Houston Hold 'Em

At Jim Burrell's house, the tables are felt and the money's real.
Daniel Kramer

The old man flicks the cards around the table, his wrists deft from years of practice. Ten players sit around him. Soon there will be nine.

"Check," says the player to his left.

Betting is tight. Most of the players bail out of this hand, but a few chips make it on the table.

The dealer takes five bucks from the pot and puts it back in the till. This is the house's cut, the rake. It's what makes this particular game illegal, but it also guarantees the action.

For an underground poker den, the place is a lot less sketchy than you'd imagine. There are no blue clouds of smoke floating over the players. There are enough snacks -- brownies, cookies, chips, peanuts, sodas and beer -- to fill the aisle of a convenience store. Twentysomethings rub elbows with seventysomethings around three felt tables. Everyone is friendly, and everything is well lit.

But there's a buzzer on the door and there are security cameras monitoring the parking lot, not to mention the tough-looking dude who looms nearby. He's in charge of the money. This guy greets guests as they walk in, during the ten minutes each day that the door's unlocked. After that he'll buzz in only people he knows.

You need 100 bucks to sit down here, and the joint is open as long as there's cash on the table. Play usually begins midday and goes on long into the night. A few televisions are scattered about, but there's not much point in hanging around once your money's gone.

The old man tosses three cards down and then flips them over: a nine and two tens.

"All in," says Toby, a 25-year-old in an Aggie cap. He's got a nine and an ace in his hand, and he's pretty confident in his ability to read the other players at the table. His stack has dwindled to about $20, so he needs to make an aggressive move to stay in the game.

Toby is part of a new breed of gamblers, fueled as much by the celebrity of televised poker as by the rush of the draw. (He asked that his real name not be used.) He started playing about a year and a half ago, while a student at Texas A&M. He and his buddies met every Friday night to play for nickels and dimes.

"We would play from, like, 9:30 at night to three in the morning," he says. "Where else can you find that much entertainment for $10?"

But Toby also dabbles in higher stakes. Which explains why he's now sitting in the back of a warehouse in north Houston, surrounded by strangers, hoping the next two cards will do him right.

"Call," says an older lady at the table. She has gray streaks in her hair and a penchant for fiddling with her chips. They click away as she stares at Toby.

Getting in here wasn't easy, but unless this lady's bluffing, it's going to be even tougher to stay.

Poker is hot. What was once an activity reserved for businessmen, addicts and pros is now popping up in much more unlikely places: dinner parties, church functions, sleepovers, prime-time television.

Local gambler John Smiley began playing "a couple of years ago," right about the time when the Travel Channel started airing the World Poker Tour. This show schooled previous attempts at televised poker, thanks to small cameras showing the audience what cards each player had in his hand.

"Poker was not fun to watch until they added the cameras," says Smiley. Omniscience was key to knowing who was bluffing.

Smiley used to play a lot of Texas Hold 'Em online, but he knew he needed to start playing in more live games if he wanted to take his skills to the next level. So the 42-year-old started an online forum, PokerCampus.com, in February of last year to help players meet up and find games.

"I thought a hundred members would be huge," he says. "But we're pushing 1,700 members right now. For a regional forum, I haven't seen anything close to this."

And it all happened in the span of a year.

Now local players can find a home game practically any day of the week, with multiple games happening on Saturdays and Sundays. This convenience has almost spoiled the forum's members, who used to make the three-hour trek to Louisiana in search of action. "A half-hour drive to find a poker game is now a big deal," Smiley says.

Home games are perfectly legal in Texas, so long as the host doesn't take a cut. In other words, all the money put in the pot has to be paid back out to the players. Smiley spends a lot of time making sure his site lists only legal games, knocking off posts that talk about rake games. People looking for illicit action have to search elsewhere.  

Sergeant Rose Terry, spokeswoman for the Houston Police Department, says the police don't keep track of how many people are cited for illegal gambling. But Captain Keith Coleman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission says the Houston office issued 146 citations last year to individual players and venues, as well as 22 written warnings. A large portion of these tickets was given out last December at the Yorkshire Pub on West Little York.

The pub had been hosting a cash Texas Hold 'Em tournament, in which all the entry fees were to be returned to the players. Since there was no rake, the staff assumed the tourney was legal. The TABC thought otherwise and handed out tickets to 64 players.

Apparently there were actually 132 people there to play. "The tournament hadn't exactly started, so the people not sitting down didn't get ticketed," says one of those cited, who asked not to be named.

"We asked them why they weren't shutting everybody down, and they said, 'We're only responding to complaints,' " she says. "So there are bars all over town still doing the same type of tournament." Northwest Houston is a hub for these games, so another tourney is only a short distance away. And that, coincidentally, is just about how far loyalty goes.

Captain Coleman says the pub was raided because it involved cash gambling in a public place -- end of story. So far, his office has read the law as follows: You can gamble for cash in a private place, such as a home, with no rake, or you can gamble for points in a public place, but at no cost to the participants. (The Yorkshire Pub now hosts weekly tournaments of the latter variety.)

The commission is otherwise hesitant to interpret the law broadly. "Unfortunately, we cannot offer general or hypothetical opinions as to whether certain programs or ways of conducting tournaments violate the Texas Penal Code," says the TABC's Web site. "Rather, we must make those determinations in the context of the specific facts as they happen to occur on licensed premises."

Such fuzzy logic irks poker enthusiasts, who would like to see a more definitive list of what can and can't be done in public places. They have questions like, What's the big difference between a game for points and a game for cash? The venue makes money from food and drink sales either way. And, What happens when a public venue is a private club?

John W. Smith, a district attorney in Ector County, in West Texas, was so overcome with questions from his constituents that he wrote state Attorney General Greg Abbott last month, looking for clarification.

"Somehow I got out in the lead of this thing," says Smith. "I'm not real happy being here, but that's where I am." He anticipates it will take the AG weeks, if not months, to produce an opinion.

Which will probably be enough time for Houston-based Stuart Slagle to get his organization, Texans for Poker, off the ground. Just over a month old, the group now has 137 members and a mission statement: "The legalization of poker, a game of skill, within the great state of Texas by educating members of the Texas legislature about the statutory ambiguity of poker and to assist in drafting new ordinances at the state level." All of which is just a roundabout way of saying they plan to do some lobbying.

But they'll have their work cut out for them. Governor Rick Perry conceded in the middle of January that there is little support in the state legislature for expanded gambling, so the best bet for Texans for Poker might be to get poker reclassified as a game of skill. That way the legislature could skip some of the constitutional difficulties of legalizing it. This model worked for advocates in California, where poker is the only casino game that's legal throughout the state. (Roulette, craps and other games of chance are allowed on Native American reservations.)

"But we're also trying to get the laws clarified as well," says Slagle, a 37-year-old jockey's agent. "Numerous county attorneys interpret the law differently."

So for now, the only place players in Texas can be sure they're okay is in the privacy of a home.

"I'm an attorney, and I looked at the criminal code," says 39-year-old David Harvey, a local player. "The games I play in are all legal, because they're private games and the house doesn't get a rake or anything like that."  

Harvey has been playing poker since he was 12. "I thoroughly enjoy it," he says. "I would play three to four times a week if my marriage would survive that. My marriage won't, so I probably play once every two weeks."

And once every two weeks is just how often his buddy, Jim Burrell, hosts a Texas Hold 'Em tournament at his house in northwest Houston. Burrell, a 54-year-old computer engineer, has been playing for about two years, ever since -- you guessed it -- the Travel Channel began airing the World Poker Tour. He's been hosting tourneys for seven months.

These nights are a far cry from poker of days past, when degenerates shot each other in the back and cheating was an integral part of the game. But we're not exactly talking about a few dudes sitting around a card table in the garage, smoking cigars and drinking beer, either. Burrell takes the game seriously: Three felt tables -- one red, one blue, one green -- span the bottom half of his house. Around them gather 20 to 30 players every fortnight, all of whom have some inkling of what they're doing. After all, once you're out of chips, you're out of the game. "The most a person can invest for the night is $75, or about the amount a person would spend for a decent night out," says Burrell. "For that, they get the opportunity to win perhaps $600 to $700 for first place, with four to five places paid."

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.

"Half a dozen times a month, I'm getting calls from people who are fiddling around with the Internet," he says. "It's easy to hide. You don't have to go away from home. It's easy to hook up to a credit card. And it's easy to push the button. Suddenly, you can be 20, 30 or 50 grand in debt."

Toby plays Hold 'Em online practically every day, usually for an hour or two after work. "I wouldn't play online if I could go sit at a table anytime I wanted to," he says, "but you can't." He figures the best way to improve his game is to see as many scenarios as possible, and online rooms give him limitless opportunities for action. He's even maximized the screen size of his monitor, a neat trick that enables him to play in four tournaments at once.

But right now Toby is taking it easy. He's logged in to only three tournaments on PartyPoker.com, which claims to be the world's largest poker room. That statement might seem a little bold, until you realize there are more than 58,000 people online on a Friday evening.

It costs $22 to buy in to each game: 20 bucks for the pot and two for the site. "We're playing at the lower levels," he says, "which means we have a lot of idiots playing." These novices might seem like easy marks for a studied player, but it can be quite the opposite. It's often difficult to predict what an inexperienced player is going to do.

"It doesn't feel like real money," says Toby, echoing the warning of Gamblers Anonymous. "When players don't have to physically pick up all the chips, they're willing to take more risks." Enter the element of luck, something most experienced players wish to play down to the extreme.

Toby starts out playing tight, conservative. "You can't win a tournament in 20 minutes," he says. "You will not knock everyone out, but you can lose that quickly." Other players apparently don't know this rule; virtual people begin disappearing from virtual seats. Toby clicks on the icon for one particular player who's playing especially loose and marks him as such. This information is saved on his hard drive and will be available on the off chance they meet again.

He needs to make it to third place on at least two tables to recoup his investment of $66. First place pays $100, second $60 and third $40. The action is particularly lively at one table, so he focuses his attention there.  

He's got a king and a jack of hearts, so he bets big. The other player, as we will soon learn, has a jack and a four, not of the same suit. But the cards fall the wrong way, and Toby's stack dwindles. "You see, that's ridiculous," he says. "He had no business playing with a jack and a four. That's why I get really frustrated with this."

Toby grunts and leans back in his chair. The walls of his one-bedroom apartment are adorned with revered icons: Catholic crosses and A&M gear.

A few smart moves later and he declares, "I'm in the money here." He just made it to the top three on one of the tables, although he's out a few hands later. "Well, I paid for two of my buy-ins."

Toby's got $200 total in his online account. He estimates he's down about $400 over the last five months -- not too bad for someone who plays every day. Not too good either, especially for someone who considers himself a serious student of the game.

Toby knows he won't win every time, but as long as he makes smart moves, he'll win over time. And that's where mathematics comes in. "Let's say I've got queen jack of hearts," he says. "And the flop comes ten nine of hearts and a trash card. Then there are 21 cards out there that can help me. There are nine cards that can make me a flush, and six other cards that can make me a straight. And then there are six cards that can pair with the cards in my hand and give me top pair. If you're in that position, with two top cards and a flush and straight draw, then you're looking real good, even though you don't have a hand yet."

There's more to it than that, but the whole process is a lot less complicated than it sounds, especially once you get the hang of it. Card counters are regularly thrown out of casinos (or worse) for making similar calculations against the house, but players in head-to-head games expect one another to do the math.

Toby's out of the second game soon after the first, which brings us to the final table. Six players remain, then five, then four. This is called the bubble, the point when there's one player left before everyone gets paid.

The computer dealer serves up an ace and a ten of spades to Toby, who puts about half his chips into the pot. "Come on, give me the flush," he says. And then, "Damn it!

"Now I'm in a bad spot," he says. "I had the best hand: ace ten suited, versus jack ten suited. I made the right call.

"But I'm still not done."

With four players vying for three moneyed slots, the play has become tight. Everyone's trying to wait it out -- especially one player, whose digital representation is just sitting there. "I don't know what he's doing," says Toby. "He must be playing in more than one game."

Toby folds the next two hands. Then he says, "Hello, ladies." He's got two queens. "I'm the short stack with pocket queens," he says. "There's no question what I do." He goes all in.

And he's out. No fanfare. No rush of the draw. No money.

"I made the right call statistically," he says. "It just didn't work."

A few clicks later, and he's signed up to play again.

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