“You all here for the ” says a black man in a pinstriped suit and Oxford shoes, one of three dressed in nearly-identical fashion. A lilt of emphasis—a verbal wink—trails his question like a tail. About two dozen of us, mostly white, mostly between the ages of 20 and 25, nod in near-unison.
We are huddled in the lobby of a nondescript apartment building in Lower Manhattan on a Friday evening in mid-January—which means that in order for us to be here we have shunned social engagements and subjected ourselves to snow flurries and sub-zero wind gusts. (An exaggeration, perhaps, but as a native West Coaster, anything below forty feels nearly Arctic.)
I’ve come—and I’d wager, or at least call a bet, that the same is true for my fellow congregants—to follow up on a mysterious email that surfaced in my inbox a few days ago. “You are cordially invited,” it said, “to the GRAND OPENING of Manhattan’s Newest Elite Club.” It went on to say that the club featured 15 tables, multiple flat-screen televisions, and, on this coming Friday, a $15,000 “freeroll” tournament and free food.
Nowhere within the text was poker mentioned specifically, understandable since poker is illegal in Manhattan. But there was little obscurity about the email. I had no idea how they had gotten my address, but as a confessed, if somewhat guilty, poker junkie, I was less concerned with how and more concerned with which—that is, which subway would take me to the club.
J udging from the looks of things around here, I can tell mine is not an isolated experience. The sharply dressed greeters welcome us by rifling through our bags and patting down the insides of our legs, before shepherding us onto the elevators in units of 10; they’re barely making progress against the continual waves of new players streaming in from the snow.
As we pile out onto the fifth floor, two more men, similar-looking in dress but larger and more imposing, check our IDs before letting us in through a single green door, its window boarded up, a peephole notched into the board. A monitor is bolted to the wall, its screen divided among 16 cameras: views of the street outside, the lobby of the building, the card room.
Then we’re inside—and it’s an absolute madhouse. The club, a single, snaking room with mostly unadorned baby-blue walls (a poster depicting poker legend Phil Hellmuth, glowering over a mountain of tournament chips, is the most prominent decoration), swarms with wall-to-wall people. In one area, top-heavy waitresses ladle out pasta and homemade meatballs; they are not the only women in the place—not quite. The crowd, comprised mostly of young, white, vaguely professional-looking males, churns against itself, boisterous and self-absorbed, reminiscent of an underground trading room.
Behind the counter, an Asian man registers the players as they come in, using their IDs to make “Club Cards.” By the time I get to him, he has in his possession a stack of driver’s licenses a foot high and is as overwhelmed as a DMV rookie. Ten feet away from the counter a large Italian man balances on a rolling chair, furiously scrawling names onto a dry-erase board. At this point the $1-2 No Limit Hold ‘Em game has more than 20 names on its waiting list, while the more serious $2-5 NL and $5-5 NL have just a few.
“John P,” the large man booms. “I said, John P. Going once, going twice…”
From the other end of the room a little guy in his mid-to-late twenties with a sprawling pompadour and owl specs fights his way through the crowd. “I’m right here,” the guy squeaks, struggling to make himself heard over the uproar. “John P, that’s me…”
I give my name to a different overwhelmed man making the freeroll tournament list on a clipboard. (A freeroll is pretty much what it sounds like: a tournament that’s free to play in but with cash prizes for the winners, usually the last three or five players. In this case, the club has agreed to put $15,000 in the pot with a $5,000 first prize in order to promote the opening.) It isn’t clear if having your name on the clipboard guarantees you a seat in the tournament—unlikely, since the anarchic environment seems to assure all bets are void. I peel off some of my layers and hunker down with a plate of pasta to wait and see.
“I wonder what everybody’s girlfriends are doing tonight,” a man next to me comments with a sly grin.
An hour and a half later, the pace has, if anything, accelerated. Every seat in the house holds a player, and we, the superfluous, mill around them, killing time: watching the games, drinking soft drinks out of keg cups, talking on our cell phones.
At 7:30, I hear that an order has gone down not to let anyone else inside. In response, the regenerating mob thrusts up against the glass of the apartment building. We watch them on the interior monitors, cajoling and pleading with the greeters, appealing to their better natures, but the men appear unmoved.
At 8:00, the fat man stands high on a chair and begins to call off the names from the clipboard, which is said to hold more than 600 names. It goes very slowly, since only about half of us are able to hear what he’s saying.
“Please, be quiet!” he bellows, uselessly. The din persists. I think about leaving, well aware by this point that I have no chance of getting a seat—most of these people have been here since 4, while I showed up at 6. But I am far too entertained by the whole thing.
Then a rumor goes around that they’re going to start a few cash games in an adjoining room in back. By sheer luck, I’m able to con my way into a seat, most likely because everyone else is so concerned with the tournament.
I buy $150 in chips off somebody and slide into the back room to the $1-2 game. There’s nothing especially distinct about the players. It’s a pretty typical low-stakes crowd: a few younger, more serious players, still fascinated by the intricacies of the game; the rest your garden-variety compulsive gamblers. I fit somewhere in between.
One of the latter, a youngish Asian man in a gray suit and a slightly loosened, but still knotted, yellow paisley tie, claims to have been here since 7 in the morning, “straight from work.” As he recounts the events of his morning, he tips a Chinese dish down his throat—a liquid that manages, remarkably, to precisely match the yellow of his tie.
Another man, whose 72-hour stubble runs evenly all the way around his face and head, volunteers, “A couple of months ago, I spent the night in jail because my ace high flush lost to a straight flush.”
Somebody asks him how that could be.
“Well, I busted out of the tournament, so then I got into the cash game to make my money back. An hour later the place got raided. If I won the tournament, I’d have been home by the time the cops showed up.”
“They took you to jail just for playing?” someone asks incredulously. In general, the police target dealers and management, leaving the players alone.
“Nah,” he admits, “I had a warrant out, from when I never paid a ticket for walking my dog without a leash.” He bursts into laughter.
A ll in all they’re a likable bunch, and at first most of us are too jazzed by the scene outside to really take the game too seriously. I start off folding mostly, then pick up a few good hands and get action. In about three hours I’ve more than quadrupled my buy-in. The serious players, with whom I’ve locked horns a few times, rise to leave, grumbling as they go out the door. (It just isn’t their night.) Pretty soon I follow suit.
When I get to the floor again it’s a little calmer, but a crowd lingers stubbornly, praying for the players to bust out so they can replace them. The tournament will go on until 4 o’clock in the morning, a dealer tells me. I take the elevator down to the lobby, which stops for a woman on the fourth floor.
“Awfully busy around here tonight,” she offers, as we descend. “Party going on or something?”
I shrug my shoulders, noncommittal. But when we get down to the lobby, it’s completely vacant—just another apartment building in lower Manhattan.
Alex Gallo-Brown is a Seattleite living in Brooklyn.