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Inside an Illegal Poker Den, circa 2008...By Jay Graziani

The location, a faded early-20th-century industrial town in the mid Atlantic. This is one of the last holdouts in the country where smoking is still legal everywhere, though you still can't buy a bottle of wine on Sunday. The collars run bluer than normal here, part testament to the Protestant work ethic of a population that was almost entirely immigrants 3 generations ago, but also a telling sign of the depressed economic surroundings of a city that never quite transitioned out of the days of coal and steel.

Gambling is almost a way of life in this kind of community where the local bars change their TVs at 10 every night to watch the drawing of the "daily number" and where the largest attraction at each and every church picnic is the "Big 6" wheel. You know the one, with the pictures of the dice and a house take that makes that state lottery seem terribly generous. The lines run nearly as deep at the Big 6 table as they do at the beer tent, and losing instant Bingo cards litter the ground underfoot. The local racetrack has more than its share of hard luck stories, and, unfortunately, also more than its share of unshaven men wandering around snatching crumpled tickets from the dirt in search of that one magical stroke of luck that will get them back to even. 50/50 raffles are the preferred fundraiser for schools, churches, and social clubs alike. And with the black eye of casino towns just a few hours away, a junket to Atlantic City is always a convenient way to keep grandma and her sewing circle busy on a Sunday afternoon. Who needs nursing homes when you have penny slots?

The illegal variety of gambling is popular here too. With a bar on what seems like every corner, it doesn't take long until you wander into one with a "disabled" video poker machine. Funny just how able those can become when the right company is around. The ubiquitous social clubs have scratch tickets and dice games to keep members entertained during their after-work cocktails. And just hang around those smoky bars watching football long enough and you'll soon find yourself approached by someone willing to book a parlay on the game (remember, though, ties lose on totals and parlays cost "double juice"). With gambling firmly implanted in all aspects of life, poker is naturally not far behind. The backrooms of many pubs hold felt and plastic chips, accessible only to those who have are "from the neighborhood".

A family occasion brings me here, and I meet up with an old friend for drinks. Gambling runs deep for him too. He lost a new car's worth of bets to his local bookie before he even turned 20, a mistake he is in many ways still paying for today. Nonetheless, he is still on the wagon, with weekly trips to Atlantic City and a part-time job dealing in one of those very backroom poker clubs (a surprisingly decent career, when the alternatives are factory work and washing dishes). After a long night of college hoops and Jaegermeister, the poker bug starts nibbling at him. The bar is now closed, so after savoring a quick joint in the parking lot, he invites me to accompany him to a local poker club that's still live even this late into Saturday night. We park in the unlit lot and head into a side door adjacent to a less-than-classy bar. Not a place I'd choose to go for a few drinks and a light dinner, but good poker games are rarely found in those places anyway. Up a dank stairway that looks like something out of "Taxi Driver" lies our destination - a plain wooden door with oversized peephole that is almost too clichéd to be real.

After passing inspection we are admitted into a mostly gutted one-bedroom apartment. I get plenty of suspicious looks, standard fare when wandering into this kind of place for the first time. Luckily I hadn't been looking for a non-smoking table, since having a lit tobacco product in your mouth seems to be mandatory tonight. I head to the kitchen and grab an ice-cold Yuengling Lager from the fridge (compliments of the house, of course). A few pizzas and some sliced hoagies are there for the taking, leftovers from the pizza place down the street, a mom-and-pop joint with an Italian name on the front door. Domino's is a sin in this neighborhood.

Five computer terminals are lined up against the left wall of the room, each dialed into an online poker room - an internet café of sorts. Players taken to the woodshed in the live game can turn around and try for better luck against online opponents. The house chips you just won on the felt can be turned into virtual chips and transferred to your personal online poker account (and vice versa). For those that don't have their own account, a number of "house accounts" are set up and signed in, awaiting funding. Gambling on the information superhighway has never been so easy.

A large casino-style poker table is the main attraction, however, and earlier in the night it would have been joined by a few smaller, less elaborate (read: folding) tables. No cash is anywhere in sight, of course -- normal precautions for this type of enterprise, lest anyone kick down the door and have the audacity to accuse them of gambling. Blue scribbles decorate an old dry-erase board on the wall above, letting seven-card stud players know they should show up on Tuesdays from now on; Omaha got a promotion to the more popular Thursday night spot. Most scheduled games are 4/8 and feature a house dealer (who makes sure the rake keeps coming in), though much higher stakes games arise spontaneously every night. This card room holds only 3 tables comfortably, but six or seven can be squeezed in for peak hours and special-occasion tournaments.

It's late now, though, and only the most hardcore players and gambling junkies are left, seven in total, with ages ranging from just-21 to "way too old to be up this late". It's never a good idea to jump into anything more than a pocket-change game when you're the only new guy in the room, so I pass on sitting. This only increases the frequency of suspicious glances in my direction, but I'm used to them already. I'm not carrying enough for this table anyway. The game is 15/30 hold 'em, pretty high stakes for your typical neighborhood game, and after treating to a few rounds of shots, I'm not carrying quite enough bullets to be competitive.

By the time I finish my beer, the game is just about over anyway. With two guys busting out in the 15 minutes we've been here, and another ready to hit the road while he still has a few bucks in his pocket, it's time to call it quits and cash out the chips on the table. My buddy reloads his Pokerstars account for a few hundred while he's here. This is one transaction the government is going to have a hell of a time flagging.

It's now pushing 4 AM, and considering we have been drinking and watching hoops since 7, I'm ready to call it a night myself. My friend is much more motivated than me, though, having caught a taste of the easy money that tends to float around seedy joints in the early hours of the A.M., when players are tired and drunk and praying for one last big score so they can pack it up and head home to their sleeping wives and kids. As I head back to the car, he walks the opposite way, moving quickly to catch up to one of the old guys from upstairs. They are off to track down another poker den, this one with a reputation for staying open just a wee bit later.

Jay Graziani

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