Bowling Alley Poker

Sometimes you just really want to play …

­Washington state is a weird place. On one hand, Washington is the home of Microsoft and wunderkind geniuses like Bill Gates, but on the other it’s the same state that spawned deranged serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer. Politics in the “Evergreen State” are equally bizarre; Washington was the first state to outlaw online poker, yet on this past Election Day, its residents voted to legalize marijuana.

Weed is legal in Washington, but online poker is not. Wait what?

Weed is a drug coveted by stoners and poker is a game of skill. Talk about one screwed- up state filled with innovations and idiosyncrasies in the farthest, rain-drenched corner of the continental United States, where Department of Defense and military types rub shoulders with anarchists and peaceniks, and loggers coexist with tree huggers. You won’t get busted for toking a joint on the streets of Seattle, but you still can’t play online poker.

I lived in Seattle at the end of the 1990s and played in a weekly home game. An acid-jazz band named Kilgore Trout (they were huge fans of Kurt Vonnegut) rented a house in Fremont where they practiced in the basement while we played Stud and Texas Hold’em in the kitchen until the wee hours. Aside from the low-stakes kitchen table games, we had only two choices for higher-stakes poker: drive an hour or so out of the city to an Indian casino (which we nicknamed the Nut Sack), or take a true walk on the wild side and gamble it up in an underground casino somewhere in old Chinatown (known as the International District).

Fifteen years later, the entire gambling landscape has dramatically changed in Washington state. Several small poker rooms emerged in and around Seattle, while several new traditional casinos opened up in the last decade like Snoqualmie Casino (located near the infamous Snoqualmie Falls made popular by the opening credits to “Twin Peaks”). You cannot play online poker in Washington, but there’s some opportunity to play cards, but unfortunately, Seattle is nowhere close to being a Mecca for cardslingers like Southern California, Tunica or Atlantic City. As a result, the locals are just feasting on themselves without a steady influx of fresh blood.

Mini-casinos crept into the unincorporated areas on the outskirts of Seattle, which had become a bastion for raunchy strip clubs and medicinal marijuana dispensaries. At night, the pink neon glowed in the damp darkness. Your eyes were instantly pulled into the “SIN” part of the dilapidated sign. The sultry lights were synonymous with a strip club or massage parlor, but upon closer inspection, a couple lights in the sign were out. It was actually supposed to spell out “CASINO.”

My buddy Johnnie drove me to the edge of Seattle to a bowling alley that doubled as a casino. This particular casino was truly one of the strangest places I ever gambled. The entire evening had a David Lynch vibe to it. Absurd, yet mundane. The bowling alley was empty save for a couple of shitfaced UW frat boys goofing around on the farthest lane. They hurled balls down the lane two at a time while chugging pitchers of beer. Their bored girlfriends spent more time updating their Facebook pages on their smartphones than paying attention to their boyfriends’ antics.

Midnight. Sunday. A dozen people sat inside the dive bar and nursed cheap beer specials. The darkened lounge was a hideout for local alkies and bar flies; it was a place where they could get sauced up during the day or night without running into anyone else they knew. This was the anti-Cheers, where people didn’t want to know your name; they were there to forget theirs. No one mingled nor argued about mundane sports trivia. Instead, everyone watched highlights on “SportsCenter,” which was on mute. The tiny TV set sat on the end of the bar. It did not make any noise. Neither did the drunkards. They just sat, drank, and zoned out to the foggy glow of the TV.

Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” echoed everywhere. The sound system connected the blowing alley, dive bar, and casino located in the backroom down the hall from the dive bar. Johnnie led the way and I followed. We took the security guard by surprise; he was busy sending a text to someone when we rolled up.

A former banquet room was converted into a second-rate, makeshift casino that had a new industrial grey-colored carpet. Over the previous five decades, the room had been the focal point for children’s birthday parties, retirement soirees, and the random wedding reception. Those happy days were long gone. Despite the makeover, the casino was haunted by sepia-colored memories from the ghosts of former revelers.

The entire bowling alley was a bastion of melancholia. Sullen folks drowned their senses in the dive bar, while down the hall in the casino, the desolate gloom associated with depraved gamblers lingered like thick second-hand smoke.

The casino featured table games like Blackjack, Spanish 21, and Pai Gow, while a section was devoted to the “poker room” which comprised of three worn-out tables and wobbly chairs. In order to attract local poker enthusiasts, the casino hosted a low-stakes daily tournament. The blind structures were scribbled on a white board, which seemed very rudimentary, yet kind of brilliant because I played in enough small tournaments in casinos all over America and you could never find out proper information about the blind structure. However, by glancing at the structure, their daily tournament was a turbo crapshoot, which seemed appropriate considering the casino did not have a craps table, nor any roulette. Blackjack was as nefarious as it got.

Two out of the three poker tables were empty. One game ran. Omaha 8. My least favorite form of poker. Four elderly regulars sat around and sniped at each other. Why the hell were they playing short-handed Omaha? I told the dealer (no poker room manager was available) if they switched the game to Hold’em, then Johnnie and I would play. The dealer was decked out in a Matt Hasselback football jersey and said no, but gave us a look like, “You guys have to be shitting me? Why the hell would you want to play with these old farts?”

Washington state outlawed online poker and the live version of the all-American game of skill has been pushed off to the farthest fringes of Seattle, like the backroom of an empty bowling alley where a bunch of grouchy Joey Knishes were nitting it up at Omaha 8.

Four other people gambled: two Chinese ladies played Spanish 21, a WWII vet silently sat at a blackjack table behind a wall of redbirds, and a 20-something hipster played the Texas Hold’em table game. His girlfriend and her friend stood behind him and watched him play while they sipped on Red Bull and vodka. The highest roller in the casino had a rail … until he went broke, borrowed $20 from his girlfriend and went busto a second time. They left in a hurry.

The smacking and crackling of pins was heard in the distance. That was the only auditory reminder that a bowling alley was on the other side of the thin wall, but the casino reeked of lane wax and that putrid disinfectant smell that they spray inside bowling shoes to keep them clean and free of foot fungi.

Johnnie and I sat down at one of the three Pai Gow poker tables.

“Soft drinks and coffee are free,” said the waitress who was half-hipster, half-Goth. “I have to charge you $1 for beers and well drinks.”

We ordered two pints of Bud and gave her $5. We told her to keep the $3 tip and she emphatically thanked us.

“I think we gave her the biggest tip she saw all night,” said Johnnie.

The hipster/Goth waitress returned to the table every three minutes like clockwork and asked us if we wanted any more drinks even though we had barely dented our pints. I politely declined because I should not have been drinking while taking pain medication for my ailing back. Then again, if the casino owners really wanted every last dollar out of my wallet, they would have fed me Vicodin until I passed out at the table and drooled all over myself.

I ate painkillers all day and attended the Seattle Seahawks game. The pills created a Teflon-like layer of defense that allowed me to sit through the cold rain and endure the pain of witnessing my hometown New York Jets lose in person without actually feeling a thing. Johnnie’s buddy Joel was a season ticket holder and he invited me to the Seattle game so long as I didn’t wear any Jets gear. I told him I was embarrassed to be seen in public with a Jets logo, so he didn’t have anything to worry about. I even plunked down $1,000 on the Seahawks -6.5 so I’d have a reason to cheer along with everyone else in the Seahawks’ deafening-loud stadium.

After the Seahawks crushed the Jets in a downpour, we partied and watched Sunday Night football. Once the game ended, Johnnie got the brilliant idea to show me the worst casino in Seattle. I had just won a big bet on the football game, so a casino run sounded like a good idea at the time, but I actually was more interested in bowling prop bets. However, we arrived just as they were shutting down the bowling center. When I saw an empty Pai Gow table, I could not resist the urge to jump down the rabbit hole.

Our first dealer was born in China and in his younger days, he ran with a bad crowd and joined a gang. I spotted an ominous Tiger tattoo in his inner forearm. The edges were starting to wear, but the tiger looked fierce. Today in America, every moron has a tattoo and anyone with a few bucks can get whatever they want inked into their skin, however, things were different in Hong Kong. You could not get a menacing tiger unless you actually paid your dues with the Triad. The dealer was polite and soft spoken, but he’s one of the last guys I wanted to see in a dark alley.

My mind started wandering. I actively avoided the presence of the Chinese mafia, which is why I didn’t ask Johnnie to take me to play 2-5 NL in a cramped, smoky room above a dim sum restaurant in the International District.

I was relieved when the tiger dealer went on break. An attractive and sassy female dealer took his place. I couldn’t tell if she was 25 or 55 because women of Asian ancestry age gracefully. Like vampires, Pai Gow dealers do not age. Her name was Minnie and she had a small Minnie Mouse pin on her vest. She was smitten with Johnnie, but couldn’t stop laughing at my bad jokes. By the looks of the establishment, they probably did not get too many jovial customers.

The barrage of 1980s music continued while Huey Lewis and Lionel Richie took turns blasting on the speakers. The only TV in the room aired an infomercial for a space-age grill that looked like a cheap knock-off of the George Foreman Grill.

“This info-commercial is on every night at 2 a.m.”

“I stepped into a black hole. Have we been playing Pai Gow that long?”

“You can make a perfect omelet in seconds!” Minnie said and pointed to the TV.

“Let’s make a deal here Minnie … if you deal me a straight flush, I will buy you a grill and get you six more so you can give them out as Christmas gifts.”

“Deal,” she said.

An hour earlier, Johnnie was on a heater and nailed straight flush with a Joker … 7s-6s-JOKER-4s-3s. The half-asleep pit boss lumbered over and confirmed the bonus hand. The dealer with the tiger tattoo pulled out a stack of green chips and pushed them toward Johnnie’s stack. Johnnie gave him a generous toke which was wise because I was worried he’d jump us in the dimly-lit parking lot and we’d get robbed by his other compadres with tiger tattoos, who would then steal our kidneys and sell them on the black market. Or worse … we’d have to fight off a bunch of bath salts-snorting zombies who decided to steal our Pai Gow winnings.

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January 2013