Living on Olives at the World Series

Dear reader: I wrote this in 2003, as a roving reporter for Poker Digest Magazine.


The World Series of PainI drove nine hours from San Francisco to downtown Las Vegas, to the Plaza Hotel, one block from the Horseshoe. I went straight to my room without any supper and unpacked 12 t-shirts, 12 boxers, 24 socks, and five thousand dollars, planning to stay in town until I ran out of cash or clean underwear.

I uncased my guitar and leaned it in the corner. I put my laptop on the table and plugged it in. I collapsed face up on the bed, road weary yet restless, talking silently to myself about the near future:

I will take a nap, then maybe go play some pot-limit.

Who are you kidding? You know you can’t sleep now. You just got here!

This year is going to be different. I am going to get some rest first before I play any poker. Good night.

Okay. Whatever you say. Good night.

::: one minute later :::

You still there?


They still got that Starbucks inside Golden Nugget?


I think I’ll go get some coffee and maybe see what the action is like at The Shoe. You coming?

I thought you’d never ask. Let’s go!

Quadruple espresso latte in hand, I walked into the poker region at the Horseshoe: two sprawling expanses of poker tables on two floors, with tournaments and super-satellites upstairs, and the live action games and other satellites downstairs. Minutes later I was in a $5-10 blinds pot-limit hold’em game.

Several of the most famous faces in poker were at the table next to mine, so I watched for a moment. Best I could tell, they were playing triple-draw low-ball. I could not figure out the stakes because the chips were not red, or green, or black. They were bigger.

Hours later I was tired, hungry, and stuck. Mostly hungry. The last thing I had eaten was a burger back in Barstow, 10 hours and 200 miles ago. I was not in California any more, where players stay at the table to eat and leave the room to smoke. At the Horseshoe, it was the other way around. And that was unacceptable right now because the pot-limit game was down to four players, my favorite number, and if I left the game to go eat, it might break. No big deal, normally. But this was not normally. This was first-night fever, and my temperature was still high.

A new dealer sat down and that meant it was time for a time-pot, to pay the house collection. Twenty dollars would come out of the first pot over $200 of called money. We asked the floorman for a discount, as was custom in shorthanded games at 4:00AM. He said, “Sorry guys, I have to have a collection. We’ll take $20 out of the first pot over $10,000.”

Meanwhile, there was hunger. The waitress stopped by. I glanced at her badge and turned on the schmooze. “Hi Nora. Is there any way you can please get me something to eat? I’ll tip five bucks.”

“Sorry hon,” she said. “I can’t. It’s the rules.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll have a coffee then. Make it half milk.”

Ten minutes later, an angel placed a napkin on the table next to my chips. On the napkin she sat a tall glass of warm brown liquid. Next to that, she sat a short glass, full of green olives.

“It’s the best I could come up with,” Nora said. “Unless you want some cherries too.”

I ate all of the olives, slowly, deliciously, feeling a metabolic restoration inside me, thinking of ancient empires, Popeye’s spinach, and Nora’s good sense.

Tournaments and Me

I make a living at poker by choosing when to enter a game and when to leave it. These options give me the freedom to choose my state of mind, and to choose my opponents. My betting decisions are of small consequence, comparatively.

But when I enter a tournament, I surrender control. I am forced to leave my best weapons at the cage. And sure enough, every time I get to a final table — and I’ve been to several dozen — I face precisely the wrong opponents. In ring games, the opponents I make money from are playing bad, or running bad, or both. At a final table, every opponent is playing good, or running good, or both. And I know, for a fact, at the sign-up window, that this will be so. It’s like I am paying for a chance to win the right to play in the worst game in the room.

I Am Stuck Two Million Dollars

I’m not much into keeping score at poker because I never know if the numbers should make me happy or terrified, so I try my best to ignore them altogether. For instance, on this trip to Vegas, I arrived with five grand and left with nine. That’s a score I should be happy with, I guess. But I’m not. I think I could have done a lot of things better. But then, I always think that. (Say hello to the Demon of Self-Torture. He lives, in waiting, behind the scoreboard. Yet another reason to stay away from it.)

And what’s it matter anyway? I’m either broke or I’m not. That’s the only score I need to know, and I always know it. Meanwhile, why put any special emphasis on any particular results during any particular length of time? Will it guide me to good choices when it’s my turn to bet? Will it help me quit when I’m playing bad?

To keep it simple, and a little silly, I do all my score keeping at the extremes, using three units of time: 1) The life so far. 2) The entire life. 3) One hand.

My life-so-far per-hand score at poker is I’m up one dollar per hand. My entire-life score at poker is I’m stuck two million dollars. That’s how much I figure I need to make from poker in order to enjoy my current lifestyle until I die.

People say that poker, like life, is one long game, and if that’s true, then I need to make two million dollars at poker in order to wind up even at the game of life, because that’s how much money I will need, give or take, to pay for my life until my actuarily predicted end.

This view is unnerving and thereby useful. When I’m playing, and I am stuck and flushstraighted and everything is going wrong, I cannot get off my game, no sir. I must quit or hunker down, because I have two million dollars to travel, one decision at a time, starting now, every now. I cannot be bothered with keeping score, for I am too busy scoring.

Along the way to netting two million dollars, should I be so lucky, I will pay two million in rake. So if you want to talk gross, I am stuck four million.

Leaving Las Vegas

It was my twelfth and final morning in town. I was puttering around my hotel room when I noticed that I had become larger, that I had somehow passed acceptable levels of pudginess. How did this happen? Oh, I remember. It was the buffets that did me in, with those inexhaustible islands of desserts. Sometimes I react to the phrase “all you can eat” as if it were a dare. Plus, there was the coffee shop here in the hotel lobby, with the glazed and gooey yummy breads blocking the front door.

S’okay. No problem. I had been weak. But today I was feeling strong. I’ll shed these extra extra pounds, I told myself, like nothing, like usual, once I put my mind to it.

I packed up my stuff and I loaded up the car and I went to the lobby and checked out. Of course I had to swing by the coffee shop before I hit the road for home. I looked into the display case and I felt my salivary ducts open and gush. Donuts, muffins, cinnamon rolls. I’d been eating them every day. But not today. I touched my tummy, for strength, and I bought a coffee.

But holy Doyle, I was hungry. I’d have to eat something, just for fuel, before I got in the car. I walked through the casino toward the garage. I saw a waitress loading up her tray. Ah yes. This will work. I sat down and bellied up to the bar for breakfast.

The bartender approached. “Good morning sir. What will it be?”

“I’d like a martini,” I said. “With no vermouth. And no gin. And make it with extra olives.”



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