Two Days in Vegas
I don't like Las Vegas. It's a monstrosity of glitz that defiantly refuses to be interesting. Two days ago, I was in Bryce Canyon, literally staring at rocks that were infinitely more captivating. Two nights ago, I was under a sky so dark that Jupiter could cast a shadow. Vegas pales in comparison, despite every flashing, obnoxious light it adds to shove into your eyeballs.
Like I said, I don't like Vegas.
...but good god almighty do I love poker. I don't remember when I first learned how to play poker, but I remember when I first played it consistently. I was in 5th grade. At the end of the school day, all of us bus riding kids would play poker while we waited for the bus to arrive. We didn't play for money. I don't even think we played for chips. We just played to play, because we were ten. Play was its own reward. I think we mostly just played five card draw. Play isn't enough of a reward to sit through seven card stud. I don't think we even tried to play hold 'em.
In college, some of us who formed a math study group started playing poker together. It expanded to roommates and friends, and after not too long, we had a regular game going every week. The big winner of a given week was supposed to bring beer the next week. We played for such low stakes that winning often meant you had a net loss, after buying the beer. A similar kind of group formed when I was in grad school.
As I was dropping out of grad school, I got a job at an economic consulting firm that had just started up. My boss would have poker games at his house with his poker buddies, and he invited us at work to come play. This was when I really learned how to play poker. One of his friends had built a custom poker table for him. It had a felt top, recesses for each player to hold their chips, and built-in drink holders. At first, the games were $40 buy-ins, to "keep it friendly." It didn't take long for the buy-ins to rise. Pretty soon they were $100 buy-ins, and people would rebuy five, six, seven times. They would talk about how they played on their last trip to Vegas, or at "the boats". I started learning from them how poker is played at casinos. How you can't say "I see your bet and raise you..." because that's a string bet, which is not allowed. How silently tossing a single chip in, of any denomination, is just a call. How you should announce your raises to eliminate confusion. How folding out of turn is really bad etiquette. Sometimes I would win big, sometimes I would walk out with a little more than I walked in with, sometimes I would lose a couple buy-ins.
After playing in those home games for a while, my boss called me up one Friday night and said he was driving to "the boats" and offered to pick me up along the way. "The boats" turned out to be the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana. We played at a 1-2 table until 3am. I remember leaving a couple hundred dollars richer. That might even have been what actually happened.
The first time I played in Vegas, I flew out for a three day weekend, less than 72 hours. I played poker for about 45 total hours out of those 72. I played good poker for the first 40 hours. Within the first few hours, I had won some huge pots off this drunk French guy, and I was about $400 up. The next day, I would waver a hundred up or down, mostly holding my own against the locals, waiting for more fish to come in. I didn't win any more money that day, but I did win some pride being able to play against Vegas locals and not lose my shirt. The last day, I was riding high and decided to walk away profitable and do something else in Vegas. That's when I discovered how much I don't like Vegas, and went back to playing poker, only this time, very poorly. I gave away all the $400 plus my original $200 buy in.
There are no cheap lessons in poker.
For the past two weeks, I've started to worry a bit about money. I'm fine, I just like to worry about things before they become something I need to worry about. I'm not used to having no income, and I thought I'd be picking up odd jobs or finding little bits of work online here and there. Also, I'm driving around a lot more than I expected, which adds up in a 15mpg van. So, when I was hanging out in Bryce Canyon and the forecast was rain for two days straight, a little raspy voice in my head whispered that I should go to Vegas and see if I could make some money playing poker. It wasn't the first time I heard the voice, but it was the first time I heard the voice when Vegas was four hours away. My other option was Salt Lake City, which I'm going to drive through anyway when I head up north. Clearly, Vegas is the winner.
I wasn't blindly confident in my skills, so I decided to limit myself to $200, one reasonable buy in at a 1-2 table. If I lost that buy-in, at least I'd know that I shouldn't pursue poker to make some money every once in a while.
I got into Vegas, checked into a hotel because I didn't feel terribly safe sleeping in the van in Vegas, played some video poker for free beer, and went to sleep. The next day I headed to Caeser's Palace, which has always been my favorite poker room and set down to play some poker. At the beginning, I felt so rusty. I played very conservatively until I got back into the swing of things. I told myself that I wasn't going to talk to people, so I could control my tells. That lasted about 10 minutes. Right about when I remembered just how much I love poker. Of course, I love the thrill of getting good cards, making big bets, engaging in thrilling hands, yadda, yadda, yadda. That's the love of playing poker. But I also love the little rituals. I love the exercise in patience, waiting for decent cards. I love watching hands play out even when I folded pre-flop. I love chatting with people that are jovially trying to take all my money as I'm jovially trying to take all theirs. I don't just love playing poker, I love sitting down at a poker table and just being there.
I was there for a few hours. I enjoyed almost every minute of it. The few minutes I didn't enjoy were the two hands that took me out. The first one I had pocket queens and faced an all-in reraise before the flop. I debated whether or not I should call. I made the wrong choice and called. She had kings. A little while later, I had a smallish stack and pocket jacks. There was a sizeable pre-flop re-raise. I went all-in. She also had kings. I wasn't stunned when I walked away from the table, I half-expected it. As much as I loved being at that table, as I played, I realized that my relationship with poker had changed, because I had changed. For the past few years, I've been trying to chip away at the persona I pretend to be and spend more of my life and my thoughts being honest about who I am and what I do. It's permeated into how I am with my friends, how I am with strangers, how I was at work. I didn't realize how out of practice I was at being manipulative and duplicitous until I tried to play poker again. Also, $200 used to just come from disposable income. Now, $200 carries a lot more weight to me.
There are no cheap lessons in poker.
After paying for my lesson, I walked around in a bit of a fog. I questioned my hubris. I questioned my ability to make good decisions. Was I ever really good at poker? Was I just lucky? Was I misremembering and forgetting how many times I had lost money? Why did I think this was a good idea? Am I really going to learn from this, or will I be back to try again, to see if this was just a bad fluke? Was this an indicator that my whole life was a lie and I was a worthless human being doomed to perpetual failure forev--wait, no, that's just my brain spiraling into negative thoughts.
I decided to try and figure out some answers, just to get my money's worth from my poker lesson. I still love poker, I think I always will. I do think I have some talent for it, but I'm not currently at the level where I could play for profit. It would take a lot of training and work, and I don't think I can afford the losses along the way.
Day 2 (and the tail end of Day 1)
Once I got back to my crappy hotel room, I started writing the first draft of this blog. I wasn't really feeling like going out, but then I found out my friends Mary and RD had moved to Vegas. I hadn't seen them in at least ten years, and RD was working just down the street. Mary and I made plans to meet up for lunch the next day, and when I started losing steam with writing, I headed out to catch up with RD. I knew them both from when I went to UC Davis. I met RD when I took a DJing class at the Experimental College, and I met Mary when we worked together at the Center for Mind and Brain. I don't remember how Mary and RD met, but they did, and eventually got married. And apparently, then moved to Vegas.
RD and I talked about living in vans (he had toured with his band in a van), how fast ten years can go by, working, life, California, etc. On my way to meet up with RD, I texted David, a friend of mine from Chicago who had also moved to Vegas. He was planning on heading out to the bar he worked at, which wasn't far from RD. David said he was going to be there around 11:30 and stay until 3 or 4. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to stay out that late.
I was wrong.
After catching up with RD, I headed over to meet up with David. He works the door at an old school punk bar, which is 100% my speed. He introduced me to everyone who was working there, the band that came to play, and the local characters who came in to drink. After a few beers, a couple whiskeys, and a shot of Walt Whitman Roller Skating Across America In A Pink Tutu, I introduced myself to all the tourists that came through.
It started when I heard what I was pretty sure was a Kiwi accent, and I asked the owner of the accent if he was from New Zealand or Australia. I'm probably more proud than I should be that I was right, especially because half his party was from Australia. The Ozzies ragged on him a bit when I said it was because I heard "seevin" when he said "seven". He ragged on them a bit when I said everyone knows Kiwis are better than Australians.
The band started playing, and they were crazy talented. At various points throughout the night, each one of them came to chat with David.
I met Goldtop Bob, named for the goldtop Les Paul he bought ages ago as a teenager. I met Cactus, the bartender (and inventor of the Walt Whitman Roller Skating Across America in a Pink Tutu shot). I met Toni James, a famous drag queen (out of costume, but still larger than life). I had to re-evaluate my feelings towards Las Vegas. This wasn't glitzy. The night refused to be anything but interesting. I didn't feel like I was being worked to throw away money. There were enough stories to last until sunrise. Which is roughly when I left and took a Lyft back to the hotel.
Roughly is also how I woke up five hours later, forcing myself to get up and get checked out before the 11:00am deadline. Miraculously, I did, and then drove to North Las Vegas to have lunch with Mary. As I drove through the aggressively suburban landscape of North Las Vegas, my hangover felt more and more out of place. It wasn't the worst hangover I've ever had, it wasn't even particularly noteworthy. But it contrasted sharply against cul-de-sacs of family homes with safe, softly sloped sidewalk curbs. Mary and her three adorable kids totally fit in here. My degenerate punk-bar hangover did not.
I struggled to act like a fully functioning human being as Mary and I talked. She got me a water and the largest ibuprofen pill I've ever seen in my life. When she mentioned she had a guest room that I could use if I came through again, I said I might have to take her up on it now and take a nap. She graciously obliged.
An hour and a half later, I felt like a person again. Mary and I reminisced about working at the CMB. She talked about raising kids. They called me Mister Travis. I learned about her neighbors. She asked about what life was like living in a van. We both marveled that it had been ten years since we saw each other. It felt like barely any time had passed since we worked together, even though college felt like three lifetimes ago.
As I left, driving back out of suburbia towards mountains off in the distance, I had to re-evaluate Las Vegas one more time.