The popularity contest is over. Texas hold 'em has won. We're all in. Some approximations state that over 20 percent of Americans play hold 'em poker on a regular basis. Thirteen networks currently offer poker programming. San Diego's own Union-Tribune offers a weekly syndicated column devoted to the subject. Official entries for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas -- Texas hold 'em's main event -- have risen from 532 in 2000 to 5619 this past year. And in the fastest-growing sector for hold 'em -- online poker -- the numbers are even more astronomical. At least 15 websites offer real-money online poker games, with some of the sites reporting nearly $1 million a day in earnings. It's estimated that as many as 50,000 people in the world are holding real or virtual cards as you're reading these words.
Two thousand three was the boom year for Texas hold 'em. That year, television audiences were let in on the deep strategies of the game: the Travel Channel introduced lipstick cameras inside the poker tables that allowed people at home to see what those playing could only guess at -- the players' hidden cards.
Also in 2003, Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's his real name) brought the Internet to the forefront of poker consciousness. With one $40 buy in at a satellite tournament event online, he qualified for the World Series of Poker and then went on to the live main event in Vegas and beat 839 of the best players in the world, earning a $2.5 million first prize. Not bad, considering it was his first live tournament.
High-stakes, no-limit Texas hold 'em poker, if it's a sport at all, is an extreme sport. The analogy -- jumping off a cliff with an elastic band around your ankles -- isn't too fanciful. Betting all of your chips, risking every last bit of what you have, letting it ride on a single chance is nothing short of an all-out, intense, existential rush.
You know the feeling. Your stomach tears and goes two ways, half popping into your throat and half plopping down to your lap. Like when you pass an approaching cop car, and in your rearview you catch him banging a U-turn to follow you. Only thing is, at the poker table, you've got to keep it all inside. You need a "poker face." You've got to contain the butterflies that broke out when your stomach tore in two: no veins twitching in your throat, no tremors in the hands, not a bead of sweat. Your demeanor has to remain an illegible map, as your heart doubles pace in a snap.
Good poker players, among other talents, must develop a mastery of themselves. Their minds control the trifling matter of their bodies' physiological effects. They grow cold, at least at the table, at least metaphorically. "Ice in the veins," we say, or "a cool character."
Master players are not just masters of themselves and their own physiologies, they are also masters of math and anthropology. Studying odds and opponents, the best card sharks squeeze luck into her least possible trace.
If there's a problem in all this new popularity, it's among the young, or, more specifically, among that segment of potential players who don't have disposable income to risk. Bruce Roberts, the executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling, told me that 70 percent of California teenagers have gambled in the past year. "And the trouble with a lot of them," he said, "is that they use their parents' credit cards, tuition money, whatever it takes." Roberts went on, "It often starts out harmless, but then they get hooked." Roberts also told me the average onset age for problem gamblers is 12 years old. "That's when they place their first real bet," he said.
I probably placed my first bet around then, but I never got hooked. One reason may have been that I wasn't a consistent winner at cards. Sure, I've won enough for a few compact discs or dinner, but I've also lost everything I came to play with. Which is to say I've never become a poker expert. A half-friendly night game over Jack Daniel's with coworkers, an hour or two at the tables on my annual trip to Vegas, and that's about it. I hardly ever play.
But just the other day, I was getting my car fixed -- dead battery -- and there was a card room a few doors up from the service station. I had an hour to kill, so I bought into the $3 to $6 hold 'em game with $40. The way I see it, it's like going to the zoo or SeaWorld or a Padre game or Playhouse play. Forty bucks' worth of fun.
Or not. I dished out 40 bones to be dealt in two hands.
First, I folded rubbish -- no loss -- and then, before I could settle in, before I'd drawn a few dozen breaths of musty card-room air, I was dealt "the nuts." The best possible hand in all of Texas hold 'em poker: pocket aces. My luck!
I stayed calm, glanced a second time at the unmistakable good fortune -- A/A! -- and resolved immediately to drive it all the way, all out, and let the chips slide to whomever they would. You can't get better starting odds than A/A.
I was first to act, and two guys called my maximum $6 bet. The flop came 2/3/8, three different suits, garbage. My hand was beyond nuts. One guy folded, but the other raised my maximum bet and called me when I re-raised. The turn was more garbage, and the guy called me again. In no-limit, I would've gone all in, no matter how many chips I had. The river was another 2. I bet again, but this other guy called again, and when we flipped our cards up...no! He had a third deuce. He'd been calling me with 10/2 off-suit. Total garbage. But in this case, it was enough. I'd been beaten on the river, three 2s to my beloved "bullets."
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."
There was another player who'd apparently called ahead, rushed down, played for about 40 minutes, and then hurried back to work. Cowboy told me he usually loses because he plays too many hands. "The way to win is to be patient," Cowboy said. "Sit down for four or five hours and play only when you've got good cards. But if you get behind in a 40-minute session, there's no time to play smart and catch up."
I started looking closer at the players who filled the tables that day. There were men and women, beards and clean chins, reading glasses and tinted glasses, manicures and hangnails, gentle demeanors and toughened thugs, red eyes, big hats, brimmed hats, bald heads, long hair, big bellies, athletic bodies, suits, shorts, T-shirts, blouses, button-downs, iPods, Asians, Caucasians, blacks, Latinos, 20-year-olds, and octogenarians: you name 'em, they were holdin' 'em. About 75 players, one o'clock on a Thursday afternoon.
Even though there was a bar (closed during the day), hardly any poker players drink while playing poker. It's one of the oldest rules among (winning) players: keep your wits about you. Which means water, Diet Coke, iced tea, and copious cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull.
After I looked around the room for a while, I listened. The murmuring hum of people chatting bubbled beneath the sound, that particular sound peculiar to poker rooms: the clink and chink and click of chips. Poker players might be said to have a manual fixation, if there is such a thing. They shuffle, finger, slide, sift, lift, drop, paw over, and otherwise never let go of their piles of chips, at least not until they lose them. You can tell the hard-core players by the nifty juggling tricks they've mastered after hours and days and years of sitting with their stacks. Perhaps all the chip touching is a player's way of identifying with what's at risk. Or maybe it's nervousness or even boredom: there's nothing else to play with. I wonder what these players do when they play at home, online. Practice chip shuffling to stay in the mood?
For my part, I'm a notorious chip fumbler. It takes me a long time to count the chips out -- they fall out of my fingers -- and I know that anytime I touch my chips, everyone at the table knows that I'm inexperienced at poker. But I've learned to use that to my advantage. I almost always appear nervous, knocking over my stack and trembling and trying to count. But that makes me a good bluffer. Because it looks as if I have a big hand when I bet. At least that's how I hope it looks.
After an hour or so, my poker pro, Chris Psillas, finally showed up. He's a shorter man, kind of roly-poly, with big-rimmed glasses, a white mustache standing out against his permanently tanned skin, and smile lines scored around his jolly eyes and wide Greek mouth. One indicator of the kind of person Chris Psillas is: everyone who seemed to know him at the poker room seemed to like him. Although maybe that's just good poker, pretending to like your regular opponents.
Psillas shook my hand and led me over to the big-money table. He bought in with $1000 for a no-limit game with $5/$10 blinds.
"You have to know when to stop playing," Psillas said. "That's a big mistake players make. They push it beyond their limits." Psillas told me he knows to stop when he's won about $3000 or $4000. And if he loses the $2000 he came with, well, that's what he knew he was risking when he showed up.
I sat down behind Psillas, and he was dealt his first hand. Nothing. Another hand. Nothing again. He chatted cordially with me, regardless of whether he had cards or he was waiting for them, but he said that if he got involved in a big hand, he'd have to concentrate.
In case you've been living in a monastery for the past few years, here's a quick rundown of how Texas hold 'em is played. Each person at the table is dealt two cards face down. These are your pocket cards, or hole cards. There is a round of betting. Then three cards are placed on the table face up. These are called "the flop." The flop consists of common cards that fit into everyone's hand. There is another round of betting, as there is after a fourth common card ("the turn") and a fifth common card ("the river") are revealed.
Whatever else Texas hold 'em is, it's also a game of rhythm. And the rhythm of hold 'em is s-l-o-w. The hands take a minute or two, at most, and the chances are your two cards aren't going to be very good, which means you fold them and watch your opponents play. Fold and watch. Fold and watch. Fold and watch. A slow rhythm. And it's important to remember that you're not doing nothing while you're sitting there folding and watching. You're supposed to be learning what kinds of players are sitting at your table. Are they tight? Loose? Wild? Aggressive? Scared? It's important to be able to anticipate what your opponents will do when you have an opportunity to bet into them.
And then, every so often, you get a hand you think you can play. It's time to bet, so you tailor your bet to four elements: where you are on the table, how much money you hold in relation to how much your opponents can bet, what kinds of players your opponents are, and what kind of cards you have.
Psillas folded a bunch of small hands as he started, and after each tossing in of the cards, he half-turned to talk to me, telling me little anecdotes, tidbits of wisdom, pieces of information. "Every poker player's superstitious," he said at one point. "Me too. But not to the degree that I won't change my shirt if I'm winning in it." Later, he told me, "It's easy to blame the dealer or say you lost because you took the bus. And maybe it's true! You don't know with luck."
After about ten hands of folding or calling and getting no action, Psillas at last had a hand to play and an opponent or two to play him. His J/10 suited turned into a club flush on the turn; he went all in, and, boom, just like that he was up about $600. It hardly seemed to register with him, just another day at the office. And even with the big win, his stack was only about fourth biggest.
A few hands later, A/Q off-suit turned into a pair of queens on the flop, which netted Psillas another couple hundred. This started a little run of sweet hands: pocket kings, suited connectors, pocket jacks, and such. This made me feel more secure, as I sat behind Psillas and tried not to bother him. I had worried that I might adversely affect his luck.
But Psillas seemed to enjoy having someone to talk to. He whispered to me in his gravelly voice, and I picked the meanings out of his accent. Some Psillas wisdom: "When players talk about their hands, they're always lying." Or, "Everyone thinks they're the best player in the world. I don't. I just want to be good enough to travel a lot and enjoy myself and make a living." And, "Poker is good for society because there are so many rich people who are bad players. Poker helps redistribute the wealth."
As I wrote down what Psillas was saying, someone wondered who I was. "He's my agent," Psillas deadpanned. "I'm going to be a movie star."
Later, Psillas told me his wife Andrea plays poker often and plays well. "She learned from me by sitting there the same way you are now."
And I was learning pretty quickly. For one thing, you pay more attention when there's a lot of money on the line. After Psillas bluffed out another player and won with nothing, he threw in his cards and refused to answer as the other player asked three times, "What did you have?" Psillas turned to me and said in a low voice, "Never show your cards unless you have to. So many players are proud of their hands or proud they bluffed you, and they show their cards even after they've chased you out. You should never do that. Never. It tells the other players too much about you."
Psillas began having "bad beats" after a hand where he tried to chase a less-experienced player sitting next to him. He called a $75 bet with nothing, a 5/6 off-suit, and after a worthless flop, he raised $100, trying to steal the pot. But the less-experienced player was not to be chased. Turns out he had pocket aces. He called, and Psillas lost the $175. "I didn't play that well," he admitted to me, quietly. "But I thought I could scare him away. I should have gotten out earlier."
After losing another $300 on pocket jacks, Psillas told me, "No recipes are correct all the time. There are no laws in Texas hold 'em. A strategy that wins big one hand can lose you everything down the road. That's just the way it is."
The last hand I watched Psillas play, he lost $400 because two less-experienced players (younger, more nervous, had made some dumb bets earlier) ended up with a straight and full house, respectively. Those hands obliterated Psillas's top pair and good kicker and leveled his stack down. I told him I was going to head out so that his luck could swing back toward the positive, and he smiled and patted me on the back. "No, no," he said.
I called Chris Psillas the next day and asked him how he'd done. "I ended up winning about $700," he said. "I played for about three more hours."
With his old-world Greek accent, Psillas had a tone like a wise ethnic uncle built into his voice. He sounded as if he urgently meant whatever he was saying.
I remembered Psillas telling me the day before that he always had "about $100,000 free to play poker with." Where did all that money come from?
"I came to the U.S. in 1961," he said. "I had a service station in the beginning, and then I went into the seafood business. I had a furniture factory in Costa Rica. I was a deep-sea diver for a while. I have done all kinds of things, and I made good money."
And what got him into playing poker professionally?
"In 1990, I divorced my wife, my present wife," he said. "We got divorced, but then we got married again. So I got divorced, and I sold my business, and I came to the U.S. from Costa Rica, and I came to the West Coast because I heard there was good poker out here, and I wanted to play poker. I became more proficient and more regular -- instead of playing two times a week, I was playing four times a week. That's when I ended up being a prop at Viejas, and that's how I got into the World Series of Poker."
Psillas won his way into the world series by taking first place in a satellite tournament. Satellites are smaller tourneys that are designed so that the top money winners can go on to larger, main events. Psillas paid a $1000 buy in for the satellite he won. To play in the world series without winning a satellite, players had to dish out a $10,000 entry fee.
What was the World Series of Poker like?
"The computer gave me a third-day entry," Psillas answered. "There were something like 6600 players there, with 2200 starting on the first day, 2200 the second, and the rest of us beginning to play on the third. So I started Saturday, the third day, and I survived. Then I went to the next day, where all three remaining groups play together. And I survived the second day. And the third day, I was very cold. The first day, I had $96,000. The second day, I ended up with about $37,000. And the third day, I just tried to stay alive and get in the money, and I did. For my initial $1000 investment, I won over $14,000. Top 500 finish. Not bad."
Is there any special quality that separated the average poker player from the elite poker player?
"First of all," Psillas said, "I'll tell you, I'm a down-to-earth guy. So the elite, I don't know. This idea of the elite bothers me. It bothers me in literature, it bothers me in social status, it bothers me in the quality of a human being. There is no elite. Anyway. Anyway. Okay, so I am a humble man, and I just like to make the best out of it. But what makes me better than the bad players is that I'm a winner. I get ahead. And I'd say I win because of my experience. Because of many years of playing. And I guess I have a knack for it. You know, you can't be a good mechanic if you don't have a tendency to like nuts and bolts. Some people cannot be good players. They play their entire lives, and you wonder, are they stupid? Do they have some kind of mental defect or something? They play so bad, for 50 years. But I have a certain knack for playing poker. I don't know why."
On my way to asking another question, I made the mistake of implying that poker is not, as they say, an "honest living." Psillas jumped on those words. "Why do you make this distinction?" he asked me, clearly stung. "In the old times, being a poker player was a degrading thing. But now, it has a following on the television, and people play for millions of dollars. It's not something to feel bad about anymore."
I wanted Psillas to tell me about reading people. How did he do it?
"More than reading people is knowing people. In other words, very few people have very distinct body language at the poker table. But you have to see patterns of how people play. Are they always risky? Are they always conservative? If you play with someone for a long time, for instance, and you never see him raise one time, and then, all of a sudden, he raises somebody, then what's he got? He's got a good hand. And you know this because he's a very tight player."
What patterns did other players notice in him? Could they read Chris Psillas?
"Most players know that when I bet heavy, they should get out," he said. "But I take risks also. But not to the extreme that I'll go all in on nothing, let's say. I don't think I'm very easy to read, because I don't express a lot. If I bluff or if I don't bluff, I don't have different expressions. Or maybe I do, and I don't know it. But I'm not the kind of guy who bites his lips or does something with his hands."
What about superstition and religion and the spiritual side of poker?
"For one thing," Psillas answered, "I don't think God will come down and help you play poker. So forget religion. But superstition, yes. Always I do stupid things, like I'll take my ring off and put it in my pocket, and then I'll laugh at myself. When you lose, you try to find the reason why you lose. You do realize that luck exists. And it's bigger than the people involved. You know, this isn't pool or chess or any of those games where the person who plays better usually wins. In poker, you can play 50 hands against someone who knows more about poker and who has played longer and who wins more, but you can beat him 49 times. It can happen in poker. Any player can win at any time. But, of course, that's why you don't talk about, oh, I won today or I'm losing this week. You have to talk about the whole year. Because your luck cannot be against you for a whole year."
But in the long run, doesn't luck even things out, 50/50?
"No," Psillas came back. "Because in the long run, what makes you better is your skill. Luck always balances. But your skill is the difference. It's what will make you win more from me or make me win more from you, over time. This is inevitable."
What did Psillas think about the recent boom in poker?
"Ten years ago," he said. "There were only three tables of hold 'em at Viejas Casino. Today, you'll have 15 games going at any given time. And all these new players, the majority of them, are losing their money. It's good for the business. Really good for casinos. Do you realize that the rake from casinos, in the big games we play, is about $140 an hour? That means a casino can make $3000 from one table in a single day. That's great business. But that's nothing compared to the Internet. Do you have any idea what those people are making off the Internet gambling? There's something like 1500, maybe 2000 tables available for real-money online poker. Two thousand tables with a $3 drop every hand, 40 hands an hour, $120 an hour on 2000 tables. Do the numbers! That's millions of dollars every day. Millions." He laughed.
"And TV created it," he went on. "That, and the fact that this guy, Chris Moneymaker, won the World Series of Poker the first time he ever played a live game. He only ever played online before, and then he's in the biggest tournament in the world, and he played so stupid it was pathetic. You know, almost every hand he won was not a playable hand. Except for one good move he made in the whole thing, when he went all in, and the other guy had Q/9, heads up on the last table, and the other guy didn't call, even though Moneymaker was bluffing. It was an excellent move. But anyway, Moneymaker made a great contribution to poker, getting other people to play more and more in bigger games."
Then Psillas thought a moment. "Or, I don't know if it's a contribution, actually," he said. "Maybe it's more of a social problem. Because now we see kids from the U.S. who, instead of going to school, they're playing poker. And they tell you that. They say, 'Look, I can make more money doing this. I don't have to finish my studies.' So young people today, maybe they tell their parents they're going to school, and their fathers send them money to become engineers, and instead they go to the casino and play poker. It's not good."
But the boom in poker must be good for an experienced player like Psillas: more novices from whom to take large pots!
"There have always been bad players," Psillas said. "And there are more of them now. But the thing about these youngsters playing today, most of them are educated in how to play poker. They've read all these books; they've seen hundreds of hands on television. There were no books or televised poker games back in my day. I'll tell you what it's like. In the old days, to be the captain of a boat, you had to go start from cabin boy and end up as captain 35 years later, maybe, if you had the brains and the capacity. But today, you go to school 4 years, and you come out and you're mess captain, and then 4 years more, and you're full captain. And you can do the same thing in poker."