A bit of some background about me — I basically grew up in the poker world. My grandmother was a player/dealer decades ago (her boyfriend ran a large club in Queens, NY) and she started teaching me 7 Stud, 5-Card Draw Hi, and NL Hold’Em starting when I was 6 years old. We would play with a cheap Hoyle chipset she had purchased from the local grocery store. Occasionally, I even beat her — I’ll never be sure to this day if she let me win, but I’ll always hold those memories close. Poker was something we always did together and did often. It would be unusual to see my Grandma without a deck of cards on her.
As I got older, my whole family would play together. When I reached middle and high school, I would host multi-table $20-$50 buy-in tournaments at my house and there would be about 40-50 of us at my house playing poker, socializing, eating, and doing what kids do. We were all terrible and had no idea what we were doing, but we were all having fun and little did I know it, but I was getting a taste of what was to come in terms of my career later on in life.
When I hit 16 years old, a friend of mine from high school — Joey — who had gone off to college in Queens at St. John’s had come back home for the summer. He had been introduced to a very large and popular underground club in College Point, NY. At the time, he was making a regular income from playing small stakes MTT’s on Full Tilt instead of having a regular job during college, and naturally found his way into live poker. This was my first introduction to the underground poker world. In addition to playing online with him, I accompanied him and a couple of his college buddies one night to play $1/$3 NL at a live underground club. I was able to play because I had made some substantial money from running and eventually selling my own web hosting business while in high school. My other passion that I had started learning from a very young age was computer programming. I was coding in Visual Basic by 11 years old because a friend of my father’s, who was a software developer, had decided that I had shown some aptitude for the field and took an interest in mentoring me. I was lucky to have been given the opportunity of his time, teachings, books, etc. Anyway, off we went to Fox’s Club — Fox was the connected mob guy who owned the club. The game was protected and everyone knew it. It was a very social place.
If you’ve ever been to an underground club, then you know that the quality of the customer service and experience can vary greatly from game to game. Fox’s game was the creme of the crop, it was absolutely top notch. It ran every day, night and day.
It was located in a large, multi-story industrial lot which sat right near a main intersection, which meant lots of traffic — a very good thing because the traffic to and from the game just blended in with the usual activity.
When you pulled in, you could park anywhere you wanted out of the tens of dozens of spots. It didn’t matter where you parked anyway — I’ll get to why in a minute. Then, you would walk upstairs to the 2nd story to come stop in front of a giant steel door with a buzzer and several cameras positioned in front.
When you rang the bell, they’d ask you who you were, you’d tell them how and who invited you, and in a minute or two you’d be buzzed in through the first steel door. After entering, you’d come to a second steel door with another camera positioned in front, which only opened from the inside.
When you finally entered the room, it was gorgeous — clean, large, comfortable, and was equipped with everything you wanted in a club. A full-sized kitchen, multiple clean bathrooms (one even had a shower), a lounge area, a high limit room, waitresses, a bunch of large flat screen TV’s, and a smoking room among other things. The first thing you’d notice was that they had 6 high-quality poker tables paired with executive chairs, not including the one in the high-limit room. This club was spacious.
As you walked in, a valet would ask for your keys and he would go fetch your vehicle and park it in an organized fashion amongst the others. You’d then make your way over to the podium and tell the floor which game you wanted to play — they usually had at least several games going — $1/$3, $2/$5, and $5/$10 NL and higher when it ran, but the much higher games were much more private.
Strapped with $1,000 in cash on me, I request a seat in the $1/$3 game and eventually make my way onto the table. The max buy-in was $500, which I opted for because most stacks at the table were deep. It didn’t really matter anyway — this was my first time playing in an underground poker club and I was nervous as hell. I didn’t know how to act, was totally naive to my safety, I was 16 years old and I was clearly “the kid” in the club.
I remember winning one of my first pots, and a mid-30’s Asian guy sitting next to me taps me on the shoulder.
“Aren’t you going to tip the dealer?”
“What do you mean? Are we supposed to do that?”
“Of course, they work on tips. When you win a pot, toss them a buck, if it’s a big pot then maybe a redbird or two.”
“Oh, uh… I see… I’m sorry, I didn’t know…” and I toss the dealer a buck.
Over the course of the summer and playing there a dozen or so times, I began to take notice how much these dealers were making. Back then, in this particular club, dealers were well taken care of and I managed figure out that they were pulling in at least $1,000 per shift depending on their duties and how long they spent in the box. Some guys had multiple roles, would often spend time on the phone with players, some would work the cage area, some would floor other times, etc.
The questioned then dawned upon me — why am I risking my money playing this game, when I could learn how to deal it and be guaranteed to make money without any risk?
That was when I started to become friendly with Big Mike — one of the regular dealers. I wanted to deal and I wanted a job there… How was I going to make this happen? How could I pass up learning how to make $1k a night at a job that looked like it could be a lot of fun?
Thinking about it now, the thought of a 16-year-old kid wanting to learn how to deal poker in an underground club and actually turning out to be good at it… is just plain hilarious. But, I was determined to learn this skill, and even though I was a little naive about it, I made a promise to myself that I was going to study poker and poker dealing.
When you’re that young, the problem is that your brain is not yet fully developed and no matter how mature and intelligent someone of that age can be, the fact remains that they have yet to gain “wisdom” — the kind which can only be acquired through time. I say this because I grossly underestimated the amount of time on the felt it really takes to become a solid, “A”-Dealer. But again, I had drive and determination to learn how to deal.
I became friendly with Big Mike, got his phone number, and would text him whenever I wanted to come down to the club. I let him know that I wanted to learn how to deal and asked him how he learned. He told me that he had went to dealer school. I didn’t know such a thing existed. He wasn’t too enthusiastic about me learning how to deal, he said I was too young and didn’t know the game well enough yet. I came to the conclusion that Big Mike wasn’t going to help me, and sure enough, he never did in that regard. I kept him as a poker contact and would eventually be invited to other games and clubs by him, something that could be really helpful later on.
With Big Mike not wanting to teach me, my plan was to go to Fox’s to play, and when I wasn’t in a hand I was going to study what the dealer was doing — what he did with his hands, how he shuffled, what he said, what he was constantly doing with the chips in his rack? This was how I discovered rake, by the way. I didn’t even know what rake was.
At Fox’s, everybody paid $5 per half when the dealers would make their push. I thought that that was how they were making their money. What I didn’t know was that they were also taking a rake. There wasn’t a gator or dropbox for the rake. It didn’t sit out openly in front of the players as it does in casino card rooms. The dealer would quickly take out chips from the pot and they would go right into the well. Every half, the dealer that was pushing in would replace the well with the one they were carrying.
The first time I saw the rake being taken, I was puzzled by what was happening and didn’t know what was going on. No-one else at the table ever seemed to say anything or even acknowledge it so I figured it must be okay. When I saw Big Mike go into the smoking lounge for his break, I got up from the table and went inside to ask him about it. He then educated me about rake and what it was. I was dumbfounded. This place must be making a sh*tload of money. 10% of the pot up to $25? I started to do the math on all the tables running, the time being taken every half hour, an average pot size for an average rake amount, and came up with an impressive number. Damn, what a lucrative business to be in.
During the time I spent watching the dealer, I picked up lots of little things here and there, but ultimately just watching was not enough. I needed some proper instruction. I also knew I needed to learn how to “deal” the cards the way Big Mike did with that flick of his fingers — not knowing at the time that it was called “pitching the cards”.
All of this information. All of these techniques. There must be some resources and information on poker dealing on the internet, right? I mean, if Big Mike went to a school that teaches how to deal poker, then there must be some info on where to go. I’d, later on, make a discovery that would make a huge impact on my life.
So, I decided that moving forward, I was going to focus on getting better at the game while I spent my time at Fox’s. Maybe Big Mike was right. Maybe I didn’t know the game well enough yet. Instead of trying to learn how to deal there, I’ll just play the game and try and win as much money as I can.
This didn’t turn out so well, however, as I was not yet a competent player. I had no live experience — I was very easy to read, made the mistake of engaging in table talk and failing at every verbal jousting I took part in, and I hadn’t yet been a real student of the game. I was learning the hard way through trial and error, which of course cost me tons of money.
I didn’t always lose, because I wasn’t an idiot and was intelligent enough to realize that there actually is a skill component to this game. The Asian guy (from Part 1) in his mid 30’s, the one who politely taught me about tipping dealers, turned out to be a pretty cool guy.
His name was Andy. When we first officially met, he asked me about which college I was going to and what major I was studying.
“So, you in college? What are you studying?”
“Actually, I’m still in high school. I haven’t decided yet which school I want to go to. I still have a couple of years left.”
“What? How old are you, buddy?”
“I’m 16, I’ll be 17 after the summer.”
“So you can’t even drive, yet? Is that why you always come by with a friend?”
“Yeah, I’m still saving up for a car. I think I’m gonna buy a used Mazda 6.”
He was curious about where I was getting all of this money I had to play with at the tables. I told him about my computer background and web hosting business. He was impressed and I had earned his respect. He told me that he had initially thought that I was just another one of the college kids that came by to play — money from their parents, or playing with the extra college loan money that was left over and sent out as a check to students who got loans.
We developed a kind of student-teacher relationship. He smoked a ton of cigarettes, and every time he did, I would join him in the smoking lounge and he would tell me his thoughts on how I played certain hands, point out mistakes I made, give me positive reinforcement on things I was doing correctly, pull me off the table when I would start to tilt, and overall just looked out for me. Andy was a very good player as well, judging by the fact that he consistently won and could always give me a logical reason and argument to why I should do things a certain way.
Other people who tried to teach me the game would say things like “You should have raised on the turn”, and when I asked “Why?”, I would always get the same response — “Because you lost the hand”. That made no sense at all to me. That’s not an answer, it doesn’t answer the question at all. That’s just another way of saying that if I was a psychic and could predict the future, the way I could have won the hand was by knowing what the outcome was and making the right play.
Andy would say things like “You should have raised on the turn”, and when I asked, “Why?” He would say things like “Well, why did you decide to call instead of raise? Did you even consider raising at all? Did you consider folding? What did you think he was betting into you with? You had a set of 9’s on a board that had one broadway card and two flush draws”. That was when I realized that I wasn’t even thinking much about what the other guys had, I was just playing my own cards and when I didn’t make hands, I would try and bluff, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so much. I was starting to learn the game from a thinking player’s perspective.
Andy had been playing poker for a long time already and was an underground grinder. After graduating from college with a degree in finance, he got a job at some firm but eventually left to pursue poker. Between his investments and playing poker full time, that was how he made his income. He played in tons of games and clubs all around New York and was what you would call an underground pro.
At the time, if you were a competent player, it was quite easy to make money in those games. There were tons of fish and people who would literally donate money. In the beginning, I was one of them. So were Joey and his college buddies. Joey was a decent online MTT player — skilled enough to consistently cash in small tournaments — but he wasn’t very good at playing cash games. Especially live cash games. He was too easy to read. So was I — absolutely awful at hiding tells, let alone knowing what those tells were.
I remember one particular session at Fox’s where I was running like God. I had turned $500 into nearly $4,000. I was getting super lucky, super quickly. I’ll never forget this session as it was the first time I walked out of Fox’s with a huge wad of cash in my pocket. And it started off with the first hand I played that night.
I always waited to play until I was in the big blind, something Andy advised me to do, as you couldn’t come in for free behind the button, not that I even knew what that was at the time. Forgive my recollection of this hand, it’s rough at best, it was over a decade ago, but it was the first time I saw how brutal poker could be.
There was a raise to $15, a re-raise to $50, a call, another call, and I look down in the big blind at T9ss. I was still superstitious at the time and always played my first hand, no matter what it was. So I called and the original raiser called as well. 5 players.
The flop comes TT9 with two clubs, and I check. There’s a bet of $150, then the next guy jams, the next guy also jams, another all-in, and at this point I remember thinking to myself — holy sh*t — I quickly call, so does the guy in front of me. I then turn my hand over. What does it matter? Everybody is all in, give me the money baby!
Everyone else follows suit, and tables their holdings wondering what the hell is going on here. We’ve got a 5-way all-in, something I’d never seen before — AK of clubs, pocket aces, pocket 9’s, and QJ, which I’m fairly sure was suited.
I’d be lying if I told you what happened after this point. My body was overflowing with adrenaline. The dealer does his work and the next thing I know I have $2.5k in front of me and some really pissed off people sitting next to me.
As the session continues, within the next few orbits I manage to pick up pocket aces and pocket kings, stack two players, and it was at this point that I had around $4,000 in front of me.
Like I said, running like God. Then, it happened.
Thinking I was invincible, I re-raise a guy with 64o. The flop comes A44. The guy bets and I just go all-in, not knowing what else I could do. He then tanks for a minute, and says to me, “You’re really that lucky huh? You got that 4 don’t you?”
I remember just smiling like a teenager who had just lost his virginity.
“I don’t know what to tell you man, but yeah, I do. I have 64”, as I shook my head “yes”.
“I believe you.” And the guy open mucks AK. I show him the 64.
I get shipped the pot, and then Andy says to come join him in the smoking lounge. I didn’t smoke, but my Mother had for years so it didn’t bother me much.
“Why in the hell did you tell that guy what you had? You need to learn how to act composed at the table.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. It didn’t feel right lying to the guy.”
“That’s because you’re a good kid. This is poker, buddy. You can’t ever feel bad about
taking someone’s chips, or else you’ll never succeed at this game.”
“Well what should I have done then? What should I have said?”
“For now, the next time that happens, don’t say a word. Just stare at the board until the other player makes a decision. You’re clearly not capable of table talk, yet. If you feel like you have to respond and can’t ignore the other player any longer, then just use my line and then tell him it’s on him.”
“What’s your line?”
“Well, I can’t lose if you fold.”
And I’ll never forget that line. I still use it sometimes to this day. You have to understand that this happened back when you could actually engage your opponent verbally when it was heads up. Now, you can’t discuss the contents of your hand whatsoever. That era has ended and table talk is not what it once was. In my opinion, I firmly believe that this particular change in poker was not a positive one. It made poker really fun and really interesting. It was a large contributor to the social element of the game. And it felt really, really, good when you would successfully talk your opponent into making the move you wanted them to make.
Andy continued smoking his cigarette while telling me I should cash out and go home with a huge win.
“How much more money do you really expect to make? You’re way too deep now in this game where everyone is going to start shoving on you. Trust me, cash out and hang out until your friend is done playing so you can go home.”
“What else am I supposed to do? Isn’t everyone going to get mad that I’m leaving?”
“Who cares? Sit at the table and fold everything except Aces or Kings for the next hour. If you pick up one of those hands, just go all-in. Trust me, you have nothing more to gain and only something to lose if you continue playing. For the next hour, just watch everyone else and how they play and what they showdown. You might learn something.”
And that’s exactly what I did. I folded every hand for the next hour, then cashed out.
While I was hanging out and railing Andy and my friend who I came with, I realized that I needed to buy a poker table and the same type of cards they were using at Fox’s — they used KEM bridge size, jumbo index. Something I had learned about from picking Big Mike’s brain. I figured this would be a perfect time to invest in a real poker table, considering that I just cashed out $4k.
Maybe I could start having cash games at my house with my friends and deal the game to practice? I already hosted tournaments at my house regularly, but never thought about hosting a cash game. Would my friends even want to play a cash game? What stakes would it be? I still need to figure out how I’m going to learn how to deal.
Hmm, I’ve got some thinking to do.
|Chapter 1 – Fox’s Club||Chapter 9 – Spades — 1.8|
|Chapter 2 – Spades — 1.1||Chapter 10 – Spades — 1.9|
|Chapter 3 – Spades — 1.2||Chapter 11 – Spades — 1.10|
|Chapter 4 – Spades — 1.3||Chapter 12 – Spades — 1.11|
|Chapter 5 – Spades — 1.4||Chapter 13 – Bell Boulevard — 1.1|
|Chapter 6 – Spades — 1.5||Chapter 14 – Bell Boulevard — 1.2|
|Chapter 7 – Spades — 1.6||Chapter 15 – Bell Boulevard — 1.3|
|Chapter 8 – Spades — 1.7||Chapter 16 – Bell Boulevard — 1.4|
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