I just love the language of poker. It's rich with colorful, figurative terms, many of which have integrated with our American vernacular. Ace in the hole, wild card, call the bluff, when the chips are down, cash in, stack up, pass the buck, up the ante, blue chip.
The terms and phrases of Texas hold 'em, in particular, sound like something other than a card game. For example, you'd been limping, but you had the best kicker and top pair on the flop, and the only one in it with you was a total calling station, so that by the time the turn came, you went all in, because you knew he needed more on the river than you. Sounds like something out of an ancient religious text.
By most accounts, the history of poker spans more than 600 years. Similar card games were played in Persia and China, eventually migrating to the United States through Europe, until variations on today's poker swept widely through the American West in the early 1800s.
Today, closer to home, at least 14 places tender legal, live hold 'em games in San Diego County. Most of them are open 24 hours and offer poker throughout the day. The Village Club in Chula Vista is one of the oldest in continuous operation, with a history dating back more than 50 years.
San Diego boasts its share of professional poker players as well. In the 2005 world series, 36 San Diego County residents reported winnings.
One of the bigger winners, a man who finished in 327th place, taking home $14,135, was Alpine's own Chris Psillas, aged 69. When I called him to ask if I could interview him, he was open to the idea and friendly. Then I mentioned maybe sitting in and playing poker with him.
Psillas, whose rusty voice and dense accent are as Greek as togas and baklava, said, "Wait a minute. You're a writer who waits tables. You're too smart to jump out of planes with no parachutes. You don't go deep-sea diving without air tanks. You don't want to play poker with me. You should sit behind me and watch me play."
I wasn't convinced. How much would Psillas bring to buy in with, I wanted to know.
"I always buy in with $1000 for an afternoon," he said. "But I bring another $1000 to re-buy if I have to."
Alrighty, then! I reckoned I'd just watch.
Psillas's regular haunt nowadays is the Village Club. "One of the best big games in all of San Diego," he said. Psillas plays there about four times a week.
Psillas's résumé as a poker pro was impressive. He'd played since he was a youngster growing up on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes and became a professional in 1990, when he took a job as a prop at Viejas Casino. Props, or poker proposition players, are hired by casinos to start games or to keep short-handed games from breaking down. Psillas told me he's made in the vicinity of $100,000 every year playing poker since he went pro in 1990. His biggest take in a single sitting was $28,000. (And his biggest loss was around $11,000.) He quit being a prop last year and decided to focus on tournaments instead. To this end, last year was the first time Psillas played in the World Series of Poker.
So I got ready to learn a thing or two from a pro and I headed down to Chula Vista.
The Village Club has two rooms, with 12 tables total. There's a small bar and a tiny kitchen that serves superb noodle soup and egg rolls, as well as sandwiches and other meals. There's a cashier as well as an ATM. Of the 12 tables, 1 is for blackjack, 3 are for pai gow, and the rest offer variations on hold 'em.
Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the Village Club is comfortable enough as card houses go, with cushioned seats and air-conditioning and an extra foot or two of space between each table. It has the obligatory surveillance cameras, the televisions showing sports and CNN with the sound turned off, the low drop ceiling, the patterned industrial carpeting.
The guy who usually runs the floor at the Village Club is Cowboy Joe Simpkins. Or rather, Cowboy, just Cowboy.
Cowboy himself is an old pro. Played the world series, worked at Viejas, made a good living. From what I could tell, he was an amiable, efficient, effective floor manager. He always seemed to know what was going on in the room: organizing games, keeping an eye on potential problems, and the whole time maintaining good humor and chatting with me while I waited for Psillas to arrive. The whole time I was there, I never once heard anyone call Cowboy anything other than Cowboy. He answered the phone "Cowboy." And, of course, he sported snakeskin boots, a leather vest, a bolo tie, a Stetson hat, gold horseshoe earrings, glitzy rings, and a goatee.
Cowboy gave me a little overview of some of the players in the club that day. But instead of a litany of old pros, he focused on another kind of card player. "That woman over there," he said, nodding in the direction of an older Asian lady with sunglasses on. "She's been here since late last night. I think she's been taking naps under those glasses."
Cowboy went on, "We get a lot of folks who play for days straight. We had one woman once who played for days straight, never slept, and started to stink, so we had to send her home." And then he told me about the queen of the days-straight players. "This one lady who still plays here from time to time, she used to play hold 'em for two or three days in a row, never going home, never sleeping, but she's had two heart attacks, so her doctor won't let her do that anymore."
And speaking of doctors, Cowboy told me about one plastic surgeon from Tijuana who was on his way to play that day. "All the big-money players are licking their chops," he said. "The doc never wins. Comes up here with two, three, maybe ten thousand dollars sometimes. Drops it all in a day or two and then drives back down."