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Let the Chips Fall
By David King
Photos by John Whipple

A new poker culture has become a daily lifestyle for hundreds, if not thousands, of Capital Region college students

It’s 4 AM in Verona, N.Y. A laundry truck growls to life on the empty docks of Turning Stone casino and then cuts its way through a shield of fog. A man sits just inside, past the sliding doors, next to two signs that say “Greeter” and “Valet.” This man is neither. Sitting slumped halfway over on a garbage can, with a day’s worth of stubble, his head inches from a large-screen TV that flashes a football rerun, he moans, “Bad night, no ride.”

Chip:While Tony occasionally bothers with silly things like school and employment during the day, Chris spends his days in online poker rooms playing with other people’s money.

Chip: If students from UAlbany are stereotyped as partyers and loudmouth braggarts looking to drink and to throw around money and attitude, students from RPI, by contrast, are known for being know-it-alls, book readers, odds quoters.

Two elderly women hover over a slot machine. “We’re looking for the early-bird special,” one jokes to the other. Carpet cleaners and vacuums hum around the closed-for-cleaning, 24-hour Emerald restaurant. They’re louder than any tired voice inside the casino. Except, that is, for those in the poker room.

Tony Ramasami, a 20-year-old Schenectady Community College student, stands waiting for his chips. “The second you double up, you’re off that table,” says his friend and traveling companion, Chris.

“Yeah, I’m a smooth poker rounder!” Tony says with his hands in the air, apparently joking. “I’m not happy unless I leave broke or I got thousands.”

Chris’ face sours. It was only three hours ago that Chris agreed to let Tony borrow the standard $100 buy-in so they could both drive down to Turning Stone from Schenectady to play poker at 2 AM. Chris wouldn’t be so concerned if Tony hadn’t spent the last two weeks digging out of nearly a thousand dollars in poker debt to other friends.

Tony gathers up his chips and sits down at one of the three buzzing tables. The dealer at this table’s called Bully. He’s got a round face, wide shoulders, short hair and a name that would make some people think twice about casual conversation. “Been dealing for nine months,” he says in a soft, almost embarrassed voice to an inquisitive player on his right. There is talk at the table that another one of the dealers on tonight once worked in Vegas. There is a small debate as to whether that makes him a better dealer. There’s excitement that maybe this small poker room in upstate New York may have a little more validity.

Tony smiles and looks at Chris, who is watching from an empty table across the room. Tony mouths the words “smooth poker rounder.”

Take a walk on any college campus today and you will most likely pass a group of students speaking an indecipherable language. “He was playing like a rabbit, so I knew that if I bet ahead of the flop I could steal the blinds even though I was holding Batman. So he folds out, and he flips over and he’s holding ladies.” This is the language of poker, and it is only part of the new poker culture that is consuming the free and not-so-free time of college students all over the nation. The new poker culture is not exclusively about the game; it’s about a style, a mentality and a language that is evolving not only through the mass media, but in cliques of poker players around the world.

The game of poker itself seems to have developed in a very similar way. Although there is no true consensus on the origin of poker, many historians point to the 16th-century Persian card game of As Nas. The game was played with a 25-card deck with five suits. As the game gained popularity in Europe, it came to be called “poque” or “pochen.”

In this country, poker took hold in New Orleans in the 1800s and spread from there onto riverboats and into saloons, and soon the professional gambler was born. In popular consciousness, poker is still often regarded as a favorite of cowboys, scoundrels and cheats.

The most popular form of poker currently, No-Limit Texas Holdem, is played by first determining the dealer. All players are dealt two cards. They can combine those two cards with “community cards” that everyone can see. The first two players to the dealer’s left are known as the small and the big blind. They are required to bet before the first three community cards are turned over—this is called the “flop.” There’s another round of betting, another community card, a third round of betting, the “river”—the final community card—and a final round of betting before all the players still in the pot reveal their hands.

Today, poker is experiencing a boom. There are 665 poker books listed on BarnesandNoble.com, with titles like Poker for Dummies and Play Poker Like the Pros. Wal-Mart now has poker supplies prominently on display, and gaming stores that used to focus on decorative chess sets now stock washable poker cards, special clay chips and poker tables. Tri-City Luggage on Central Avenue in Colonie started carrying poker supplies after seeing poker accessories as the hot product during an August gift show, according to store representative Doris Midwin. “We see multiple generations of people coming in for supplies,” she says. Major brand names from Coca-Cola to Playboy now market poker tin gift sets. Partypoker.com has recently become a publicly traded company.

And it’s booming among the college set. You can almost always find a game in the basements of the University at Albany residence halls, says Jason Mezrahi, recent UAlbany grad and CEO of AlbanyXchange.com. “You can hear the clank of poker chips and the sound of the buzzer going off during games of party poker when you walk through campus at night,” he says.

“We’ve been seeing more kids staying in at night and playing poker,” adds Mezrahi’s business partner, Ben Cross. “The kids who still go out get in a game of poker beforehand instead of pre-partying.”

Mezrahi and Cross, who run an eBay-like site that allows local students to buy, trade and sell items from used textbooks to furniture, recently organized the first in what may be a series of college poker tournaments at the Oneida Nation’s Turning Stone Casino. Mezrahi negotiated with Turning Stone to lower the usual $100 tournament buy-in to something more accessible to college students, allowing them to offer a $60 package that included transportation, a dinner voucher, and $25 dollars in chips. The 152-person poker tournament offered $1,124 dollars to the first-place finisher.

What is it exactly that draws college students and college-age kids to poker? Mezrahi and Cross both see it as “a competitive edge that drives people.”

“I used to make fun of kids who sat around and played cards all the time, [but] I play all the time now. Kids who aren’t necessarily physical or athletic are also competitive, and poker offers them a way to compete,” says Cross.

Cross also sees it as bucking the trend of people becoming disconnected from each other: “People are so used to being in front of the TV or on the Internet that seeing something this social, with large groups of people doing something together socially, is contrary to these times.”

Mezrahi adds, “Poker transcends generations for me. I play card games with my family at family gatherings. We’ll go from old-fashioned card games to Texas Holdem, and we’re all playing together.”

At the same time, Cross and Mezrahi acknowledge some of poker’s dubious traits. “Albany is the number-one party school in America,” says Cross, “and maybe some of the impulsive behavior crosses over to poker.” Some students tell of playing 9 PM to 5 AM every night.

It does seem to be the real-life extremes that have players hooked. “It’s like 98 percent of Americans are middle- to lower-class, and the most of the wealth is in that 2 percent and we’re all in that 98 percent, but were all happy ’cause everyone thinks they are gonna be in that 2 percent, and poker gives them another reason to think that,” says UAlbany English major and poker player James Whittet.

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 6 to 12 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds are addicted to some form of gambling. But beyond that, says Jim Maney of the council’s New York chapter, they have little information on the new poker craze. “If this was six years ago, no one would be writing this article. Poker has swept on so fast it’s taking people time to react. . . . The studies just aren’t there to tell us how many people are playing now,” he says.

Also, “there is nothing out there showing the negative effects of the game,” says Maney. “If this had to do with drugs, if 15-year-olds were all trying heroin for the first time, we would all be freaking out,” he says. Maney points to a sorority on a local campus that until this year had done its fund-raising by baking cookies. This year, the sorority will hold a poker tournament.

While poker’s popuL-arity has exploded, the game still retains a stigma of being semi-legal. Both the New York state attorney general’s office and the state Racing and Gaming board declined to comment and placed responsibility for control of poker on the other. But in commenting about a recent poker game planned to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Greater Rochester and then postponed for legal reasons, Paul Larabee, a representative of the attorney general’s office, said, “a third party cannot benefit from a card game or a wager-making opportunity.” So while friendly home games are perfectly legal, when hosts start taking money out of the pot and away from players, they are breaking the law.

Poker games aren’t held only in bright, clean casino poker rooms or the warm coziness of local campus dormitory basements. Games have been cropping up in the least expected places all over the region. Local players often reminisce about the large tournaments held in a Troy bowling alley that featured close to a thousand dollars in prizes and boasted hundreds of players until it was shut down earlier this year due to a problem with the establishment’s liquor license. And there’s the Saturday-night game at the pizza place in Latham.

Then there are the more underground games: the game hosted by a lawyer that usually seats 50 to 70 people, and the game in Scotia held in an office building where players must be approved of and buzzed in. Those are the sort of games that usually create a buzz among local players. Rumors abound about who is holding them and complaints are common about their hosts colluding to dominate the game or scraping money off the top to reduce the prize (which would also make them illegal, according to the attorney general’s offfice). There’s plenty of talk about games that get so high-stakes that the hosts are willing to allow players to operate on credit.

Some of the players who frequent these games don’t appreciate the rise in interest from college students. “College kids come to games, loud-mouthed and rude, looking to win big like on TV. There are certain people who just cannot afford the stakes and who should not play,” says an anonymous local businessman who runs weekend games. “Seven-card and five-card poker are games of skill. You must read your opponent and build a hand. Holdem has drawn so many people in because it is about luck.” College kids in the area have a reputation with veterans and more established players as ruiners of a good thing. They are known for talking about games they shouldn’t talk about, for attracting the wrong element to games that the regulars would like to see kept secret, and for playing with money they did not earn or that is not their own.

Jason DiBenedetto, director of poker for Turning Stone casino, points to games like these when trying to promote playing at the casino as safer. Casino representatives insist that the rake from poker rooms simply pays for the dealers and that “it’s the only game where the player does not play against the house, but instead against other players.”

After comparing the poker-playing clientele of the Turning Stone casino at 4 AM to the patrons of the rest of the casino, it’s easy to see that poker’s rejuvenation also brings young blood, fresh faces, and excitement to a business that can’t always overcome the stereotype of the bag lady with a cup full of coins, slowly wasting her savings away at the slot machine. “Poker is part of mainstream America now,” says DiBenedetto. “It’s beneficial to have poker to get new people into the casino, to get them to see the other things we have to offer.”

Tony, age 20, and Chris at 24 both look surprisingly old compared to the rest of the crowd in the poker room at Turning Stone. This isn’t the late-night poker room stereotype of old men smoking cigars, displaying gray chest hair and cracking dirty jokes. This is the new face of poker. DiBenedetto, who has been with Turning Stone for 11 years, says the phenomenal growth of interest in poker “runs across age groups” and claims that the media simply like to focus on the younger players.

Mezrahi sees it differently: “Sure, there has certainly been an increase in poker across the board, but let’s say if there’s a 20-percent increase in middle-age players then there is certainly a 50-percent increase in teens to 20-somethings.”

This morning, each table has only about one participant who could pass for over 40, and maybe one more who could pass for over 25. The rest of the players are baby-faced youths who can barely pass for 18 (the minimum age for Turning Stone). There are no plumes of white hair here, no suits, none of the wide-brimmed caps or suspenders that dot the casino landscape during the prime hours of the weekend. Instead, they come dressed in Abercrombie and Fitch, white T-shirts, baseball caps and sweat pants. They sit one hand covering their cards, the other performing some sort of nervous tic—flicking chips, twisting a straw, tapping an inaudible beat. The winners sit staring straight ahead through their dark sunglasses. The losers sit heads down with bright red cheeks and nervous, darting eyes that their sunglasses cannot cover up.

The glasses may be the only real distinguishing feature in the poker room. Some are big, black and wide, covering up more than half the face. Most look like they were “borrowed” from Dad’s coat pocket. Oversized aviators under a red hoodie and snowboarding goggles under a blue Yanks cap. This is how you distinguish the players.

There is some debate as to when poker’s recent rise in popularity began. While some newer players will point to the more recent poker shows on Bravo or the Travel Channel, the more experienced players almost all see the 2003 World Series of Poker on ESPN as the real jumping-off point. It was there that the accountant known as Chris Moneymaker, who qualified for the series in a $40 online qualifier, won the whole thing: more than a million dollars. Moneymaker’s win made a lot of people think that their dreams were closer to reality. “Poker started to be on TV 24/7 around that time,” says Chris, “and it didn’t take long for people to naturally follow along.”

World Poker Tour and Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown broadcast the styles, trends and nervous tics straight into the players’ minds. “It’s on TV all the time. The networks ran with it, and we have used what they have done,” says Turning Stone’s DiBenedetto. ESPN has done so well with poker TV that it has invested in the miniseries Tilt, staring Michael Madsen as Michael Everest, who is nicknamed Matador for his ability to lure young gamblers to their demise. “I would watch Tilt if it was on for another four seasons, and I know it’s a bad show,” says Whittet.

In real life it’s more likely Ben Affleck, the 2004 California Poker Champion-cum-actor, who lures the young gamblers in; and his running buddy Matt Damon keeps them there with the growing cult popularity of his 1998 flick Rounders.

The slang from Rounders drips from players’ mouths tonight at the poker tables, as each young player tries to come off as a grizzled veteran. “We usually grind out the night till 11 and then we get a room,” says a young man who looks barely over 11, doing his best Matt Damon impression. To grind out is an almost self-deprecating term that means to sit at a poker table all night, playing it safe and making small money whenever possible.

“You all is grinding?” Tony says, with a concerned look. “Ya’ll are in trouble. Ya’ll dealing with a crazy rounder!” A rounder is someone who knows all of poker’s ins and outs and makes a living playing the game. It means the absolute opposite of a sucker. Chris groans, and looks even more concerned. “What’s the matter, Chris? You bored? Thought you was gonna play the slot machines,” says Tony, still staring at the dealer as he flips over the flop.

“Yah, I think I’m gonna buy in,” says Chris. For the first time that night Tony looks concerned.

It’s not the flop that has Tony concerned, as it has delivered him two pair: queens and eights. What’s worrying him is that Chris has decided to join in. If there is anyone near a rounder in the room it’s Chris. While Tony occasionally bothers with silly things like school and employment during the day, Chris spends his days in online poker rooms playing with other people’s money. “I got a poker sugar daddy—some aerospace engineer in California,” beams Chris. “He likes the way I play. He tells me, anything under a million we split 60/40 in his favor, but a million and over in winnings and we are 50/50. He’s a confident guy.”

There are hundreds of Capital Region students who are, like Chris, always ready for a quick game of online poker. Sites like poker stars.com and partypoker.com always have a seat open for someone who claims to be 18 and holds a credit card. A number of college students gauge how well they did at poker on any given day by the number of classes they missed because they were in an online game.

Chris generally has one to two games a week at his house, games that attract college players and recent graduates from around the area. The games are usually $20 buy-ins with unlimited re-buys, meaning games can quickly become high-stakes.

It’s 10:30 PM on a Friday night at Chris’ downstairs apartment on a dead-end, cobblestone street in Schenectady. The regular poker guys, Tony, Pat and Randy, have spent the last few hours huddled around a small kitchen table covered by a poker table top, playing heads up.

Chris has been on his cell phone with his friend Sanchez, a computer-science major at RPI. Tony and Pat look up expectantly. They know each other’s play style too well; they want to play against new blood tonight.

If students from UAlbany are stereotyped as partyers and loudmouth braggarts looking to drink and to throw around money and attitude, students from RPI, by contrast, are known for being know-it-alls, book readers, odds quoters. The kind of guys who don’t think twice about telling a biker that the odds were against him and he was stupid for playing a hand.

“Yeah, they’ll be here in half an hour,” Chris announces to the room like he’s throwing a dog a chew toy. Tony’s and Pat’s game finishes with the usual shouts of “You’re so lucky!” and “Nice suck out!” and then there’s a knock on the window.

“Goddamn it!” shouts Chris, swelling with frustration. “Why can’t this kid just ring the doorbell? This isn’t some kind of James Bond shit!” After a series of deadbolts and chains are released, a flood of bitter winter air sweeps through the apartment, followed by Mike Sanchez and an army of RPI students, eyes darting left and right, hands in their coat and hoodie pockets, looking bewildered.

“Yo, I know we ain’t playing on thiisss table!” says Leon, the first RPI student into the kitchen. Chris and Pat, who had been busy arranging chairs and setting up chips around the table, look up in disbelief.

“You can play on this or you can just not play,” says Chris, all puffed up and indignant.

“Yah, I’m just saying, yo, this shit is tiny! Ain’t no one gonna fit on this,” shoots back the RPI student, who remembered to wear his white Abercrombie and Fitch shirt but not a winter jacket. Chris and Pat simply ignore him. The rest of the new blood, who vary in size and chattiness, but not dress, mill around slowly, uncomfortably pulling chairs, stools and finally boxes up to the tiny table.

“OK, put your $20 buy-in on the table. Let’s get this going!” Chris orders. Players scrounge in their pockets, looking back and forth at each other nervously. Chris stares demandingly at the three kids crammed together in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “Your friends can’t just stand there,” he says. “This is a poker game and I got a landlord and neighbors and I can’t have all of you up in here if you aren’t playing!” The group of three, all with buzz cuts and Gap jackets, look at each other in frustration and disgust.

The biggest one replies: “Yo, we just came to watch. Wanna know where this place is for next time.” Chris turns his stare toward Sanchez. Sanchez looks back defensively. “Hey, man, I thought everyone was coming to play. I wouldn’t have brought you here if I thought you were just gonna watch.”

“If you’ve got money to lose, put it on the table,” says Chris. “If not, I don’t wanna have to ask you to leave, but I guess I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”

“OK, right,” the big guy says, “We will go get some food and come back when we’re ready to play.”

“Sure sounds good,” says Chris. “All except the coming-back part.” The three stragglers shuffle out the front door, mumbling as their discontent meets with the below-zero temperature. Pat locks the door behind them as Chris announces, “You can cash your chips out at 2 AM and not before.”

Then the poker game begins. The sound of cards sailing across the table is barely audible over Leon’s cocky table talk and Sanchez’s recitation of poker theory. The game ends in the wee hours of the morning, as the sun breaks through the closed blinds of Chris’s kitchen. Out of the 12 sitting at the table, Chris, Pat and Leon are the only ones holding any chips. Chris later insists that Leon was cheating, dealing from the bottom of the deck and setting people up with hands to lure them into pots they could not win.

Chris does not make all of his money playing poker, but if he wanted to he probably could. “If I play for around four hours a day during a week I make around $400 to $600 a week,” he explains. “On weeks where I play about eight hours a day in live games and online, and I play like I’m supposed to play, with some bad days and weeks and some insane ones, I make anywhere between $1,000 to $1,500 a week. That is playing no-gambling poker, playing it extremely safe. Like not getting involved in a large pot unless I’m carrying pocket aces.”

It would be easy to mistake Chris for a grinder at first, as he seems to play it ultra-safe, but Chris plays the numbers. There isn’t any emotion in Chris’s playing. Nothing gets him excited, not a good hand, not an aggressive opponent. Chris is busy calculating. He’s been playing for only about half a year, but he caught on quick.

Tony, on the other hand, picked up the game three months ago. At first Tony was cautious and only played for small money. It wasn’t until a trip to Turning Stone with friends, when he met a college student who told him, “I spend all my time here grinding it out,” that Tony began considering playing poker for a living. Tony was excited about the game. He was excited about hands. Chris is always glad to tell the story of how Tony got four of a kind and announced to the table excitedly, “Quadruples!” His childish breach of etiquette was met with a mocking echo of “Quadruples!” from the rest of the players at the table. Tony plays fast and nervous and for the thrill. Chris points out the numerous times Tony will fold straights that are on the board because he simply isn’t thinking enough and has let his emotion take over.

Tony took up poker the way a lot of college kids do lately. All his friends were playing and if he wanted something to do he had to learn. After he won a couple of pots, it took Tony only a week to be in debt hundreds of dollars to all of his poker friends.

Tony adopted the mantra, “I go home broke, or I go home rich.” So despite his best playing, luck would eventually always send him home without a penny.

After finding himself on the losing end, Tony developed his second mantra: “There is no luck, only coincidence.”

Tony hadn’t been reading the Tao; he was desperate. After nightlong sessions at Turning Stone or at his friends’ houses, he would trudge in to his shift-manager position at a fast-food joint, half awake, barely able to earn the money he already owed for the previous night’s losses. It wasn’t long before his manager cut his salary and demoted him for poor attitude and performance. Feeling the weight of debt he owed and seeing the prospect of earning more money, he walked out of his job.

‘What? Am I playing against Usher here?” the lone old man at the table barks to Tony as Tony pushes half his chips into the middle of the table for the third time in a row.

“Yo, buddy, why don’t you find out?” Tony quips back, goading. The kid with aviator glasses and an Old Navy T-shirt to Tony’s immediate left folds and sinks his head. The kid to his left with Terminator shades and a green hoodie shakes his head in disgust and throws his cards to the middle of the table.

“Yep, I’m all in,” Chris states firmly, full of confidence.

“Yo! You sure?” Tony asks nervously, still smiling. “You don’t wanna mess with chip leada, do you?”

Chris gives Tony a crooked glance signaling that he can sense Tony’s weakness. A hush falls over the table as the guy to Chris’s left with a Metallica T-shirt, wide-rimmed glasses and a goatee lets out a frustrated groan. “Fuck it. I’m a take the ride with you,” he sputters, pushing all his chips into the middle of the pot.

“Yeah, why not?” the guy to his left says, following suit.

Bully the dealer smiles, feeling the excitement.

Finally, the old grizzled veteran with two days of gray stubble, a faded Yankees cap and a jagged brow whistles, and then says, “Yeah, you don’t got what you need,” and pushes all his chips forward too.

Tony raises himself up out of his chair, half sitting, half bouncing.

Chris stares at the money in the center of the pot, determined. The old man flashes his hand to the dealer and says, “Not much gonna beat this.” The rest of the table nervously checks back and forth between their hands, the flop and the impending river.

The river comes and Tony has a straight flush. He stands one leg straight, one leg behind him, balancing on the chair with his hand covering his mouth. “I got ya kid,” the old man says, throwing his two pair onto the table. The Metallica-shirt kid groans again. The kid next to him throws his hand to the middle without revealing what he was betting with.

Tony pulls off his shades, dramatically wipes his brow and then pats the old man on the back. “I got this one, mate!” he announces like a hiphop Crocodile Dundee. He then carefully, lovingly lays his jack and queen of clubs down on the table and pets them before he lets them go.

Chris stares forward at the river card, the last card turned. Everyone at the table stares at Chris, waiting to see if he can produce something any more impressive. “You lost, mate!” Tony blurts out. “You ain’t got it! I’m a smooth rounder! Hahahahaha!” Chris lets his cards drop from his hands. Like two birds not strong enough to make the migration, they fall to the table.

The dealer pushes the pot toward Tony, but Tony does not need any encouragement, as he is already there scooping them up, hoarding them into a neat little castle of reds and whites. Chris leans back in his chair and gives Tony a demanding stare. “OK. You more than doubled up. Get off the table,” he orders Tony, who is still busy counting his take.

“Are there chips coming off the table?” inquires the dealer. Chris rolls his eyes and gives the dealer a helpless look. “No. We are pulling him off the table. He needs to be stopped.”

Chris buys in one more time, looks at his hand, which is pocket jacks, and pushes his new chips all in before the first community cards are turned. Tony, who has already folded his hand, pushes away from the table and brings his chips up to the cashier.

“Fuuuuck! So stuuupid!” Chris shouts as the old man who had checked earlier reveals his pocket kings. Chris has just lost another $50 dollars, while Tony, who he had assumed would lose everything, is busy cashing out $300 over his original buy-in.

Tony walks over and puts his hand on Chris’s shoulder, saying “Eh, mate, bad beats!” in a conciliatory tone.

“So stupid. It was sooo stupid!” Chris says over and over again like one of Tony’s mantras. “He was so lucky!”

“There is no luck, mate!” Tony replies. “Only coincidence! I’m gonna go try to get coincidental on blackjack with my winnings right now!”

“Yo! You better let me hold at least a hundred over what you owe me so you don’t go broke,” Chris demands as Tony slowly hands him two hundred-dollar bills.

Chris pulls his boiling frustration and defeat out of the casino, past the now-snoring man sitting on the garbage can with his head against the television. The warmth of the rising sun greets Chris as he covers his eyes and sits down on a bench. Rays of light tear through the fading, cold, winter fog. In a few hours buses will start arriving, the slot machines will begin to fill, bingo halls will come to life with the shouts of the lucky. A new crew of fresh-faced players will move into the poker room as cocktail waitresses offer departing, defeated players coffee, orange juice, Coke.

And Tony will wake Chris from his slumber on the bench to shout, “Yo, coincidence was on my side! I doubled up again!”

 


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