Vegas Tap Water

We all know the rule, but sometimes … it can’t be helped

Don’t tap the glass.

The old poker adage saying echoed through my head like a Sunday gospel. Don’t tap the glass and don’t startle the fish. But, I didn’t want to tap the glass, instead, I wanted to kick him in the nuts.

Pauly McGuire5 a.m. in Vegas. Somewhere on the Strip. The biggest mook in the game was a beer-guzzling wanna-be golf pro from somewhere in the South. It didn’t matter where. He had a slow drawl, golf tan, and deep pockets. I don’t even remember the rest of the table. They were all nits and a mixture of local insomniacs and tourists riding the initial buzz of their first night in Vegas. But then a couple of pretty boys sauntered into the room. They bragged about driving all the way from West L.A. They must’ve gotten bored giving each other hand jobs in the pool room of their fraternity house and got the original idea of a road trip to Vegas. Five hours and seven Vodka Red Bulls later, they’re the live ones at the table. The golf pro had won a couple of my buy-ins when I bluffed off one pot with nothing but Ace-high after I whiffed on a flush draw. He also snapped off my set of eights with a double gutshot. I wanted a chance to get my money back and kept eyeing the golf pro’s stack. I was super tired and bleary-eyed, but wasn’t going to leave until I fleeced the mooks.

Seasoned alkies are like little kids with short attention spans. You just have to humor them and nod your head because in 90 seconds, they’ll blurt out something even more preposterous. I couldn’t care less about who was the best second baseman in the National League, or who had the best buffet on the Strip, or if Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings in a London studio for NASA. I just politely nodded and kept the conversation moving along. I was smart enough never to say anything controversial by never taking a specific side in whatever redonkulous situation the golf pro brought up. The more he talked, the more he thought people liked him. The more he talked, the more he drank. The more he talked, the more hands he played. I just wanted to keep him talking and drinking and talking and drinking.

The golf pro played every hand and it was like sitting at a hot craps table with chips making acrobatic flips while whizzing through the air. The drunker he got, the worse he played, which meant the more he won. The L.A. bros were getting grouchy at his outlandish moves. They must’ve actually read Phil Hellmuth’s poker book and played much tighter considering they were spoiled trust fund babies.

I was unable to catch a hand to bust any of them. The night bled into sunrise and the cleaning crews had vacuumed the entire poker room, and a fresh batch of dealers arrived. The game was short-handed and teetering on breaking, because the golf pro had most of the chips on the table and he graduated to belligerent mode and was about to pass out in a Corona-induced coma.

And that’s when I went on a mini-rush. Five hands in a row. Two small ones. Two medium ones. And a monster when I tripled up with pocket ladies against one of the L.A. bros and the golf pro. The golf pro berated a dealer named Hong, while both L.A. bros glared at me. One was short and squirrely-looking with a date rapist’s smile, and the taller one demanded Fiji water and wore a wool hat. It was summer in both Vegas and SoCal, but he was one of those imaged-obsessed morons who wore things because he thought it made him look cool. For me, the woolen hipster hat on his head was like a huge big X on his forehead. It screamed, “I have sheeple-like fashion tastes, so I’m obviously an atrocious card player. Please take my Daddy’s money.”

Wooly hat bro was furious after he saw the smug look on my face when I erected three towers of red birds. The golf pro continued to berate Hong in between chasing down a waitress for another drink; the wooly hat bro bitched and moaned to his end of the table. It was all in hushed tones but he blurted out “Donkey Boy” loud enough so I could hear him. I’ve been called worse. He had never met my mother.

The morning regulars arrived including Smitty, an octogenarian local who reminded me of Coach from “Cheers,” and an Asian woman wearing way too much nice jewelry, particularly an over-sized jade ring. The game went from on the verge of breaking up, to getting a second life. Poker is weird like that, but in Vegas, no matter what time it is, there’s always going to be someone itching for action. I preferred problem gamblers to take the empty seats. Novice tourists would only burn through a single buy-in and leave, but problem gamblers spent every dollar in their wallet/purse then rushed to an ATM to take out a daily withdrawal limit.

A few curious tourists wandered by the poker room, but none of them were adventurous enough to join our game. I can’t blame them. We resembled nothing like a scene from “Casino Royale,” and instead looked like an intimidating bunch of rapscallions. The L.A. bros had fake tans and weird tattoos. I hadn’t shaved in weeks, had three joints stashed inside of an Altoids tin, and the backward Knicks hat on top of my head was torn and frayed and had mold-like stains on the brim. The golf pro’s horrendous beer breath had compromised the immediate area which contributed to the overall wretched stench of the poker room — a combination of rotten desperation, cheap hooker perfume, lingering second-hand smoke, sweaty armpits, and the skunk-like smell emanating from my pocket.

I couldn’t tell who I hated more — the drunk golf pro, the L.A. bros, or the miserly Asian woman with the jade ring who didn’t say a word. I played with her a few times up and down the Strip. She busted me one night at the MGM, but I busted her twice at the Bellagio. She played every pot that I raised out of sheer hatred. If she held a big draw and chasing a flush, she’d get there. Every friggin’ time. Whenever I had a big pair, she ran me down and didn’t say a word while she dragged my pot. She methodically stacked chips with her left hand and she never tipped, which bothered the dealers and the waitresses who brought her the black coffee with two sugars that she ordered once an hour.

I tried to get on dealers’ good side by tipping an extra buck or two whenever they got stiffed by my nemesis. Solidarity. Bribe the arbiters of luck. My toke had zero mathematical relevance, but then again, luck is a fickle thing. Sometimes you stumble upon it, but most of the time, it smacks the dumbest schmucks in the room right in the face.

The lady with the jade ring held both black threes and check-called me all the way to the river, where she promptly spiked a set of treys. That obnoxious trey of hearts sunk my Aces and punctured my beleaguered heart. An acid-reflux bitter taste shot up my windpipe and I snapped at her, not knowing if I was going to puke up bile onto the table. That was the first and only time I ever got a warning from the floor guy in Vegas.

“At least I didn’t drop the c-bomb,” I joked.

The floor guy had a nametag with an Italian-sounding name. He wore a wrinkled brown suit and an ugly pastel tie. He also didn’t laugh, but instead gave me that disappointed parent look.

“You of all people should know better, Doc.”

I halfheartedly apologized but we both knew deep down that none of his staff particularly liked the lady with the jade ring.

“Look, I’ve been there,” the floor guy said in an attempt to sympathize with me. I got a sick feeling he was about to tell me a bad beat story. It was worse; he told me his life bad beat story. Blah blah blah … he was a college football handicapper and stud prodigy from Maryland and arrived in Vegas 13 years earlier and things were going great and he was living the life until a string of horrendous luck wiped out everything. He lost his roll, his car, his house, his savings, his wife, and even his dog. It was a morose story that would make characters out of a Russian novel start weeping. He did what he had to do and swallowed his pride and took a job dealing poker. If most of his big hands held up over the years, he wouldn’t be humping the graveyard shift giving hotheads like me a talking to at 8 a.m. Perhaps if a few of his opponents’ draws never got there, or some knucklehead kid nailed a field goal in the Rose Bowl as time expired, then he’d still be grinding out a living as a pro. After all, he didn’t relocate across the country in order to pick up empty chip racks and adjudicate disputes between stubborn, angle-shooting locals and shithoused tourists, who blindly blow the equivalent of his weekly salary on an overpriced room on the Strip.

But the cards fall the way they fall. Balls bounce the way they bounce.

There’s often no logic in what happens once the dealer fans out the flop, then drops a turn card, and a river card. Because the universe has spoken and that’s that. Either you make the best hand, or you don’t. And if you don’t have a strong hand, then you better have balls the size of a Volkswagen because that’s the only way you’re going to win the pot … to bully your opponent and let them know who’s tougher … who’s a bigger bad ass. You can’t do that playing limit hold’em or playing low-limit stud with the myopic fogies reeking of mothballs and Ben-Gay. But at a no-limit table, you look a man in the eye and scare the heck out of him with a fierce movement of chips to the center of the felt.

I shrugged off old lady tilt and went after one of the L.A. bros. I successfully got inside the head of wooly hat bro. I four-bet him preflop, then check-raised him on the flop, and bet big on the turn before I made a move on the river. He disgustingly tossed his hands in the muck and the dealer pushed a large mound of chips to my end of the table. I had to make a split-second decision — do I let everyone at the table keep guessing whether or not my gun was loaded with blanks or with ammunition? I should have never shown my cards to maintain a mysterious aura, but I went for the jugular and flipped over a humiliating bluff.

Sometimes reveling in the braggadocio is worth more than the pot itself. Play enough cards in Vegas and anyone will tell you, pulling off a triple-barreled bluff against an L.A. douchebag is even better when you show the bluff. I shattered his fragile ego by rubbing his face in dog shit — er donkey shit. He kept calling me Donkey Boy. Well, hee-haw! This Donkey Boy just embarrassed him in front of his circle jerk partner.

I tilted the wooly hat bro and even pissed off his spray-tanned buddy. They reacted like two angry chimpanzees. If we were in the jungle, they’d be hurling feces at me. But we’re in Vegas, so the bros passive aggressively insulted me. I didn’t even dignify them with a verbal response, which made them angrier.

Don’t tap the glass. The words rang through my head like they rolled off the pious tongue of a preacher conducting a Sunday morning sermon on humility. I didn’t listen that time. I should have known better, but I wanted to beat the bro so badly that I flashed my bluff which was the equivalent of ramming his dense head against the glass so hard that it cracked and the sound of his crushing skull was so loud that even the lady with the jade ring let out a howling laugh.

December 2012