Issue: Fall 2008

Confessions of a Gambler

Photo by Nicole Tung.
Photo by Nicole Tung.

Life Inside New York City’s Illegal Poker Clubs

In poker, they call a losing streak a case of cold hands—meaning, the cards you’re dealt never win. Last winter was the nastiest, grayest, coldest season in my time in New York and the weather was not to blame.

You see, the game of poker can take more from you than just your money. It can savage your dignity. The warm sun doesn’t seem to shine when you have empty pockets. Bitter winds whipping around street corners make you shiver and you think about hunger and death and, of course, the lack of rent. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can manage to cadge a couple of Marlboros to help you reflect on your defeat.

It’s been a while since I sat in a poker room in Manhattan, even though I know they’re up and running. I prefer to sit at small house games, usually with my friends and co-workers. Should I feel the need to play higher stakes, well, Atlantic City is only a short trip away. It wasn’t just my cold hands that caused me to stop playing in the underground circuit—it was my realization that there’s more risk involved than just the chips on the table.

Straddles, one of the clubs I used to go to on Third Avenue and 37th Street, was shut down in mid-October along with its sister club, Fairview. I heard Straddles was reopening and was waiting on a phone call from a friend to get the address. When my friend rang me, though, it was not the news I was expecting: the club had reopened, but a player was murdered.

City Limits, the new club name, had occupied the top floor of a seven-story building on Fifth Avenue and 28th Street for shortly over a week. Around 10 p.m. on Friday, November 2nd, three men wearing ski masks and waving their guns, pushed a guard into the elevator and went up to the poker parlor. When the elevator opened, the three men burst into the room ordering players to give up their cash. As two of the gunmen worked the card players, one of them went to the cashier, who protested, but was severely beaten into giving up the money he kept behind the counter. One of the gunmen working the room, clearly not a master criminal, dropped his shotgun and as he picked up the sawed-off from the floor, hit the trigger and blasted Frank Desena, 55, of Wayne, NJ, in the chest. He was pronounced dead at St. Vincent’s Hospital before midnight. The police explained that the three robbers got away with an estimated $100,000.

Since the incident, only one man has been arrested for the fatal heist. Steven Perez, 21, of Tampa, FL., who was caught on the club’s surveillance tapes, admitted to his part in the robbery. However, it has not been proven that he pulled the trigger and the other two men are still at large.

“Frank was one of the only consistent winners I’d seen play,” said an ex-card dealer, 34, who preferred to remain anonymous, and added, “No one wins in New York.” As a dealer at Playstation for three years before it was closed down in 2005, the ex-dealer often sat at tables with Desena and got to know the older man. Desena was a former math teacher at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, NJ, and the married father of a 16-year-old daughter. I asked the ex-dealer if he thought the murder would affect the world of clandestine card games. He shrugged: “I think it’s going to scare quite a few people away.”

Poker parlor robberies are not unusual, of course. Although only one other was reported in Manhattan on June 15, 2006 at the National Card Room on E. 61st Street, most robberies go unreported. The reason is obvious: operators of illegal gambling facilities are unlikely to call the police for help. Each card house typically has security guards and surveillance cameras, but not one employee is armed in order to avoid RICO Act charges. Not only would the owners be charged with operating a gambling facility, but armed guards fall under chapter 7 in Title 18 of United States Code. This clause prohibits “’impeding’ with employees of the United States while engaged in or on account of the performance of official duties.”

The murder at City Limits was certainly a shock, but not surprising. The underground scene welcomed a diverse crowd, such as cab drivers, bartenders, small-business owners, construction workers, students and professors. Occasionally, there was a celebrity sighting. The Daily News and Page Six have reported the likes of film stars Hank Azaria and Macaulay Culkin, and baseball giant Alex Rodriquez as frequent players in card houses. Yet the parlors have also become more and more saturated with rigid gamblers, not skill players, those without strategy who just play on chance alone.

“Poker isn’t what it used to be a couple years ago,” said Jordan, a 29-year-old bartender in the East Village. Before the crackdown, he had been a regular for a couple of years at Straddles. He explained the type of card playing in these rooms as “degeneracy” and compared the experience of sitting in a poker parlor to being in a room full of problem drinkers. “When I sit at a table [in a card house],” he says, “I feel like I’m at an AA meeting.”

Gaining access to a poker parlor wasn’t a problem either. All it took was a couple hundred bucks and knowing somebody—anybody. Any shmoe that’d been there at least once could vouch for someone new. My first visit consisted of a friend’s friend vouching for me. I was given a name and a number to call when I reached the door on Broadway and 27th Street. “Chip” was at the door before I hit “end call.” He introduced himself as he walked me to the elevator. He directed me to the cashier when we got inside and I was given my membership ID to Fairview Elite – good for entrance to Straddles as well. The next night, before I got to know anyone in the place, I helped my friends to get their IDs.

Thus, I became a regular at Fairview. I went typically on weeknights—the weekends were a bit too busy for my taste. No matter what the night, I must admit: I often thought about how easy it would be for someone to rob the joint.

From the outside, the building looked like any other on the street: a small five-story apartment building. I would step to the buzzer to push the button marked “Fairview Elite.” Above, a camera light turned on. As I got to know some of the workers, I would occasionally stick my tongue out at the camera and extend my pinky and forefinger to add rock-n-roll effect. Sometimes, I just liked to mess with the guy working the door. I was pretty sure he got tired of seeing the same wretched mugs over and over in his monitor.

When the door buzzed open I walked through the hall to the elevator. The small lobby had fading blue walls, with grime that rose two feet off the floor, as if in retreat from the filth of the blue-gray tiles below. The elevator had dark, wood-like panels and smelled of weed. I turned to face the closing door and pushed the button for the third floor. For a moment I tried to consider my game. I guess I was putting on my game face. Sometimes, I thought about how I ended up in a place like this. I thought about my father.

In The Beginning, There Were Cards

When I was a kid, my parents used to host “poker night” at our house in Milford, CT. Their friends would come over to play what’s known as “dealer’s choice.” That is, the dealer, which rotated, had the privilege of deciding the game played: Five Card Draw, Seven Card Stud, Follow the Queen and Seven Card No Peek were some of the favorites. The now popular Texas Hold’em wasn’t a big game 20 years ago. If I promised not to say anything, or give any information away about his hand, my pop would let me sit on his lap to watch him play. He’d show me his cards, but then I was left to observe the table. Occasionally, I’d laugh at someone’s dirty joke, pretending I understood it.

I learned at an early age what hands beat what, and also the different strategies players used. My old man wasn’t a big gambler; he just liked to play clean, low-risk house games with friends. He was strongly against high stakes gambling. He was a good player, though. He was careful, smart. He knew when to bluff and, more importantly, he knew when to fold. He liked to trap his opponents, and wait for them to bet into him—a tactic known as “sandbagging.”

At the end of the night, we would review the night’s game. He’d say something like: “Did you see that one hand, Joe? He thought I was holding a pair, maybe two. He had no idea I had the flush.”

My pop taught me not so much how to read a player on a poker table, but how an opponent may read me. He had no idea that I would hold on to these little lessons. He had no idea that I’d actually take this game seriously and, in a sense, become the sort of gambler he was so against. He would always tell me to never bet what I couldn’t afford to lose. My response was always, “Don’t lose.”

By the time I hit high school, weekend house parties meant taking over the kitchen to play cards. I was always able to find a handful of drunken kids willing to bet some beer money. When I began working, I would find co-workers who played cards and join the weekly games. By the time I moved to New York about three years ago, I’d already been playing Texas Hold’em for a couple of years. I was growing hungry for higher stakes. Unwilling to travel to a casino, though, there was only one place to go: card houses.

I was 25 when I first stepped into Fairview. On my first few visits, I had turned a couple of hundred bucks into a couple of grand. It’s easy to feel like you’re in the big time when you walk away with a wallet you can’t even close because it’s stuffed with Grants and Franklins. On my winning nights, I’d stop by the smoke shop and buy a Macanudo Maduro to celebrate.

On my last few visits to Fairview, however, it had been a while since I sat back and pulled on a nice cigar. I was on a losing streak: cold hands. Every time I thought I had a good hand, it would turn out second place. In poker, that’s first loser. I lost a lot of money, but I was heading to change that. I was ready, like so many pathetic gambling degenerates before me, to change my luck. I kept this hidden from my father.

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The game of poker can take more from you than just your money. It can savage your dignity. The warm sun doesn’t seem to shine when you have empty pockets.