It's Tuesday, poker night at the Live Sports Cafe (407 Main, 713-228-5483). Barbara, a fortysomething blond, is already sitting at a table. A handful of poker players are at the bar, getting pitchers of beer and chicken wings. Michelle, the National Pub Poker League host and dealer, is handing out chips and cards. "Hi," she smiles.
"Come on, I'm ready to play," Barbara says. "Let's go."
Pretty soon 30 players have crammed around four tables to play Texas Hold 'Em. The group includes lawyers, construction workers, office geeks and hospital personnel. And, of course, Barbara. So far, she's the only female player. I scoot into the booth next to her.
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"I play six nights a week," Barbara tells me. I've only been playing a year and a half, but I play a lot.
A guy in dreadlocks starts dealing. Zip, zip, everybody gets two cards.
"I just got started when they started showing it on TV," Barbara tells me as she throws a chip into the pot. "And I'm doing pretty good; I'm ranked number 25 in the country."
"Wow!" I gasp. A couple of the other players frown at me. Barbara just smiles.
"How do you do it?" I whisper to her.
"Some people read books or watch tournaments on television," she says. "I always look for how much the other players have had to drink."
The dealer turns over three cards. "Shoot," says Barbara and she tosses in her hand. Two more players do the same.
"It's to you, dog," the dealer says threateningly to a burly man wearing a baseball cap low over his eyes. "What you gonna do?" The man in the baseball cap just nods and says, "Check."
Over the next two hours, I watch Barbara play solid, cautious poker. Far from flashy, she wins just a few chips at a time and loses the same way. Other players jeer their opponents; Barbara sits quietly. Most players shuffle their chips while they wait for a hand to be dealt; Barbara stacks hers nicely according to color. Even though I'm looking for it, I can't find her "tell," the unconscious body language that telegraphs a player's intentions. Two of the men at the table are more obvious -- smiles or frowns tug at the corners of their mouths depending on their hands. Another man bites his lip and narrows his eyes as if he's using X-ray vision to read the other player's cards. The man in dreadlocks keeps up a constant "What you gonna do, dog?"
"This is a no-money game," Michelle tells me. "Players play for points, which qualify them to go to regional and national tournaments." She pauses, then adds, "But that doesn't keep them from being competitive. Everybody still wants to win." She glances over her shoulder as a table erupts in shouts of "Whoa!" and "Ha!" and says, "Sometimes they want to really, really win."
Shouts and laughter from the players mix in with the noise of two dozen televisions, bar chatter and piped-in rock music. Waitresses bring around pitchers of beer. Under it all, there's the steady click-click of chips being played.
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The 30 players are now down to ten. Barbara and four men are at one table, five men at another. The colors of the chips have changed. Instead of green and red chips, these are blue and black. These are higher-stake games; it costs a 500-point chip just to get in a hand.
One of the men is going "all in," risking his entire holdings. Barbara meets his bet, and so does the man with X-ray vision, who is dealing now. A flip of a few cards, and the dealer wins. Barbara is down to just a handful of chips, but she doesn't seem to be fazed by it.
The next hand is dealt. There are two big raises before someone again goes all in. Everyone else throws in their hand, but Barbara meets the bet. The dealer, a heavy-set trucker, turns over a ten of clubs. Barbara sighs and watches her opponent take the pot.
She's down to one chip. "Well, let's play this last hand, I guess," she says, tossing her lonely chip onto the middle of the table. "Okay," says the man in dreadlocks, and he starts the deal. Everybody's in. The dealer turns over a nine of clubs, eight of hearts and two of spades. Everyone holds their hand. The dealer slaps a ten of clubs on the table. No one says anything. Last card is the ace of hearts. Barbara turns over her hand, the two of hearts and ace of spades. She's got two pair. Two other players toss their cards in, no contest. It's just the man with dreadlocks left. He turns over a nine of hearts and a three of clubs. There's a short pause while everybody reads the cards, and then Barbara smiles as she collects her winnings.