Ice Palace Home Game

San Francisco has a set of cards all its own

I missed playing in a home game. I frequently travel the world covering poker tournaments and live for months at a time in Las Vegas, so I lack a conventional lifestyle that put me in one place for a significant amount of time. That all changed when I took a self-imposed sabbatical from poker reporting and moved to San Francisco. I quickly latched onto a home game and played every week for six months. When the local degenerates were feeling extra frisky, we played twice a week.

Venus hosted the game with her brother Skeletor. Venus lived in one of those quaint Victorians that are synonymous with San Francisco. The game was played in a back room framed by bay windows and a fireplace. At the height of its popularity, the game ran two tables (one NL and the other mixed games) for most of the night. Waiting-list players, sometimes 10 deep, eagerly waited in the kitchen sipping cocktails or on the back porch, which was a haven for smokers.

HouseThe game was known as the Ice Palace, mostly because of how cold it got in the apartment. No matter what time of day, it was always freezing. I wore a hoodie and every once in a while it was so cold that I needed a wool hat.

Although Venus played in the game, her main duty was acting as the Ice Palace’s gracious host. She always stocked the kitchen with the finest California wines and made sure everyone had a beverage. Venus was also the de-facto floor person and handled all disputes in a fair manner. Halfway through the evening she’d order pizza from one of the local hippie joints, which often proved problematic.

“I need to stop ordering from them,” Venus would lament every Monday night, “Those stoners take forever to deliver and always fuck up the order!”

Somehow I was tapped to handle music duties and made a couple of different mixes to appeal to the variety of eclectic tastes from everyone in the game — ranging from classic rock to ’90s classic hip-hop, to ’80s pop (Venus’ favorite).

The regulars at the Ice Palace were a pastiche of San Francisco freaks. The Wolf was the main foil and always got top billing for the evening. He owned a bar in the nearby Marina area and brought along plenty of exotic beers from his establishment. His claim to fame was that as a struggling musician, he jammed with Van Morrison. He looked like one of Neil Young’s roadies and quoted random lines of poetry on command.

The other regulars in the game included a British ex-pat software engineer, a former hedge-fund wizard, a marijuana farmer, a semi-famous drag queen (who always played in his normal clothes), a radiologist, an Iraq War vet, a Burning Man promoter, and a paralegal from one of the biggest litigation firms in San Francisco. The game also featured a slew of professionals from the restaurant and culinary industry. A couple of the regulars worked under a couple of the most renowned chefs in the world: Hubert Keller and Michael Mina.

The game was an interesting mix of amateurs with disposable income and restaurant workers/bartenders flush with cash from tips. It was an almost ideal situation with plenty of opportunity to fleece the few big whales in the group while taking advantage of newbie mistakes (mostly along the lines of bet sizing).

The Wolf was the action, which was saying a lot considering the game had a fair share of action players, who made a friendly $60 buy-in play like an insane 5-10 NL game. The stakes always started out small. The pots exponentially increased in size once the clock raced past midnight. By sunrise, the game had consolidated to one table with a couple of monster stacks dwarfing the miniscule stacks of downtrodden players desperately chasing their losses.

One of the most dangerous regulars at the Ice Palace was a 20-something waitress we nicknamed Chainsaw. She migrated to California from the rough and tumble streets of Detroit, something she had no problems letting you know if things got hairy.

“Listen, I’m from fucking the Big D,” she once playfully threatened me, “I’ll cut you if I have to, so don’t fucking call me a hipster!”

Chainsaw wore funky genre-bending outfits to the game including a bright orange raincoat that she somehow pulled off as a dress. The deadly Chainsaw could be holding any two cards at any time. She was relentless and uber-aggressive. She showed zero fear at the table and sipped whiskey out of a shot glass. One of the largest pots I ever lost at the Ice Palace occurred against Chainsaw when my A-K lost to her pocket Kings. She totally outplayed me and I paid her off by shipping my entire stack, which was a couple hundred dollars. It was so bad that I had to take a walk around the block to stave off tilt.

My girlfriend was a regular in the game and although she’s a savvy tournament player (she won the 2011 Ladies Event at the PCA, an event that Venus had also final tabled once before), I also respect her cash game prowess. Even though we tried to stay out of each others’ way, she still bested me in a fair number of pots. I also avoided Skeletor, who was easily the strongest cash game player in the game. His moniker derived from his thin appearance. Just think of a skinny version of James Spader. Skeletor was a cash-game pro and carved out a successful career over the last several years. Once Black Friday hit, like most online grinders, he was forced to re-evaluate his life choices. He couldn’t bring himself to flee San Francisco in order to relocate to another country, but he understood the severity of the situation and mulled a move to Mexico so he could continue to earn an income at the virtual cash tables.

To combat the effects of Black Friday, Skeletor and Venus drew up plans to open up their own illegal cardroom in the Tenderloin, a seedy part of San Francisco littered with homeless people and drug addicts. That dangerous, anarchistic area of the city was a far cry from the posh surroundings of Pacific Heights. We were mere blocks away from the most expensive houses in America, and frankly I’m surprised none of our snooty neighbors ratted us out. Believe me, on a few nights (as the night spilled into the morning) things got so loud that I was convinced an ornery sleep-deprived neighbor would drop a dime on us.

The gambling part didn’t concern me as much. After all, it was a friendly home game and the SFPD had much larger matters to worry about. Even though it is San Francisco, a city where anything goes, especially marijuana, the blatant and wide open recreational drug use was a slight concern. One of the regulars was a local grower who often brought over samples of his products. Many of the players were “medicinal marijuana patients” (myself included), so the Ice Palace constantly reeked of pungent aromas and there was enough high-potent grass around to get everyone high backstage at a Grateful Dead concert.

Igor frequently brought a bottle of his prescription pain pills to the game and sold them throughout the night, gladly accepting chips as payment. Adderall was easy to score in the game and became essential fuel to keep the action going to noon the next day. The longest the game lasted? 27 hours. It began at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday and stopped at midnight the next day. In that game, I took a nap from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and played two sessions clocking in at nine and 12 hours.

With all of the booze and drugs, things often could get of control. Wasted people donking off chips. What more could I ask for? Besides, that edginess made the game more exciting and unpredictable. You never knew what was going to happen, like the time a newcomer shat on the bathroom floor. A friend of a friend was invited to the game for the first time. Apparently this guy was a lightweight and couldn’t handle his share of wine and weed. As a result, he couldn’t control his bodily functions and missed the toilet. Venus screeched in horror when she saw the giant turd sculpture on her bathroom floor. From that moment on, a new nickname stuck: The Mad Shitter.

However, the weirdest thing I ever saw was one regular who insisted on borrowing Venus’ microwave for 90 seconds upon his arrival. His cocaine dealer often gave him a clumpy product and he needed a microwave to better dehydrate his favorite party favor. Like I said earlier, San Francisco is totally different universe with its own set of rules, especially when it comes to poker.

October 2012