The First Time I Played Poker in a Casino


Dear reader: I wrote this in 2003 about an event from 1986.


The first time I played poker in a casino, I was scared spitless. It was the same feeling I got the first time I teed off on a real golf course and the same as the first time I drove a car. It wasn’t that I was afraid of whiffing the ball or wrecking the car. I was intimidated because everyone else knew all of the procedures, and I didn’t.

The people involved can make all the difference. The first time I golfed, my typical shot sent the ball 10 yards farther than my divot. My kind cousins, Anthony and George, offered patient encouragement. The first time I drove a car, I had a teacher whose lack of worry rubbed off. At poker, a big cheerful woman took me under wing. I’ll call her Jo.

Flashback to the early 1980’s. Our little poker gang back home played on one of those octagonal tables with a vinyl top and a wooden border with a trough in front of each player to hold money and spilled beer. We had just discovered hold’em and other board games. We played them straight $1 limit, without chips or blinds. The betting was “bet or get.” That meant there was no checking, and first-to-act moved one seat to the left on every street. Yeah, I know, it was crazy. But that’s how we played. And it was hardly a preparation for casino poker.

I was in Vegas for a friend’s wedding so I figured I might as well check out a real hold’em game with an honest-to-gosh dealer and everything. I went to the Stardust in the wee hours. Two tables were going. No one was talking. Everyone looked so serious. Heads turned and I sensed they were murmuring about me. I had no idea that they all knew each other and that they were hoping I was a slaughterhouse lamb. Looking back, having seen this scene from the butcher’s vantage, I’m sure this was the case.

I took a seat next to the dealer in the $4-8 limit hold’em game. The dealer spoke to me in a foreign language about blinds and posting and such. I was numbstruck by the setting, lingo, stakes, and pace. It must have been so obvious that I was clueless, just like when I carried my golf bag onto the green, just like when I used both feet on the brakes, just like when I was behind the gym with Marci Johnson and I asked her if …

(My buddy Alex suggested that I add sex to the examples of first-time fears. I said that sex doesn’t quite fit because typically there is no crowd, and because, well, what would really be scary is knowing when it was the last time.)

I was still trying to figure out what’s up with the white hockey puck when Jo flashed me a welcomed smile and said, “C’mon over here, hon. Sit next to me. She touched the chair on her left. ‘It’ll be all right.”

And it was. In the absence of physical danger, I can’t recall such a quick shift from terrified to relieved. I moved next to Jo and she taught me about the blinds and the button. She suggested that I keep some chips in piles of four. She told me to watch her and not to bet or check until after she did.

I made a Call of the Wild with nine-five. My full house was good so I reached out and scooped in the pot. The dealer sternly told me that from now on he’d push the pot. (You’re a pot pusher?) Players were giving me nasty looks and making snide remarks, probably for being slow, or for making stringy bets, or just for being so na’ve. Unbearable pressure, strong enough to push me out the door, if not for Jo. She was my champion, defending me against all comers. It didn’t take long until the looks and comments stopped because if you had something to say to me, you had to go through Jo. I was safe, and it really felt good.

Naive means “lack of experience or informed judgment.” Like when a child wonders how come the toilet handle makes the shower water heat up. But we do not expect informed judgment from children and that’s why children do not fear their own naivete. That’s something adults do. The fear of looking stupid can discourage us from toughing it out in unfamiliar settings. Thing is, with poker and so many other things, there’s no way to learn how to swim without getting wet. Jo offered me a towel, and I took it, and I still have it, and I still use it when I see a na’ve player drowning in fear. Sure, it might cost me a bet here and there, but it’s worth that and more when I recall how relieved I was to see a friendly face in such a harsh environment.

Some would say that poker is pure justice and that we all take our lumps during initiation. They would say that poker is ruthless, like war, and that compassion just gets in the way. And I’d agree; a bleeding heart won’t pump hard enough to take full advantage of the weak. But for the gentle majority, a social game offers a variety of pleasures and challenges. Beating the game is merely one. When I see a procedurally confused player, I don’t go to the extremes Jo did. But I do try to remember that I wasn’t born knowing what a flop is.


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