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Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Now's when to hold 'em

By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

Who said poker isn't a contact sport?

My very first day as Page 2's high-stakes poker pro was about to end with a whimper -- after 14 straight hours of battling over pots worth thousands, I was up a measly $70 in a no-limit hold 'em game at Foxwoods Casino in southern Connecticut -- when the grouchy guy at the other end of the table suddenly threw his hole cards at the dealer. One of them hit her in the face, and she let out a yelp, then screamed for a floor supervisor.

"Either he goes or I go," she said, in a rage. "I'm not dealing another hand with that guy in the building."

The floor supervisor arrived and, before escorting the defiant ex-player off the premises, gave our table the kind of look a librarian reserves for an invasion of teenage boys who don't know how to whisper properly -- 50 percent exasperation and 50 percent contempt.

And who could blame her? We were a rogue bunch, sitting there in our own stench at 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning, tired, ornery, desperately trying to ... well, who knows what. There was "Frenchy" (who I think is actually from Canada), whose favorite move was to slap down a huge roll of $100 bills and grunt, "All in." There was tattooed "Mikey," whose favorite move was to complain about the lack of alcoholic beverages available in the poker room after midnight.

There was the guy whose favorite move was to advise his girlfriend about how to play her hands ... while she kept slipping him chips to keep him in action. There was the self-adoring college student from Boston, whose favorite move was to stare in disbelief at anyone with the chutzpah to bet into him. And there was the usual assortment of flotsam and degeneracy, whose favorite moves were either to whine or bemoan their unimaginably unlucky fates.

My favorite move? Scratching various parts of my body while I wondered what I had let myself in for.

This wasn't the first time the floor supervisor had been called over to straighten out "a problem" at our table, and it wouldn't be the last.

Sure enough, about 15 minutes after the kamikaze card-throwing incident, the dealer noticed that a bunch of cards had been "marked" (that is, defaced in various ways). And the floor supervisor was in no mood to be merciful.

"There are 23 cards marked in one deck, and 15 in the other," she said. "We're putting the surveillance camera on this table to see who's doing what."

That pretty much ended Day 1 of my long year's journey into the weird world of poker. I didn't know what the surveillance camera would show, but I did know this:

Less than 24 hours into it, I didn't want to start off my new career with a rap sheet. I don't believe in luck, but I do believe in bad karma.

A game whose time has come
I know what you're thinking:

1.) Since when does Page 2 have it own high-stakes poker pro, and what do they need one for?

2.) Why me?

Poker tourney
Poker can be the cruelest of games -- even when playing with complete neophytes.
The first question is easy. Poker is exploding into the American consciousness like a combination of "You're fired!" and Paris Hilton. Despite a total lack of promotion, last year's telecasts of the World Series of Poker, which were shown -- over and over -- in seven one-hour segments, averaged nearly a million viewers per showing, including reruns.

It surely didn't hurt that last year's championship event was won by Chris Moneymaker, a twentysomething accountant from Tennessee who had never played in a live tournament of any kind before. In other words, the 2003 WSOP was generally perceived as the most realistic "reality" TV show of them all -- no bugs to eat, no 'The Donald' to put up with, no fat guys to go out with, no snarky English judges to denigrate your singing ability. Just a no-chance amateur beating the best players in the world out of a life-changing $2.5 million.

Previously-unknown shadow figures like Phil Hellmuth Jr., Gus Hanson and Phil Ivey ("the Tiger Woods of poker") are becoming rich and recognizable cultural icons.

Real authors, like James McManus, are churning out bestselling books on poker, like "Positively Fifth Street."

More than 50 million Americans are playing, and there are million-dollar tournaments all over the calendar. As a wise man once said, "When in doubt, follow the money."

As for "Why me?" ... actually, there are a lot of good reasons. Here's my back story, and my action plan.

Gambler, heal thyself
"Always remember, the first thing a gambler has to do is make friends with himself. A lot of people go through this world thinking they're someone else. There are a lot of players sitting at this table with mistaken identities."
-- Puggy Pearson, professional poker player, from Jon Bradshaw's "Fast Company"

Who doesn't have the delusion that he'd like to know who he really is?

Well, a lot of people, I guess.

Not me. I'm on a mission here. If it works out, I make friends with myself, sort through my mistaken identity and turn myself into the cool, independent operator I've always wanted to be. I've been working for The Man my whole life, and it's time to find out, once and for all, if I've got what it takes to live on my own terms outside the suffocating support of modern corporate life.

My back pages
America is the mother country of reinvention. Has been since the arrival of the Pilgrims, transforming themselves overnight from stubborn religious outcasts into America's first royal family.

Ever since, we've been in love with the makeover, culminating in the '60s, when, to be cool, every girl I knew was changing her name from Suzie to Sunshine; and every guy had turned in his button-down shirt for a leather vest with little purple stars hand-sewn all over it.

The one chip that did Jay Lovinger in.
In fact, it was during the early '60s that I reinvented myself the first time, and poker was the lever that shifted my world. I entered the '60s as the son of paranoid second-generation Eastern European immigrants, weaned on my parents' conviction that the American Dream would forever stiff-arm stiffs like us. I exited that decade as someone with a sense of possibility, with the faith that I would be able to grab my share.

How out of it were my parents? They didn't know you were allowed to visit a college before you actually attended it. So, feeling a little bit like the Dormouse being forced to leave the tea party at the point of an AK-47, I left my safe-if-limited world behind -- six-feet, two-inches of wide-eyed, tremulous, obedient, alcohol-and-drug--free nerd -- to attend Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, the town that time forgot.

Harpur was crammed with brilliant one-of-a-kinders -- many of them Jewish kids from New York City who, if they'd had more money or been less socially maladjusted, might've been terrorizing the Harvard faculty. Before long, I found myself mesmerized by Mike, a kid supplying me and my dorm with LSD samples stolen from a U.S. military experiment and running a 24/7 poker game. Mike was a prodigy, a card shark raised by card sharks -- Mom was a world-class gin rummy hustler, Dad a national bridge champion. He was also the ringleader of young men with little money and big mouths, who knew how to inflict pain with killer poker moves and skin-ripping putdowns. Either you learned to fight back, or ... off to the library!

In a misguided attempt to develop a strong "table image" early on -- hey, I was only 17 -- I cultivated two annoying habits:

1.) I'd eat donuts whenever I played, nibbling and nibbling with rabbit-like bites until the lower half of my face and most of the playing surface was covered with bits of sugar; and ...

2.) Whenever I had a sure winner -- or was representing a sure winner -- I'd scream out, "Ming the Merciless!" and slam the maximum raise into the pot, sending all those sugar-flecked quarters and dollar bills flying.

Once, Mike had to decide whether to call one of my Ming raises. He stared at me until I became uncomfortable enough to ask, "What're you waiting for -- Christmas?"

"I'm just wondering," Mike said.

"Pay your money and find out," I said.

"No," Mike said, peering at me over the top edge of his glasses, a classic tell that he was about to try to psyche me out, to put me on tilt. "I'm not wondering about your hand. I'm wondering about those donuts. Aren't you supposed to eat them inside your mouth?"

Too late, Mikey. That game heralded the dawn of my self-knowledge, learned on the fly. I learned about the power of the mind, self-preservation and self-reliance, about who you could trust and under what conditions, about wit and predatory behavior. Most important, Mike, I learned that what my parents had spoon-fed me was all mush:

The meek shall not inherit the earth.

I played in the Harpur game for 10 years, flunking out twice in the process. For the last five years, I actually made my living playing poker, a feat which could be accomplished in Binghamton in the '60s on 30 bucks a week.

But all good things must come to an end. In 1971, the year my oldest daughter was born, I had to reinvent myself yet again, this time as a grownup.

Goodbye to pot and acid, seven-card stud, group sex and listening to "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" 12 times a day. Hello to fatherhood, responsibility, therapy and despair.

I started off slowly as a sportswriter at the dying Binghamton Sun-Bulletin. I could type, the Sun-Bulletin was paying $60 a week and, voilą, a journalist was born. For two years after that, I was a field editor at Discount Store News, an existential hell beyond Sartre's wildest dreams. Then my career began to pick up speed with my first legit job as an editor at Inside Sports. By 1985, I found myself in the nation's capitol, where I had been hired to start a slick weekly magazine for The Washington Post -- my first experience with what my wife likes to call "Big Boy Journalism."

For the first time in my life, vitality, luck, creativity and wisdom converged. I was flying. You know how people always say, "God only provides what we can handle"? God provided me with my first high-stakes poker game, a golden opportunity to test myself at the height of my newly-discovered powers.

This is how not to mark the cards.
I hadn't played in 15 years; but soon after arriving at the Post, I was invited to sit in for an evening in a legendary game that featured several major D.C. insiders, including Bob Woodward, several other journalists, a federal judge, a couple of congressmen, and Richard Viguerie, the conservative fund-raiser and inventor of the NICPAC. By my standards, the stakes were astronomical -- you could bet up to $50 at any time, which, considering we played mostly seven-stud high-low with betting after the declaration, meant pots of over $1,000 were common and a player could easily drop three grand in an evening. As by far the smallest paycheck in a crowd of guys from the two-comma income bracket, I had a lot more at stake ... and a lot more to gain.

I was a regular winner during the three years I played. Yeah, the hourly wage was good, but the most valuable thing I took from the game was a more sophisticated worldview. One night, Viguerie was among the losers, and he wrote me a check for $600. As he did, I chuckled to myself, thinking I'd write on the memo line something like, CONTRIBUTION TO N.O.W. before I cashed it. In mid-pen stroke, Viguerie looked up and said, "Jay, before I give you this check, you have to promise me that you won't deface it in any way."

An impressive display of mind-reading, no? But here's the scary part that occurs to me now when I think about where I've been and where I want to go:

If a man who can read minds had to write me a $600 check for one evening's losses, then imagine what I'm letting myself in for.

In 1989, I returned to New York, eventually working my way to the top of the editorial heap at Life magazine, where I was named managing editor in 1997. By the end of the year, I was fired when I refused to gore the staff that had delivered the magazine's most profitable year since 1968.

I soon discovered that, professionally speaking, there's no life after Life. So I became a consultant. Creative starvation ensued.

I bumped into a few poker games, but they were strictly penny-ante and satisfied nothing I was craving. A quiet desperation set in, and all the fears I'd felt as a 17-year-old burbled up.

I began, without consciously being aware of what I was doing, to plan for a future without me in it. Maximizing investments. Agonizing over savings. Gathering life insurance, anal as an ant, against the encroaching winter.

Jay, I told myself one day, this is not good.

Luckily, during my years at Life, I'd noticed something that quickened my heart and the hearts of the magazine's readers -- stories about people who chuck away their tired lives and remake themselves in the image of their dreams. As Life disappeared in my rearview mirror, I had a sudden yearning to reinvent myself, too. But how? And as what?

And then it hit me: If a past-his-prime guy who drools while he sleeps can become the new-millennium equivalent of a lone gunfighter at high noon -- or, at least, go broke trying -- isn't there hope for us all?

"Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?"
So, no, I won't sit here and rot, living off the crumbs of what I stored up during my ripe years. I'm not going out like that. I'm starting off with a triple-gainer into the deep end of the pool -- at the 2004 World Series of Poker, which begins next week in Vegas -- and even if they expose me for what I am, a rank amateur, I'm going to find a way to keep swimming, to stay afloat through the 2005 World Series of Poker, where I'll show everybody what you can accomplish when you make friends with yourself.

I'm going to find out how it feels to be my own boss, to work when I want to, where I want to, and as hard and as long as I want to. In other words, I'm going to try to grab a huge slice of what everybody wants. I'm vowing not to be stuck on the periphery of my own life, to be a free man when most men become most dependent on the kindness of a-holes.

Looks like Jay's been dipping into Page 2's budget.
I'm going back to where I first found myself, for better or worse -- to the poker table. I've got no clue whether it's the dumbest idea of my life, or the best. But along the way, I'm going to tell you about the metamorphosis poker has undergone, how it's wormed its way from the shadows into the klieg lights of American entertainment, and how the faces of its central characters have changed. How guys named Chan and Nguyen replaced road warriors like Amarillo Slim and Texas Dolly, how the game was wrenched from the hands of high school dropouts and pool hustlers and bootleggers by millionaire marketeers and mathematicians.

I'll find out what I'm made of, and what 21st-century poker masters are made of, by challenging them to $1,000 freezeout Q & As -- interviews designed to reveal what's at the heart of a great poker player while we're playing hands worth a grand each -- a sort of double-barreled baring of the souls. I'm going to find out who they hate to play, who they love to crush, who cheats, who trash-talks, and where there's still romance left in the game.

I'm going to find out how it feels to play a game -- perhaps the only game -- where a last-chance stiff like me could get on a roll and bring down its Michael Jordan, its Roger Clemens, its Muhammad Ali, even if just for one night.

I'm going to go wherever the game is thriving. I'm going to cruise the cruise ships steaming toward exotic ports and ride the riverboats with the descendants of Mississippi River card sharks. I'm going to play all over the world like the adventurer I've always longed to be, and I'm going to play the game holed up in my bedroom on the Internet like the geek I've always feared I am, and like 4.68 million other American geeks are doing this very minute.

I'm going to play with a pack of local desperadoes, fascinating flotsam like the guys I played with in college, and with the beautiful people in high-stakes games like the one Larry Flynt hosts four times a week in his L.A. mansion, where a man can take a celebrity to the cleaners -- or be taken by one -- for a quarter-mil a night.

If I can't do it all on my own, I'm going to find a guru, a poker-playing Carlos Castaneda to guide me through the strange new world of this game that an astonishing 50 million Americans have taken up and that millions more have watched from their bar stools and living room sofas during the 14 championships that were televised on ESPN and the Travel Channel last year. Maybe somebody like Phil Hellmuth, Jr., best-selling author of "Play Poker Like the Pros," who has generously made it known that he'll teach you and your best pals how to play Texas Hold 'em for a mere 25 grand.

So it's off to Vegas next week, where I'll begin writing a regular column for Page 2 about my adventures and the strange people, rituals and customs that characterize the world of poker in 2004.

Along the way to the 2005 WSOP, I'll keep tabs on how my bankroll is holding up, what it's really like to go head-to-head with the legends, what if feels like to live a dream.

I'll also answer questions, give unasked-for advice (some of which may actually be useful), and pass along a few tales, some of which may even be true.

But not all of them. Because -- and here comes my first piece of advice -- what separates the men from the boys in poker is world-class bluffing ability. And I figure it's safer to try my moves out on you first than on a guy named Amarillo Slim.

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is also writing a book on his poker adventures for HarperCollins.