Bars closed. Gyms shut down. Nightclubs folded. Casinos shuttered. So why did the number of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles remain so high? To date, the county has amassed just over 6,000 coronavirus-related deaths. Nearly half the number of the entire state of California. One theory on why the curve hadn’t flattened — none of these venues truly stopped operating. An investigation was launched after members of law enforcement allegedly attended a party at a bar in Hollywood. The club crowd migrated to house parties in the hills. Following the shooting death of a 35-year-old woman at one such party, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti authorized utility shutdowns for residences, businesses and venues hosting gatherings.
This left me thinking about the poker players. What were they doing without their sprawling, neon-lit card rooms? Just not betting? If you believe that, you’ve never met a gambler. Long ago, I knew the poker world well. I’d wiled away many an evening that bled into the morning, shoving all-in. So, I reached out to some of my “friends” asking where the pros were playing during quarantine. On a Thursday night, I got the answer: “Home games. There’s a ten/twenty running tonight. You want in?”
Hours later, I stood in the living room of a four-story modern monstrosity in the Hollywood Hills. I was a bit ill at ease. Why shouldn’t I be? On this day alone, our fair city had raked in over 11,000 new positive tests. I took the room in. There were two standard-sized tables. At one table, a game was in full swing. At the other were two men. One of them was a boyish 20-something we’ll call “The Bank.” Mainly because he was in charge of two things — handing out chips and safeguarding the money. Next to him sat the game’s Host, who exclaimed, “Come on in!” He seemed simultaneously exhausted and unnervingly animated. I sat across from him. “What’s going on with seat three!?” he shouted to the dealer. “It’s locked for Joel!” The dealer yelled back.
The Host apologized. “Sorry. No open seats. You want a drink? Honey — ” He gestured to a young woman, who mathematically appeared to be 78% legs and 22% stiletto heels. “Get him a drink!” She took a giraffe-like step in my direction, her hazel, almond-shaped eyes expectant. “I’ll take a whiskey. Medium rare.” A bit confused, she retreated to the kitchen.
“You gotta find somewhere central, so people will come, but with enough distance from the neighbors, so they don’t call the cops. Police don’t really give a shit about poker. It’s only a misdemeanor.”
I scanned the other table. Eight of the nine seats were filled. Including the dealer, this meant nine chatting, laughing, heckling and wheezing faces. No sanitizer for the 18 chip-touching, face-rubbing, drink-lifting, card-fondling hands. I took note of the chip stacks. Most players hovered around $3,000. The big stack, Seat Five, had about eight grand. Seat Six, the only player wearing a mask, was safeguarding a meager $800. I watched a few hands. The average pot looked to be around $1,200. My drink arrived.
The Bank captured my attention. He was on about the music. Doris Day was belting out “A Very Precious Love,” and The kid had just heard her for the first time. “Her voice went straight through me,” he said. The Host approved. “Yeah, man! This is the real shit!” He then talked about how much more talented the artists of the past were than today’s “auto-tuned wannabes.” The Host looked at me and uttered, “You been tested?”
The question caught me off guard. “About music? Or like — by God?” He grinned. “For COVID. Pretty much everyone in the poker world got it.” I sipped my whiskey. Johnny Walker. Not the good kind. “After all the casinos shut down, the home games boomed. Everywhere was packed for a few weeks. The virus spread like wildfire. Then, all the games closed for about a month.”
“You get it?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah.” He responded. “I was one of the early ones. Wasn’t a big deal. I had like, icky bones for a few days. That was it. One guy got really sick. But he’s obese. So, ya know? If you ask me — ” I hadn’t. But I wasn’t gonna shut him up now. “This whole thing is a giant overreaction. Fucking country’s gone socialist.” He cut himself off with a grunt. “You smoke?” I nodded.
I followed him to the backyard. Beneath us, the city’s lights twinkled. “It’s quiet out here,” I said. “It’s gotta be,” he responded confidently. “That’s the thing about running these things. You gotta find somewhere central, so people will come, but with enough distance from the neighbors, so they don’t call the cops. Police don’t really give a shit about poker. It’s only a misdemeanor. Hell, some of ‘em work security for these games. But if cops get complaints, they gotta respond. Then they arrest everybody. Pros won’t play a game that’s been raided or robbed.” Wait! Robbed? I was just about to ask about that when we were interrupted.
“After all the casinos shut down, the home games boomed. Everywhere was packed for a few weeks. The virus spread like wildfire. Then, all the games closed for about a month.”
A young man, Jameel, I believe his name was, limped out and asked for a cigarette. The Host quickly obliged. “Thanks for coming on such short notice. Tony’s been in there dealing since nine this morning. Think he’s bout to drop.”
“Appreciate the work.”
“Game started at 9 a.m.?” I asked, realizing at the moment this was a stupid question.
The Host snickered, “No, we started last night. It just hasn’t stopped.” Then to Jameel, he said:
“Too bad I can’t have an eight ball.”
“Clean livin’?” I asked.
“No. There’s just no coke in L.A. Another fun side effect of this whole pandemic. Once they shut down the Mexican border, it was bye-bye blow.” He tossed his cigarette and went inside.
“Not afraid of the virus?” I asked Jameel. He shrugged, “I can’t afford to say no to these games right now. I’m making more money a week than I used to in a month.” I took a long drag, providing silence for him to fill. “No one is afraid of getting sick. But everyone’s afraid of getting someone sick. You know what I mean? I live with my dad. So I figure, if I get it, I’ll just sleep in my truck for a couple weeks.”
Back inside, I watched the game; close enough to see the action, but not so close as to potentially discomfort the players. This gave me the added bonus of being more than 6 feet away from any of them. The young giraffe delivered some cocktails before giving Seat Nine a back rub. A few of the other guys talked about a game that no longer existed. To the best of my understanding, its demise — a cheating accusation. There seemed to be little consensus about whether or not the game was indeed rigged. They did all agree upon one thing: “Someone calls you a cheat, your game’s over.” Then conversation hushed out of respect for three players involved in a hand.
The flop, or first three communal cards, had been dealt — eight of clubs, ace of hearts, 10 of clubs. Under the gun, or first to act, Seat Four placed a bet. Only two callers. Seats Six and Two. The turn came. Eight of hearts. The board offered a load of potential hands, including dead man’s. Seat Four led out with another bet. “All-in,” Seat Six said casually, pushing his stack forward. Seat Two squirmed, like a dragonfly shedding its exoskeleton. “Really?” He looked back at his cards.
“How much is that?” The dealer eyed the stack of chips, “$5,200.” After hemming and hawing, Two conceded. Seat Four also relinquished his cards. Six took down the hand, winning $3,600. I put Seat Four on something like Ace-Jack suited. If Seat Six had a boat (full house), he wouldn’t have shoved. He played the hand like he didn’t want a call. So I guessed he had an eight. Seat Two was a mystery. Maybe the club draw?
The conversation about the cheating scandal resumed. One player said, “All I know is no one got paid. And I’m pretty sure he ended up with 10 broken ribs.” Without thinking, I chimed in. “At that point, don’t you just say he broke all his ribs?” Angry looks from the table. I’d disrupted the ecosystem. Fortunately, a security guard quelled my sudden anxiety with a belly laugh and, “That’s what I was thinking.” He jokingly punched my arm. It stung. A lot. “Show no sign of weakness,” I demanded of myself.
Outside I went to shake off the pain. There I found The Host standing with a rather robust man in his late 40s. I didn’t catch his name; he was peacocking about some game where he allegedly won $60,000. He was chomping on a cigar and sipping a cocktail.
“I can’t afford to say no to these games right now. I’m making more money a week than I used to in a month. No one is afraid of getting sick. But everyone’s afraid of getting someone sick. You know what I mean? I live with my dad. So I figure, if I get it, I’ll just sleep in my truck for a couple weeks.”
Jameel, a dealer
“Smells like vodka,” I quipped. No response. I made a better attempt to insinuate myself into their conversation. “What was the buy-in?” His face implied both suspicion and glee, trademark expressions of the gambler. He took a puff and considered me. Despite my being a stranger, he couldn’t resist. What followed was the usual gambler’s tale. He was smarter and better than anyone else at the table. All pure skill. It’s funny how whenever a player wins, it’s because they’re brilliant, but when they lose — it’s bad luck.
“Is this what you do for a living? Play in underground games?” I asked. The well-upholstered gent bristled. “Why say underground? These are house games. I go to a house, and I play poker. Like anyone going over to a friend’s house.” The Host smiled with deviant pride, “You know what I say I do for a living? Run illegal underground poker games.” On that, he left us.
“What about COVID?” I asked. “I don’t think it’s real.” He continued, “I’ve been playing six nights a week. For months. I haven’t even coughed.” Under my breath — “The death toll is like a hundred Titanics.” Then audibly, “You play six nights a week. What do you do on the seventh?” He smiled. “I relax. Get some girls and just enjoy myself. Even those nights, though, I still make sure I’m asleep by 6 a.m.”
“My hat’s off to ya.”
The sun peeked over the city below. It was late. Or more accurately, early. Time to go. I’d seen everything I needed to see. Main takeaway: Poker players weren’t worried about the pandemic. I wasn’t shocked. In that world, hubris and an affinity for risk extend well beyond the tables. Later that morning, I scheduled a COVID test.