Graveyard Cash

June 18, 2011

Even the parking garage elevators are nicer at the Aria.  Panelled wood and polished buttons, welcoming at 4am.  An immediate uplift from the hour I’ve just spent traipsing the Bellagio, old and worn, where fingers stick to the video poker at the sports book bar, and a grey haired barman in a black vest and a dull striped tie complains to his younger supervisor about a leak in the sink that’s still not fixed.  The poker room is depressed as well, garishly going through the motions, a mixed game in the center of the room featuring Russian Lenny with the dyed hair and tinted shades who has been living in Vegas for at least twenty years, and a couple of characters from the poker scene back east in the 90’s who haven’t gotten the word that the Bellagio is dead. 

Eight weeks of the World Series of Poker isn’t only about the tournaments.  On the graveyard shift on a Tuesday morning the serpentine underground is slithering, a mix of guys trying to pay their nut, those trying to keep pace with the drain of WSOP buy-ins, and grizzled cash game pros who wouldn’t be caught dead near a tournament area and don’t even venture out of their caves and cloistered rooms until the sun is long gone and alcohol has replaced those who call for carrot juice. 

A new breed of animal is poking heads above the parapet, flexing legs and slithering from the internet river onto dry land, flitting like fireflies who have but twenty-four hours to live.  The Internet is down, Lord Darwin slicing the under-25’s straight through the heart, poker gods smiting the first born, the seven figure multitablers who used to only come outside in baller gear to hit up bottle service clubs and California chicks with a hundred grand of plastic gobs on their augmented eyes and reconfigured frames.  These, like leeches, have now plastered themselves like a plague to tables around the town, looking for blood on which to gorge. 

So many will burn, burn in the bright light against the metronome of cheats and anglers, the tick tock of Vegas vampires who turn the game to their favour.  Those who were laughed at as too fat to fit in a swivel backed chair and maneuver a ten table mouse, they look natural in the light of their own turf.  No chance when the game is pure, but here, in the bottomless ridge of the glitter gulch, to them the nights of oxygen pumped mayhem just breathe them life.  Giant turtles of the Galapagos find the small brain an advantage after eighteen minutes at the bottom of the sea with no air in sight.  Twenty-two years old and hopped up on moving quick and acting faster, fireflies burn while scars and scales serve in the quicksand of one table and a slow deal.

In the Aria poker room even the music is fast, a hip hop backbeat that would have the players nodding in time if most of them weren’t already wearing headphones.  Bright chandeliers and stiff curtains in muted browns encase the humming twenty tables at the fore, and in back the raised stage for bigger games and the glass door leading into Ivey’s Room.

Two young things are heads up at a table buttressed to the front rail.  200-400 limit mix. Plaques stacked on the table show the current game, switched every ten hands.  One player is thirty, slow and solid, his girth backing up his moves and his gaze, deliberate in front of five stacks of black, ten grand worth.  His opponent, twenty-three and perhaps a day, hates having to be here.  He belies his disdain for these archaic cards, shuffled by hands, and the snail paced movement of the game, and every element of life in this the real world, with every ounce of his actions.  His left hand moves like a piston, down over a tall stack of his chips, breaking it into two, and then breaking one of those into four, and then stacking them all back up again.  He does it again.  His eyes roll with exasperation when his opponent thinks for all of five seconds.  He bets blind, he tries in vain to speed the game to catch his mind.  He’s stuck, losing, but it’s more than that.  He’s stuck at this table, this life, this virtual hell brought on by the DOJ when all he dreams of is being in his underpants at his desk with his two monitors, his headset, and ten tabling with his expensive mouse. 

It’s a bit different over at the Rio at 5am.  There’s no white tablecloths draped over a cart with waiter service and china plates with steel knives and forks.  Not at these poker tables.  In the big game, a beefy man with a bright red face sits with a silver cross hanging round his neck and a large stack of hundred dollar bills, a Styrofoam box open on the table and his big hands pawing at some slop with a plastic fork after tossing a five thousand chip into the middle of the pot.  “Let me finish this bit of sausage ‘fore you do sumpin’ crazy,” he says, with his mouth already full.   And then, spearing his plastic fork into the Styrofoam box and coming up with a sausage end, he dangles it in front of him, pointing across the table at a man still holding cards.  The bettor is from West Virginia, definitely.  There used to be only two ways to make money in West Virginia, booking and dealing.  Most of the guys I used to play with did both.  Now he’s raking in the pot, the Styrofoam box discarded on the floor.  A player to his left with a Tennessee goatee and a lip puffed from chaw says, “I knew as soon as you put down yer fork that you had sumtin’ fierce.” 

There are only two types here, in the Rio, when the WSOP is done for the day.  Those left over from last night who have not yet moved, and those staying at this hotel.  The Vegas pros don’t come.  Not to the Rio at 5am.  They don’t like the long walk from the car.  They don’t know the floormen for the last ten years.  They don’t have their money in the boxes at the cage.  The internet kids don’t come here at 5am either.  They don’t stay at the Rio.  The restaurants are no good.  There’s no sushi.  The club’s not exclusive.  The Rio at 5am is a cavern, only twenty tables going in a two hundred table room.  One hundred eighty tables empty until noon when the WSOP killing machine roars into action.  That’s when the pros come for the tournaments.  That’s when the internet kids come for their bracelets.  But at 5am it’s just soggy French fries strewn out from half open Styrofoam and brokes on the rail, a story whipping round about a Russian who had a half million stolen from a bag at the side of his chair, when he got drunk.  It’s not true, of course.  But you still better be on guard.  Come 5am the Rio feels rough.

A new dealer comes into the box in the Aria game.  She’s a pert forty year old lady with a coiffed perm and angular face.  The kid goes right for her, long before she’s even taken the purse from her shoulder and hung it over her dealer’s chair.  He’s at her jugular with pointy jabs.  “Can you deal?” he barks.  “Then let’s go.”  She gathers the deck and then looks into her rack, trying to get her bearings straight.  He leans over and reaches into the rack, invading her personal space.   “These!” he barks.  “See these chips?  They go here, at ten you switch the game.  Let’s go.  Let’s go!”  Most of his chips are in one tall stack, double high.  The rest he’s clacking from one hand to another, making noise.  He can’t stop moving, his energy boundlessly reflecting his mind.  He swigs from a glass litre water bottle.  He can’t stop.  Nothing is fast enough.  Nothing can make him happy.  Nothing here outside the virtual world.

It’s not all about the World Series of Poker.  On the graveyard shift the action becomes splintered shards.  Different games and different worlds.  Everybody gambling to win over the broken Vegas night.

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  • Comments (9)

What Others Are Saying

9 Comments about Graveyard Cash

Don says:

19th of June 2011

Well written Jesse. Blending the 'graveyard' theme and the current problems with online poker really works in this piece. Can we conclude that the online ban has revived vegas..? OR is vegas definitely in decline?

John G. Hartness says:

21st of June 2011

And that's why he's Jesse F'n May. And the rest of us are not. Beautifully written.

Newinnov says:

21st of June 2011

Nice article.

Johnny Hughes says:

21st of June 2011

This is some mighty fine writing. I'm an early riser. Texas is two hours different. I often enter casinos at 5 a.m. to play the drunks. I just got back from Vegas. The only time I lost in five days was in one of those early sessions where I hated one drunk who kept saying he wished all the old people would die. Great writing, Jesse. I always knew downtown Las Vegas got a little dangerous right before dawn. That's the nature of gambling joints, where I've spent my life.

Mystro says:

22nd of June 2011

Well ain't that about a bitch!

Ciaran Corbett says:

24th of June 2011

Excellent Blog Jesse. You should write a book

MidniteKowby says:

27th of June 2011

He did Ciaran, Shut up and deal its called, just ordered it on amazon there. but sure write another anyways, great stuff

LW says:

28th of June 2011

Nobody, nobody, WANTS to be at the Rio at 5 AM. Especially with the new rules regarding daily end-times.

LW says:

28th of June 2011

Nobody, nobody, WANTS to be at the Rio at 5 AM. Especially with the new rules regarding daily end-times.

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