A sawdust joint is an end-of-the line kind of gambling parlor. It's a place without frills and pretension.This column is about gambling and gamblers, about regular people who play games for money. Most won't be geniuses or savants. Some will win a little money. Many will lose a lot. But all of them will have a good sawdust story to tell.
The Playstation on 14th Street was a total shithole of an illegal gambling den. It was entirely lit by horrible fluorescent bulbs that hummed brightly and bathed the entire room in a pale, clinical light. Together with the strange bric-a-brac decorations on the walls and shelves, and the obnoxious and socially awkward company at the table, it felt a lot like playing poker in a public school cafeteria.
Ordinarily the Playstation on 14th Street is a cacophony of clicking chips and the nattering of sportscasters from every sporting event on television at that moment. The place was filled with televisions and a couple of huge 56-inch screens, and they were always tuned to sports. On this particular night, however, it was eerily quiet. As I walked in, the first thing I noticed was that every television in the room was turned to the same channel, a fixed live shot of the darkened Baghdad skyline, a banner at the bottom of the screen simply read “Shock and Awe.”
"Is there a list for 15-30?" I asked the woman at the desk. Indeed there was. The 15-30 limit hold'em was my usual game at this place. In those days, limit poker was poker, and no-limit poker was a fantasy, a myth, a thing you just heard stories about being played live or a thing that was only played in tournaments.
"Yeah, pretty long list. There's a seat in pot limit, though."
In New York City, there were two games, limit and pot limit. For years people played limit poker at high stakes at the Mayfair Club and pot-limit poker for medium stakes at the Diamond Club. Giuliani and the NYPD literally put hatchets through the tables at those clubs a few years before, and the Playstation was what rose up in their place. It was too bad. Those clubs weren't shitholes, and the people who ran them and played in them were friendly and interesting. The Diamond Club was run by these guys called the Hanley brothers. There were rumors they were connected to the Irish mob or something. You'd never know it. They were funny and charming and made everyone feel welcome. The Playstation was supposedly owned by a connected guy, too. Something about Jews in the garment industry, I don't know. People liked to talk a lot of shit, it was hard to know what was real and what wasn't. One thing is for sure, the Diamond Club never got robbed except by the cops. The Playstation got stuck up before the NYPD ever got their hands on it. All the same, the guy they put in charge of the Playstation, Mike Z., was a real son of a bitch, God rest his soul.
The pot-limit game migrated from the Diamond Club to the Playstation, and it attracted all the best big-bet poker players in the area. It was a tough nut to crack. In addition to having some well-bankrolled players, there were hardly ever any fish to feed on. A club like the Playstation didn't advertise, obviously. There were no conventioneers to stumble into the game half in the bag. It was just the best ten poker players in the tristate area going to war every night of the week. Only an idiot would sit down with them.
"I'll take it," I said, and walked over to the table with a rack of 100 green $25 chips. This $2500 was my whole nut, and in pot limit I could lose it all in a single hand. I was sitting down in the deep end. Still, I didn't feel like waiting on the list and standing around watching bombs over Baghdad like it was the Super Bowl with the mouth-breathing degenerates huddled around the lobby waiting for their seats.
When I sat down at the table, people perked up a bit. I wasn't a regular in this game. Some of these guys had never even seen me in it before. The guys who were stuck in the game salivated. I couldn't blame them. I was more than likely headed for a blowup.
"Oh good, there's some chips that can get me even." This was a proto-hipster with long greasy black hair, a trucker hat, and a belt buckle you could eat a meal off of. I knew of this guy but had never played with him before. They called him Vegas, no doubt at his own suggestion, and he often came in with girls, which was a thing of note in this joint. He was stuck in the game, which was in keeping with what I had heard of him. He was being an asshole by fucking with me the moment I sat down, which was also his reputation. The other players glowered at him. You don't scare away the customers, you make them feel good and welcome. But not understanding simple maxims like this was just a small part of why he was already losing. Until I sat down, Vegas was the sucker.
"Don't worry about him, kid. He's just mad because he thinks he's supposed to win every pot."
This was Persian Steve. Persian Steve was handsome, well dressed, manicured, and charming. He could be as friendly as he could be mean, and he employed whatever attitude he felt would best get players to make mistakes in his favor. He was maybe the best poker player in all of New York City. It helped that he seemed to have piles of money, although I never knew what Persian Steve did when he wasn't playing cards. I told myself one thing as I put my chips out on the table in front of me—don't get in any big pots with Persian Steve.
"It's cool, I was just messing with him." Vegas smiled at me, genuinely embarrassed. "How you doin'?" he asked me by way of apology.
"I'm all right." I looked at my first hand, an ace and a queen. "A little tilted by all of this,” I swirled my hand around to indicate all the televisions set on the impending attack, “but OK."
"Yeah, what is this shit?" Vegas asked.
"You don't know?" a paunchy old white guy next to Vegas asked, incredulous.
"It's like the war or whatever?"
"Yeah it's the war or whatever. Do you live under a rock?"
"I don't pay attention to this shit. I have a life." It was hard to tell if he was fucking with them or not. I chose to believe he was serious, but given his disposition, it was truly even money.
When the bet came around to me I gave the dealer a thumbs up to indicate "raise." I put out a pot-sized raise. Persian Steve noticed. Vegas kept talking.
"We're invading your country, right Steve?"
"No, Vegas. We're invading Williamsburg." Steve snapped back.
"So that's why you’re breaking balls tonight?” Vegas sneered. “We're about to blow up your country?"
"That's not my country. I could give a shit." Persian Steve was staring me down. "I call."
No sooner did Steve call that Vegas snap called, then another call. The pot was already huge. I prayed I’d miss the flop. If I hit any part of it, I’d likely have to put my entire stack in the middle on my first hand.
The flop was a king of spades, a jack of spades and a ten of hearts.
I swallowed hard. I'm pretty sure Steve noticed. He doesn’t miss much. Vegas bet the pot. The next guy raised again. I thought for about five seconds before I said, “Raise the pot.” Every head turned from the television screens to our table. The railbirds’ eyes went to the pile of chips in the middle, then to my face, then back to the table, then back to me. Who is this guy? they seemed to be wondering. Whoever I was, I was all in.
Steve thought for a long time. He asked the dealer to count the other two players’ stacks for him. After what seemed like an eternity he folded his hand face up. Ace queen.
Word rippled across the poker room. “Persian Steve just folded the nuts!”
“That’s one dumb Arab,” one person blurts.
“It’s a real shame we’re about to kill everyone in Iraq, Steve,” another says. “If they all play poker as bad as you, we shoulda gave them green cards.”
Of course of all places in New York City to find a hundred people all either indifferent or breathlessly enthusiastic about the impending war, it would be here in the Playstation on 14th Street. This place that had always felt a bit off to me, on this night felt entirely out of step with the rest of New York. Perhaps wherever you lived this was how you experienced the eve of the invasion, like a great sporting event, like a moment for communal celebration. Only a few weeks prior to this night, however, it felt like every single block on the island of Manhattan was elbow-to-asshole thick with protesters against this absolute shit show of a bad idea. I was one of them.
It was an oppressively cold day in New York. The wind—that awful, sharp wind that whips between the skyscrapers as if shot out of a gun—was particularly icy. I was bundled up and huddled between my girlfriend and a posse of union organizers—what I did for money to lose at poker back in those days.
We had brought along our friend Joe, a guy we all met on a union-organizing drive we worked on in the Bronx. He was fresh off a two-year stint in Clinton for gun running and drug dealing. When we knocked on his door in Mount Vernon and asked if he wanted to sign up with the union and help stick it to his boss, he hugged us. This march in Manhattan would be his first-ever protest. It was weird to think about. If you had never known anything else, you would just figure this is what it was always like.
This wasn’t what it was like literally ever before in human history. The protest on this day was in conjunction with other protests on the same day all over the world. By nightfall in New York, over 14 million people would have marched and rallied against the US invasion of Iraq all over the world. In New York City, next to the United Nations where the security council was listening to Colin Powell’s bullshit, it felt like at least a million of them were crowded on 2nd Avenue alone.
We, like everyone else out in the streets that day, were trying to make our way to the UN for a rally. The NYPD had barricaded every single block in an attempt to keep people from actually marching and turning the event into a giant, stationary rally. They expected hundreds of thousands of pissed off New Yorkers to just stand around in the freezing cold with our dicks in our hands listening to nothing more than our own “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” chants and the droning of whatever bongos and PVC pipe horns made it to that block. It wasn’t happening. Our gaggle of professional rabble-rousers weren’t going to stand still for the NYPD. Block by block we convinced crowds of people to push forward against the barricades until the police gave way and let us flow into the next block. Sometimes we’d get poked with a nightstick. A few times we got separated when cops pulled us in different directions on either side of the barricades. But we kept this act up for a dozen blocks or more on our way downtown to the UN.
The closer we got to the rally site the more intense and committed people were to pushing up against the police barricades. Earlier in the day it was funny to us. We felt like it was our duty as professional class agitators to talk strangers into joining us in a collective forward sway against the line of cops, and often it was a tough sell. But by the time we made it to the 50s, people needed no coaxing. There was a lot of anger. On one block in particular, shit got real.
The police started in on a woman with their sticks, and the crowd started screaming “Shame! Shame! Shame!” People threw things, and cops started yanking random people in the crowd behind the barricades and arresting them. Eventually the horse cops showed up for some crowd control. The crowd surged backward, away from the line of horses. Each time the crowd moved backward, the cops moved the line of metal barricades forward some more. Little by little they were pushing everyone off the block and separating this group from the body of the larger march. Once it dawned on people what was happening, it was really scary.
“We need to do something,” my friend April said. I was scared to death. I swallowed hard. I shoved my way to the front where I was right between the line of horse cops and the increasingly panicked crowd.
“Sit down! Sit down! Sit down!” I was gesticulating with my hands to show people in the back what I was saying, pushing downward against the air. “Help me out, Joe.”
Joe looked at me sideways for a second, shrugged, then started chanting in his booming, 300-pound voice, “Sit down! Sit down! Sit down!” A few people did. Most people seemed skeptical. These weren’t people used to facing down cops and horses. They were moms and dads and teachers and clerks and kids. They were square guys; the kind of guy who thinks that if a man on a horse is riding toward you, you shouldn’t sit down. You know, mopes.
“They won’t step on us if we sit down!” I screamed. I figured I’d shut up and show them. I sat down on the ground. April joined me. Then a few more. Eventually Joe sat down, too. He looked at me with an "Are you sure about this?" kind of look. I nodded. He got comfortable.
One by one everyone eventually sat down in the avenue. The horses stayed put. Finally the cops turned the horses around and rode away. The mopes leapt in the air in celebration, cheering and hugging. They couldn’t believe it worked! They couldn’t believe they just squared up against the cops and won! It would have been a sweet moment, if not for what happened next. Joe was jumping up and down with the crowd and cheering. I tugged on his coat.
“Get down!” I hollered. He looked at me, perplexed. Before I had any time to explain the crowd pushed back against us from the other side. A line of cops on horses were coming in fast and swinging their sticks.
“We have to get you out of here!” I yelled. Joe had just been upstate for two years. I didn’t want to see him go back on some kind of probation violation or whatever. We stood around him in a circle and tried to shuttle him to the sidewalk.
“So they were just waiting for us to stand back up?” he asked, incredulously.
“Yeah, obviously!” April said, disgusted.
“That’s smart.” Said Joe.
Joe was right. We may have felt righteous, but the cops were smart. George Bush was smart. This is how they were going to beat us, I thought. This is how they win.
The turn and river bricked out and the straight held up. Vegas had a flush draw. The other guy had a set of tens. As I stacked my chips, I looked at Persian Steve with all the incredulousness of Joe on 2nd Avenue that day.
“So who’s the sucker? Me or you?” It sounded like a dick thing to say as it was coming out of my mouth, but it was a sincere query.
“You’re the one raking the pot.” Steve offered congenially. “But I’m splitting it at best, up against 15 outs twice to lose it all.”
“Even if you’re holding the nuts?”
“It isn’t the nuts until the hand is over. There’s just no value in the risk for me. I’d rather get out a small loser than fade all those outs just to split the pot with you.”
“I just don’t think I’d ever be able to fold the nuts.”
“I know you can’t,” Steve said matter-of-factly. “That’s why you play 15–30.”
I counted all my chips. It was almost $8,000.
“It’s not just one hand. It’s one long session.” Steve turned his attention to the television screen and the dark, still skies over Baghdad. “The night is still young.”
Previously - A Predator's Guide to Breaking Up