Thursday, November 22, 2012

Keeping Poker Grey

Yes, a post about poker... here. Who'da thunk it?

I was reading Grange's writeup on the recent court decision on a home game in South Carolina when I got to thinking that poker staying in this grey area of legality creates appeal to the game.

Poker is American as something that is considered really American. It's a game that still brings forth images of saloons and guns and aces up sleeves and flipped tables and smokey back rooms and riverboats and lives being traded on the turn of a card. Yet it's now also associated with sunglasses and hoodies and feature tables and piles of cash being brought out and commentators and hole cams and live blogs and websites and avatars and virtual felt.  It's modernized and gone mainstream while holding onto its outlaw appeal.

Poker has been sitting at a crossroads for a decade now. It's everywhere if you look for it, yet still not accepted or understood by the masses. One still sees poker games portrayed incorrectly in modern media. My favourite version is where someone bets more than their opponent has in front of them, and the only way to see the hand through is for the short-stacked sucker bet something of value - his wedding ring, or watch, or car, or house, or whatever moves the plot forward. In reality, the short-stack is simply all-in, and can lose no more than what they have in front of them. About a half second of thought reveals why this is so: If reality worked that way, I'd just buy-in for more than everybody and go all-in every hand so they could never call without risking their Ferrari vs my extra $5.

But it's that risk that appeals. That feeling that you could lose it all or win a fortune depending how the cards fall. That image is supported by the fact that poker is still illegal in so many places.

Toronto once had a booming underground poker scene. The nearest legal poker rooms are an hour or two away in big casinos. During the summer, a charity poker room opens up at the Canadian National Exhibition, and it's where Daniel Negreanu and Evelyn Ng got their start. But if it was Tuesday evening and you wanted to toss some chips around? You were out of luck unless you knew the right door to buzz.

The media portrayed these clubs as dark dens of iniquity. Fortunes stolen by the owners, illegal drugs and prostitution abounding. The reality, at least for the club I was in, was much more mundane. Well-lit rooms full of 20 & 30-somethings who knew each other by name. A couple TVs with the game on, and a fridge to put your beer in. Sure, a rake was taken, but the lights had to be kept on, and the guy running it needed to get something from the deal. Nobody complained, and everyone had a good time. Outside of the odd joint (brought in by the smoker), the most illegal drug was Red Bull.

But there was something exciting about hitting that buzzer and looking up at the small video camera by the door. There was something SO COOL about walking into that room and having the owner greet you by name and ask how it's going. And there was always the odd butterfly that flitted around wondering if you'd get caught. You loved telling your friends about the "underground poker club" you played at. It made you seem like an even better player at the home games. And if you saw one of the other members on the street, that knowing nod and grin said it all.

Of course, when mine was busted in all its media-reporting glory (an hour after I had left for the night), I stopped going. I thought about it once, then thought better of it. They got busted again, tried re-opening with a different runner, and as far as I know, gave up.

It was the threat of danger that appealed. Once that danger became all-too-real, the allure was lost. I'm no bad-ass rebel. I'm a lazy middle-class white man living in a great big city in a condo in a safe neighbourhood. but poker is one of those vices that feels like it adds a dimension of cool.

Because it's not entirely legal.

Saying "I play softball" or "I like to shoot hoops with my buddies" is pedestrian. Whoopdeedoo. Sure, it's fun, social, and requires some level of skill, but it's also safe. It's accepted. Kids do it in gym class. But poker? Poker gets people raising an eyebrow and saying, "oh?" Saying you go to Vegas or Niagara sometimes to play cards is fun, even though those are places where poker is as accepted as softball in suburbia. Finding a fellow player is like finding another Stonecutter - a member of your secret society.

A home game is a tiny bit of rebellion. The stakes may only be $20 + beer and pizza money, but it means the married folks got permission from their spouse, or found a babysitter. It means the single ones are showing off that they can do this whenever they want. And in some places, like South Carolina apparently, the cops could bust down your door and take your Walmart chip set.

When online poker was all over the States, every single player knew they were, at BEST, in a grey area of legality. It wasn't easy to get money on a site. There were laws out there that weren't entirely understood. Justifications about skill vs chance were used to reassure oneself that everything would be okay. And when the hammer came down, every US player was pissed, but at least secretly thought "well, I knew that could happen."  Let's face it - you felt special when talking to your non-poker friends about how you played online poker. If it had been perfectly legal, it would be as impressive as talking about how you play World of Warcraft.

So yah, busting up a home game isn't cool. Not having a legal poker room in a population centre of over 5 million people seems ridiculous. Keeping people from playing poker from their couch reeks of a nanny-state. If poker ever gets out of the grey and into the domain of accepted pastimes, let's hope it stays at least as cool as pool. But right now? When laws against it are being fought in courts, and when millions of dollars of player money are still being held by law enforcement agencies? Damn, does it ever make us boring-ass nobodys feel a little like outlaws.


BrainMc said...

Nice return to a blog post with poker content. Someone is ready for Vegas.

The other thing in movies that always bothers me is the "I'll see your bet and raise you....."

My geography may be a little off but I'm still amazed that there is not another city the size of Atlanta that doesn't have a casino within a 2 hour drive. It can't all be blamed on "the Bible Belt" philosophy. There are casinos in Fl, MS, LA and even some non lottery gambling in AL. I think Salt Lake City is the only other large city that is as isolated from gambling but that is entirely because the whole city is run by LDS.

Justin said...

entertaining read, thanks.

that's true that we americans recognized it was always a bit dicey. when deposits were linked to jewelry companies in s. africa and cashouts were from no-nam acronym companies like CJJ services, i always chuckled.

that said, i can drive 30 min and find a legal live game in california. that's too bad that's not possible in toronto. is it province-wide? are there any casinos at all in ontario? does the province distinguish between full casinos and cardrooms?

Astin said...

There are plenty of casinos in Ontario, most of them small charity ones that don't have poker rooms. The big three are Rama, Fallsview, and Niagara, all of which have poker rooms.

As far as I know, running a poker room falls under gambling laws, which requires oversight from the OLGC, which they take a cut of. So it's not really possible to just set up a poker-only club as far as I know. Or maybe nobody's tried.

Poker itself is legal here, and nobody's busting into home games. In fact, the province is building its own online poker site.