By Jeff Balke
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Burrell has even set up a computer timer, complete with multiple monitors, to tell players when it's time to raise the blinds -- i.e., the minimum bets. Talk of hands won and lost -- in Vegas, Lake Charles and elsewhere -- flies across the table. Poker, you see, has a built-in paradox: When you win, it's skill, but when you lose, it's just bad luck.
"If I host at home, I'm not as tempted to drive all the way to Louisiana to play in their games, and this saves me time and money," says Burrell. "I don't want to frequent the underground games in the Houston area, as some seem likely to get busted, while others seem to be a risk for getting mugged. I have played at several of these places over the past year, and it always seems to be too risky."
Once you find out a place is an underground poker den, you can't believe you didn't realize it sooner. Suddenly it makes perfect sense why that abandoned building or storefront -- you know, the one with all the darkened or boarded-up windows -- always had all those cars parked outside. What, did you think those guys were going in there to swap recipes?
But just because you've figured out that a place hosts high-stakes games doesn't mean you can just walk right up and knock on the door. You have to be referred.
"The best way to find out about these rooms is to go to a casino in Lake Charles and start bitching about the drive," says Paul, a 34-year-old academic who used to frequent the underground scene. "Say, 'Man, I wish I didn't have to drive from Houston.' Somebody will come up to you. Maybe not the first time you go, but the second or third time, someone will come up to you and tell you about a game they deal at, because the dealers get 50 bucks for everybody who comes back a second time who they've referred."
Paul estimates he's won about $40,000 playing poker over the last five years, although he doesn't play very often now that he has a child. (He asked that his real name not be used.) He usually plays online, but he figures he's been to eight different underground dens over the years.
"Usually it's in a storefront warehouse off of any of the highways," he says, "a warehouse with a darkened window, and you don't see a security camera unless they're idiots, because if they put a security camera out, they might as well be advertising. There's always a darkened glass door, and there's always a buzzer that lets you in and out. And when you open the door, you can never see the card room. There's always another wall, say, ten feet beyond. Almost all of them have a kitchen, and most of them have very good food. Most of them have much better food than the casinos.
"Where they make it back is, they kill you on the rake," he says. "It's not a zero-sum game. The house takes out of every pot, so everyone could be a loser. Everyone could be down $20 and the house could be up. It's not like a home game, where if you're up $20, I'm down $20."
But Paul is quick to point out that most of these places are unlike the seedy back rooms portrayed in movies. "By and large, the people who run them realize the people who go are customers, and they treat them very nicely," he says. "I've been to places where they'll offer to walk you out to your car if you've had a good night. They want you to feel at home."
That kind of vibe permeates the room where Toby sits waiting to see what the next two cards will bring. The old man throws down another card: It's a king, which does little for Toby's hand.
A devout Catholic who belongs to three different community groups, Toby often plays Texas Hold 'Em with friends from church. "As long as you're not gambling money that you need, it's okay," he says. "If you can afford to lose, it's not really wrong."
Toby can afford to lose the chips on the table today, but he sure doesn't want to. He hopes to parlay that 20 bucks into a bankroll that'll keep him playing for hours. Another card, a four, hits the table. So Toby's got two pairs: tens and nines. The last two cards did nothing for him.
The old woman flips over her cards: a ten and a nine. Full house.
"She flopped the nuts," he says, meaning she had the best possible hand after the first three community cards were dealt. "She got the boat."
It's time for Toby to go home.
"You better believe poker is an addictive thing," says the voice on the other end of the Gamblers Anonymous hot line. The guy goes by the name of Frank, and he's been attending GA meetings for the last 25 years.
"I get a real good feel for the flow of people coming in for help," he says. The hot line rarely gets calls from those who play only in live tournaments, but "what's really at an epidemic state is Internet gambling," he says.