I Swam With Sharks at a High-Stakes Poker Table

I was surprised none of them actually drooled on the red felt table. One of the impeccably suited men who run the cavernous poker room at the Maryland Live! Casino had just interrupted the highest-stakes game in the house to announce that a Texas Hold ‘Em neophyte -- me -- was about to join, and in the name of journalism, gamble with actual, real money. Perhaps never before had every single player at a poker table simultaneously felt like it was their lucky day.

As I sat down at Table 24 and clumsily stacked my chips, my first thought was that $1,000-worth doesn’t look quite as high roller as I imagined it would. Supercompressor and Gillette Clear Gel had asked me to contribute to its series on how regular guys deal with stressful situations, so I had a $4,500 buy in -- and I hoped to make it last. Maryland Live! has a serious reputation for sharks, with real pros lurking in the shallow waters. I didn’t want to get eaten right after diving in. The Gillette Clear Gel had an even tougher assignment: I could control my face, but could it keep my armpits from going rogue?

Three hands in, I began to understand how difficult this was going to be. As a very casual poker player, I seemed to be a good fit for this assignment. The last regular game I played in was in college, when the night’s big winner usually blew his winnings on a 30-pack of one of Milwaukee’s classiest beers, which cost $9.99 at the time (I’m old).

This table was filled with guys who looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in a very long while. One said he plays 60 hours a week. They appeared to be either ditching work, or at work. Everyone somehow had mountains of chips in front of them, and several of those peaks were topped by plentiful black $100s. Blinds were $5 and $10, and the third player to the left of the button (which signifies who the “dealer” is on a particular hand) was straddling, meaning he’d ante another $25. If someone raised before the flop (when the first three community cards are revealed), it could cost more than $50 for me to even stay in. That’s an intimidating figure for a writer. The last time I’d walked into a casino -- or anywhere -- with nearly five grand stuffed in my wallet was…never.

I’d resolved to play based on a system I created, which I dubbed “The Three P’s.” Pay attention, be patient, and don’t worry about looking like a punk.”

For the first hour I was a folding machine. My already meager bank hemorrhaged as I was dealt bum hand after bum hand. You don’t have to be that pro poker player who’s named after plants that grow up walls to know that you’re not going to get rich from eight/deuce off-suit. I had much to sweat, but at least the Gillette Clear Gel was holding up its end of the bargain, and keeping that a private concern. 

Even though the first big showdown didn’t involve me, my heart rate jumped when I heard the guy across from me quickly declare himself “all in,” leading the venture capitalist to my right to quip (in fairly colorful language) that we were acting like overexcited youths.  

The pot must have been over $10,000, yet the winner raked his chips like he was collecting quarters from his grandma at her kitchen table during a game of five-card draw. I was impressed, and for some odd reason, his victory provided me a shot of confidence.

My first win was nondescript. I bet too aggressively on my pair of kings, and the other players saw right through me, like I’d won the battle and didn’t even know there was a war. I hauled in maybe $100, plus snarky congratulations from a few of the guys. Overall, the dynamic at the table was significantly less intense than I’d expected. Half the players wore headphones. Some typed into their devices. Several talked constantly, while others sat mute. One guy a few seats to my right, who couldn’t have been more than 30 years old, didn’t utter two words the entire six hours we played together; he was watching a hot-shot Washington DC crisis management expert save the world and fall into forbidden love on his tablet, while losing thousands of dollars.

I sat staring intensely at the chips in the middle of the table, determined not to reveal a tell (this is why some poker players wear hats, hoodies, or sunglasses). I knew that if I recklessly called, hoping for a miracle, I’d be violating my newly-established principles, and worse, that if I lost I’d be close to busted.                   

But they call it gambling for a reason. To win big you need smarts, of course, but you also need more than a little luck. “I’m in,” I heard myself say as my hands began to subtly shake. The dealer flipped the fourth card, which was black, then the river. It was a third heart.

About two hours in I finally made my stand. I held the jack and seven of hearts, and with two hearts already showing after the flop, I decided to bet big. For me. I threw $100 into what was a very large pot, and immediately was raised. By $500. That stung. I was hoping -- praying, really -- that the turn (when the fourth common card is flipped) or the river (the last) would complete my flush, but that was far from a sure thing.

At this point, keeping my cool was proving wildly difficult. My head was still frozen straight ahead, but out of the corner of my eye I could see my opponent counting his chips. When he went all-in, I called. He flipped his hold cards, the five and six of hearts, onto the table, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a bigger hero than after I showed mine. I won with a higher flush.

I’m a guy who’s strived to create as stress-free a life as possible. I’m not married and I don’t have kids. My job is relatively low-pressure, my girlfriend relatively low-maintenance. And let’s face it -- gambling with thousands of dollars of someone else’s money isn’t as stressful as gambling with ten of your own (unless you know that someone else is quietly praying that you won’t lose their thousands of dollars). But after I caught a glimpse of that last heart, mine was pounding like it hadn’t in years. The closest feeling I can compare it to is that moment in high school right before you asked a girl to the prom.

I won about $1,800 on that hand. (Being both somewhat superstitious and an admirer of The Gambler, I didn’t dare count my money while I was sitting at the table.) Outside a casino, while that’s not life-changing money, it’s certainly a significant sum to me. But at a No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em table, chips feel like play things, a thousand dollars like a few bucks.

I played for about four more hours, working my winnings up to around $3,000 before reality began to set in. As loss after loss mounted, I became acutely aware of my hunger pains (in a misguided attempt to keep my mind clear, and my stomach settled I ingested only water, stomach-relieving tablets and breath mints all day), the stiffness in my back from this marathon of sitting. Most importantly, I had enough self-awareness to realize that more experienced, talented players were now leaning on me -- hard. 

I called it a night, thanked the guys at my table and headed to the cashier. When she counted my chips, I was up just shy of $1,100. I’d stepped up to the table and owned it. Well, technically a small percentage of it. At least I wasn’t in debt to it. This was a great victory.

Maryland Live! is located on the grounds of a shopping mall outside of Baltimore. When I emerged from the cocoon of the casino, my wallet miraculously still filled, I was struck by an idea: I’d surprise my girlfriend with a pair of shoes.

As I wandered aimlessly from store to store, looking for who-the-heck-knows what (I don’t even do my own shopping, let alone others’), I debated styles and agonized over sizes. Fortunately, due to a few swipes of Gillette Clear Gel, I didn’t have to drop excessive modern-men’s-fashion dollars on a new, unstained shirt for myself. After all was said and done, choosing between strappy heels and black pumps turned out to be the most stressful part of my day.