"Jennifer, come back to your table."
I looked at Carlos in his pressed brown suit, thinking that he wasn't wearing as much hair gel as you'd expect from a pit boss. I liked that he knew my name, but my feet weren't moving.
"Come back to your table," he said again. "We'll get you a new shoe."
I looked back at him, still not knowing whether or not to obey. He was standing by the Baccarat table that I had just walked away from--after losing $200. I was standing by Let it Ride, a table game that I had learned how to play a few days earlier.
"Come play a new shoe," Carlos said again. We were at the Plaza, my favorite casino in downtown Las Vegas. The Elvis impersonator had long stopped crooning in the little Omaha Lounge, but the evening band had yet to start. It was dinner time&mdashtime to go home—but I had another $100 left in my pocket and I wanted to play. There was still a chance that I didn't have to go home a loser.
"No," I said, "I just lost $200 at that table." Carlos's big brown eyes were soft and pleading. I don't think he, as a casino employee, was allowed to tell me not to play, but everything about him was insisting that I do not play Let it Ride. Maybe he knew this was my case money, my last $100, an overdrawn checking account waiting for me at home.
Over the weekend I had won more than $300 on Let it Ride at the Aladdin. There was a definite chance it could've been beginner's luck since it was my first time, but the friend who taught me loved the game, so surely it couldn't be that bad.
"Come play Pai Gow, then. Either Baccarat or Pai Gow," he said pointing to both. His urgency brought me out of my paralysis. I looked at the Pai Gow table. I had seen my professional poker player friends playing this game when they were not "at work," but I didn't know how to play. I walked slowly over to the lone Pai Gow table, submitting to the wishes of the pit boss.
Carlos met me there. He put his arm on my shoulder and whispered that Baccarat and Pai Gow were pretty close to even money games, but that the house had a much bigger advantage on Let it Ride. This meant that I was more likely to lose at Let it Ride, and after seeing me wipe-out at Baccarat, he didn't want the situation to get worse.
"This used to be my game. Sit on the end here, I'll teach you how to play," he said.
The dealer smiled when I sat down. She passed a round of cards to the table and I picked mine up. Carlos told me how to place the hands, the best hand in back, second best, or the lower hand, in front of it on the table.
"When you have two pairs, split 'em," he advised.
I split the pairs in my hand. The dealer showed her cards, two lesser hands than mine and I won $10 minus the fifty-cent commission. During the next hour and a half I held onto my $100, and won $125 on top of it, narrowing my loss for the day to only $75. I felt good about that and was ready to go home. As I passed my chips to the dealer so she could color me up, Carlos came over for a progress report. I gave him the update and thanked him.
"That's my game," he said smiling.
I moved to Las Vegas to watch the 2005 World Series of Poker. Until then, I had been a craps player for 12 years following in the footsteps of my grandfather, who patiently taught me how to play and took me to Las Vegas for my 21st birthday to roll the bones. It had been a rite of passage for me, one that fully passed on the gambling in our Chinese bloodline. During the prohibition era, my great-grandfather had owned an underground casino in downtown Portland. His sons grew up in this casino, and my grandfather told me stories about watching craps when he was so small he had to stand on a box to see over the table.
I never read any How-To Gamble books, but a few years ago I started reading memoirs from gamblers. I wanted to write about my gambling adventures as I roamed the world, only I didn't know the lingo. I had to see how others were doing it. Howard Schwartz at the Gambler's Book Shop in Vegas recommended Anthony Holden's The Big Deal. After reading that book, I found and devoured James McManus's Positively Fifth Street. I was sold—my eyes sparkled to the world of poker.
At this same time I was reading about poker, Texas Hold'Em had exploded into a mainstream craze with TV coverage and viewer stats growing weekly. The World Poker Tour was on the Travel Channel, and coverage of The World Series of Poker aired on ESPN. America was taking note as Hollywood celebrities like Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire were winning at poker, and the media, whether they realized it or not, was creating celebrities out of poker pros. The 2005 World Series of Poker was going to be the biggest World Series in the poker books, with the winner of the main event getting a $7.5 million prize. I had to go see it. I was in love with the idea of witnessing poker history.
When I got to Vegas I was introduced to two professional players. Gavin Smith and Martin Feijo. Martin placed 28th in the 2004 World Series (out of 2,000 entrants), and within two months of me arriving in Vegas, Gavin won $155,880 in the $2,000 No Limit Hold'em 2005 Mirage Poker Showdown and $1,128,278 a week later in the $10,000 World Poker Tour No Limit Hold'em Championship. Following Gavin's big win, I was included in a group of his friends to Ruth Chris' Steakhouse where I tasted my first Dom Perignon, celebrated over Alaskan King Crab and perfectly cooked steak in a private room with other pro poker players. Gavin's friend Erick Lindgren, who toasted to Gavin's "making it", had already cashed in for more than $900,000 in poker tournaments that year.
The first time I left for a weekend after moving to Las Vegas, I felt the void. The empty space inside that was slowly filling with the desire for action. I called a friend to see if he wanted to go to the closest Bay Area card room to play poker. Being away from the constant access to gambling was foreign, if not slightly disconcerting. I wanted to play because it was harder to. And, of course, I wanted to play for no other reason than I just wanted to.
Playing Pai Gow had become my relaxant. I would work during the day, at home and at coffee houses, hardly speaking to anyone. By late afternoon, I was tired of being alone, needing a break from work, and the Plaza was the only place I wanted to be. The first few weeks in town I only played Baccarat. It was my grandfather's newest game, and "testing his system" seemed to somehow legitimize playing with money I couldn't afford to lose. And then I lost and lost. One to two hundred dollars a day, which in the scheme of all things Vegas, was not much, but making less than $2000 a month, a $500 loss in a week would take its toll. The switch to Pai Gow made sense. There was a lot of "pushing" in Pai Gow, which meant the house didn't take your money, and you didn't win. It was a tie. My money lasted longer at a Pai Gow table. And I was relaxed there. I wasn't working. I was socializing with tourists, drinking a few cocktails for the price of a $1 tip, and getting recognized by dealers, which to a new Glitter Gulch inhabitant, somehow felt like making friends.
One day I went out with Martin. We played Pai Gow at The Orleans before going to a movie. The next time I saw him, he came to my house. He played online poker, while I cooked a pizza. Martin told me about the 20 questions at Gambler's Anonymous that identified compulsive gamblers and suggested I look at them. I thought it was silly. I was a recreational gambler, wasn't I? Or had that changed since I moved to Vegas? Still I was curious. The test showed that I was not one of the two million adults in the U.S. that meet the criteria of a pathological gambler. But according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, March 2003, there are still another 2 to 3 percent that have less significant, yet serious, problems with their gambling.
Six months have passed and I moved out of Vegas after falling in love with a man who luckily loves business a hair more than the poker. We've been back several times, sometimes to gamble, sometimes not. But there are many nights when I sit in my living room thinking about how nice it would be to be at the Plaza, Carlos smiling at me, and Elvis singing in the background.
"See," he would say, "what did I tell you? Pai Gow." I would smile back, the dealer, taking the cards from the shoe, and handing out another round.
"Cocktails?" a passing waitress would mutter. I'd flag her down.
Jennifer L. Leo (www.jenleo.com) is the editor of the popular humor series with Travelers' Tales including Sand in My Bra, Whose Panties Are These?, The Thong Also Rises, and What Color is Your Jockstrap?. She is also the gossip columnist for BLUFF, and writes the Men of Poker column for Women Poker Player.
See more United States Travel Stories in the Perceptive Travel archives.