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Cruel Passion (The Chicago Sports Review)

It is a cloudless and warm Thursday afternoon in April, but the unseasonable pleasantness of the day means nothing to the denizens of the poker room at Harrah's Casino in East Chicago. They sit elbow-to-elbow in near darkness. The only sounds are the clicking of chips, the grim murmuring of dealers, and the scraping of cards against felt tabletops.

The crowd is exclusively male, except for a few dealers, a cocktail waitress, and a group of ancient women frittering away their government stipends at seven card stud. At most of the tables, play-ers are immersed in the casino?s weekly Texas hold ?em tournament.

"It is not unusual for someone to play for 24 hours,? said John Petrities, a poker room supervisor. "Eight hours is nothing for a poker player." There's a $220 buy-in to play in the Harrah?s tournaments, and the casino limits the number of entrants to 120. The players vie for pieces of a $20,000 prize pool.

Is poker a sport? God, no.

The game requires no discernable movement, and most of the people in the Harrah?s poker room are tragically unfit, many of them dressed like PGA golfers, though. In fact, many of them wear golf shirts, ballcaps, and mirrored sunglasses that make it seem as though the casino is overrun with Rocco Mediate replicants.

But this is actually a collective homage to Chris Moneymaker, the congenial nobody whose improbable, ballsy victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker ignited popular interest in Texas hold ?em, and launched an apparently endless (and successful) sequence of made-for-cable-TV poker events.

Poker is more of an affliction than a sport. For many players, the game has become their vocation.?I?d say 80 percent of the people in this room are very serious about poker,? said Petrities, his eyes sweeping across the gathering. ?They consider it a job.?As with most places of employment, there exists a paper-thin veneer of camaraderie in the poker room, with an undercurrent of mistrust and competitiveness. Insincerity is an asset at the table. So is unpredictability. But it?s even better to fake a certain degree of predictability, so as to lure an opponent into a raise or call when they ought to fold. It?s a merciless game. Many players, particularly the large collection of twenty-somethings?The draw to live action is that you can look at your opponent,? said Petrities. ?The bluff really comes into play. Live poker just brings in the human element.?Thus, it should be no surprise that hold ?em players attempt to behave as robotically and inhuman as possible. The game favors those who can remain eerily still for long periods of time, betraying no cognitive processes. Flinch and you?ve exposed a weakness.

Players eye one another assiduously, looking for the most opaque tell, the faintest hint of doubt. It?s not a game that suits the honest person.

Hold ?em is and isn?t a simple game, rich with probabilities, strategy and subtle deceit. The game has its own vocabulary, too.

A hand goes like this: players ante a predetermined sum (this is the blind), then everyone receives two cards face-down (the hole); a round of betting ensues; the dealer discards (or burns) the top card from the deck and places three cards on the table face-up (the flop); more betting ensues as each player calculates the likelihood that they?ll assemble a useful five-card combination from the hole and the as-yet-incomplete flop; the dealer burns another card, then adds a fourth to the flop (fourth street); more betting; a final card is burned, and a final card is added to the flop (fifth street).Somebody wins, everyone else loses. A hand typically lasts a few minutes, a game lasts several hours. Thursday hold ?em tournaments at Harrah?s begin at noon and end . . . well, they end when they end. Usually in the evening.

It is a game that seems to suit the chain-smoking person. The poker room at Harrah?s is smoke-free, but the casino itself is not. At the top of the hour, a room supervisor announces a 10-minute break in tournament play. The competitors file out of the room silently with their heads bowed and unlit cigarettes hanging from their lips. They collect at the bar, commiserating a little, but mostly just smoking. Then they duck their heads and return to the table.

When they sit back down, the value of the blind has increased, as it does every 15 minutes during tournament play. This serves to efficiently eliminate any nearly chipless gamblers.

At noon on this particular Thursday, over 80 players sit down with fresh stacks of chips. By 2:30 pm, only 34 of them remain.

A dark-haired female dealer flicks two cards to each of the seven players seated at her table. She wears the standard Harrah?s dealer uniform, a sleek, collarless yellow suit with a strong Jean-Luc Picard vibe. Her Harrah?s nametag reads ?NELIA.?The competitors are all middle-aged and weathered, except for two young, college-aged players seated at an end of the oblong table. The body language of the younger players suggests they knew one another; the relative size of their stacks of chips suggesting that one of them knows quite a bit more about Texas hold ?em. The young player seated closest to the dealer is barely hanging on. He runs his fingers across his few remaining plastic chips. He is thin, pale and tired. He looks beaten. He wears a black t-shirt with a single word across the front: ?LOST.? Fitting.

In lieu of betting, four players immediately fold upon glancing at their hole cards. The LOST kid, however, does not fold. He checks, not betting but not exiting the hand. Two older players remain in the hand, too. The flop comes down: ace, ace, four. Bets are made and called. The LOST dude quickly pushes all of his chips into the center of the table. He shrugs, then slumps. Another four joins the flop. The LOST kid shakes his head lightly. His chips are soon swept up by a much-older man with a full house seated across from him. The kid stands and shrugs again, looking down at his friend. He leaves the table.

In a cold European monotone, Nelia says, ?Thanks for playing.? Then, almost without a breath, she says in a louder voice, ?I have two seats open on table six.?It?s a rude transition from the dim poker room to the light of a brilliant spring day. The defeated walk from casino to car feels considerably longer than the hopeful walk from car to casino. The industrial filth of northwest Indiana fills your nostrils, and the glare of sunlight off the water sears your eyes. If you leave the casino in the glow of daylight, on the same day you arrived, you probably haven?t done very well. But the nice thing about poker is that there?s always next week. Or maybe that?s the cruel thing.


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