foolishly; everyone’s “unlucky.” Everyone’s going on about the monster hand they should have won but didn’t. Otherwise known as a bad beat. But downstairs the truth is as undeniable as a nut flush. The game continues and the majority of us are not in it. I made it into the top seventy or so, but that only means I lasted two hours. By the time I’m through upping the ante on my blood-sugar level at the sweets table, there are only a couple of poker tables left.
“The broad’s still in,” someone says when I return downstairs.
He’s referring to Jennifer Lipkowitz. Her goal was to finish in the top one hundred, but she liked her chances better when she saw how edgy the men she was up against were. “Their hands were shaking holding their cards,” Lipkowitz tells me later.
Jordan Steiner miscalculated his odds; he’s still around. In fact, the Kid and the Broad will make the final table, finishing second and fourth, respectively: a wide-screen, flat-panel LCD TV for Steiner, airline tickets for Lipkowitz. Chris Siomos, a restaurateur, takes the top prize of the night—$5,000—and generously donates back $1,000 of it, bringing the total raised to $85,000.
“It was for charity,” one of the organizers concludes later. “That’s the reason we’re all here.”
“Of course,” I answer. He asks how I did. I shrug and say the only thing I can. “Bad luck.” That’s not a bluff, incidentally. That’s called a lie.