Empty Hand of Hearts

by Max Benowitz

photography by Richie Starzec

It’s nearly midnight, and I’m sitting in the parking lot of a Popeyes Chicken in South Central LA. I got mugged here recently.

That day really sucked. First there was nonsense at work. Then there was nonsense with my friends. Then there was nonsense with my car. If you’ve read Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – or just kind of get the gist of the title – then you get the idea. By the time it was 6pm, I needed something stronger than a drink. I needed poker.

I drove thirty minutes south of my office in Beverly Hills, and found myself at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, California. I hit the ATM, withdrew five hundred dollars, and took a seat at a poker table. To my left sat a Chinese fellow in dark aviator shades. To my right, an overweight white dude in a Pantera hoodie. Neither one did so much as look at me when I sat, and the only person speaking at the table was a gray-haired Armenian man in a shabby suit, who continuously called our probably-ninety-year-old waitress “baby girl” and proceeded not to tip.

It was heaven.

For the next several hours, I just played. I’ve loved Texas hold ‘em since I was a kid, when my dad taught me to play with the blinds (poker’s version of an ante) set at 1 and 2 pennies. He got me hooked on the game, but the thrill of gambling was probably an inherent vice. By the time I was fifteen, I had a bookie named “J-Trill”, and by the time I graduated college I’d probably made and lost over fifty grand, netting me out at a big old whopping zero.

GAMBLING RULE #1:  Whenever a gambler says they broke even or netted out at zero, they probably lost an additional five to ten thousand dollars.

The game that preceded my mugging was wonderfully easy. Those guys sucked at poker. They raised when they had good cards and folded when they didn’t. They couldn’t read other players, and cursed when their luck ran raw. They only played their hands – not their opponents’. Raising when the cards are good. Folding when they’re bad. No game theory. Barely a bluff. Chasing flushes. Folding middle pair.

In other words, easy money.

I walked out of The Bicycle with an additional six hundred bucks to my name. All that winning had made me hungry, so I went to the classiest establishment I could think of to treat myself: Popeye’s.

I ordered the surf and turf special (excellent), and parked, isolated, in the empty lot beyond. I pumped up the volume on Bill Simmons, who was also talking about gambling, and realized, weirdly, this was the happiest I’d been in months. Just then, I heard a tap on the window, looked up, and saw a pistol staring back.

Tonight, back at the Casino, there’s money in my pocket again. Not from my job – mind you. My company went bankrupt since the mugging. Life and poker are still about getting lucky. No – I’m paying my rent through poker now, profiling me somewhere between a shark-tooth rounder, a hopeless gambling addict, and, according to the employment department of California, an honest chap looking for a new job in the big busy world of film who receives $400 dollars of your tax money a week to find it.

GAMBLING RULE #2:  If you see a guy withdrawing cash using a cobalt blue Bank of America prepaid EDD debit card, there’s a very good chance he’s scared of money. And you know what they say about scared money...
GAMBLING RULE #2A:  Scared money don’t make money.

I’m paying for dinners in cash these days. I’m recognized by my initials at the Bicycle (I call it the Bike now), the Hustler, and the Lady Luck Casinos. I’ve grown used to the smell of cigarette smoke inside. I’ve seen husbands buy their wives pink lingerie at gift shops named after Larry Flynt. I’ve seen men threaten to shoot each other in the parking lot after a poker hand. I’ve turned down a lot of prostitutes. I have had “cocktails” shouted in my ear by a thousand waitresses, and I’m still not sure if it’s a demand or a question. I have questioned what the hell I’m doing with my life. I have watched a man lose runner-runner and gone broke and continued playing on credit. I have begun referring to bad players as fish, and rich players as whales. If this was heaven before, it’s certainly purgatory now.
I’ll probably be back at this Popeye’s tomorrow.

There’s a lot I could write about poker. About bad beats and coolers and heaters and game theory and reading the Adam’s apple of your opponent to see if he’s relieved or crestfallen. But the most interesting part of the game is the culture it was, and the culture it is now.

Texas hold ‘em was first popularized widely in the 70s. A crew of old-school rounders – Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts, and Amarillo Slim – traveled the country looking for action, eventually landing in the desert of Las Vegas to find it. Quickly, they realized poker was the game to play if you didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a bullet. In blackjack and baccarat and all the other table games, you were up against the casino. In poker, you were playing against whoever else you were siting with. The house makes a flat table rate, and the edge goes to the good player.

In 2003, poker boomed wider. An everyman Texan named Chris Moneymaker (another real name, believe it or not), won a world series of poker satellite tournament for forty bucks, landed in the big game, and somehow ended up on top to the tune of nearly four million. Sure, it’s nice to be good at poker, but it really fucking pays to be lucky. Suddenly, there was the “Moneymaker Effect”– a feeling that any Tom, Dick, or Larry could shuffle up and win a million dollars by accident. The game started getting broadcast on ESPN. Kids in their parents’ basements started gambling away their Bar Mitzvah money online.

In the last five years, poker has boomed for a third time on social media. There are TikTok gambling influencers now. There are Instagram poker models. These are people trying to make the dirty game into a glossy one. Living embodiments not of the eternal hunt for action, but of venture capitalistic entrepreneurship. These are young, good-looking dudes who say poker is a way of being your own boss, and of beating the system in which everybody else has to suffer. They’ll even offer you lessons! Five hundred bucks a month to show you, from behind their Gucci sunglasses, how best to read a tell, and how you should defend a big blind, and why their smoking hot bikini babe girlfriend actually likes how unpredictable dating a gambler can be. The day of the old-school, smoky, back-room is over. The age of the reddit hand maestro reigns.

But I’m sitting here at night in my Honda Accord – which really needs a car-wash – and waiting for the traffic on the freeway to clear – and checking out the Instagram of some handsome kid named Nick who claims he’s a high-stakes poker pro even though he’s nineteen and his biggest claim to fame is fucking Madison Beer, and I’m wondering if any of this is real. For my money, the casinos I’ve been in this summer are just as shady and smoke-filled and ugly as ever. Where the hell are these games where everyone is buccal-fat-removed and nose-jobbed and takes a break for a topless hot-tub soak? They either don’t exist or I’m not invited and either way I’m pissed.

But this brings us to another core tenant of gambling: envy. I recently read Colson Whitehead’s book, The Noble Hustle, about his one-time entry into the World Series of Poker. Colson’s amateur luck went the way of disco after his two aces ran into a spiked king on the river. But when reading about a free entry by a Pulitzer Prize winner into the world series, you can’t help but shake from gambler’s envy. Why did I have to get stuck with these lousy cards when the dude in the seat across from me made a straight and raked in two grand? Why do I walk the lonely garbage road of casino smoke but Nick the Instagram guy rakes in hundreds of thousands amidst Hollywood high life? Why does Colson Whitehead get to play at all?

But nobody is jealous when they’re winning. We use luck when we need it least, and supplement the lack of it with envy. Whitehead may be winning at life, but that day his aces were cracked? You can bet all he wanted was to make it one hour further into the tempest of half-dead faces and blown-over chips.

GAMBLING RULE #3: If you decide you hate someone at your poker table, you’re going to end up losing to them. Play your hand, your position, and your momentary adversary. This ain’t boxing.

Traffic clears and I drive home. My car smells like chicken. It was a pretty good day. I managed to make a full house and bust a dude with a flush, raking in two grand. Yesterday, I lost that much. Tonight, I’ll probably sleep well. Yesterday, only nightmares.

A unique aspect of today’s game was the presence of a woman. That shit is rare. Seriously.

The one constant across generations and cultures of poker is the lack of female players. A stereotype, sure. But stereotypes are key in poker. People love to pre-judge. Old men are known for playing tight (only playing good cards). Young men play loose (raising regardless of their cards). Asian men bluff a lot. Black men barely ever bluff. White kids play statistical odds rather than reading their opponents. None of these things are true across the board, but rarely are they complete misreads. But should a woman enter the picture, everything goes askew. The male- centric mindset short-circuits. The inherent scarcity of women throws a monkey-wrench into the dumb prejudice textbook.

Poker is a game of representative lying. When you bluff, you’re not just betting for the hell of it: you’re trying to represent a conceivable hand in accordance to the cards on the board. The game is to convince others of who you are and what you have, regardless of the truth. When you have good cards, you want others to believe you’re full of shit. Vice versa when you actually are. And maybe that’s why men get so spooked by a woman at the table. They can sniff out the bullshit while everyone else peacocks around with their best half-dead face. We buy Ferraris and purchase Soho House memberships to represent who we want to be and how we want to be perceived. Credit statements be damned.

The next day, I awaken feeling hungover, despite a lack of drinking. I’ve got shit to do in real life, but I made so much money last night it would be a crime not to gamble more. I put on the poker uniform: grubby Sixers hoodie, jeans, Rolex watch, and white sneakers (representation of wealth without care), and make sure not to clean the dirt off my car before driving down to the Hustler. I’m there by 11 AM, and take a seat between an older, jowly gentleman, and a young white kid in a hoodie. One of the floor men asked if we were brothers, despite his red hair and blue eyes contrasted against my brown and brown. I’m telling you – casinos exist in a time capsule. It’s a more talkative table than most. Turns out the older fellow is retired Dodgers pitcher, Orel Hershiser. He’s a good player – not just some old man only playing aces. But I make a full house and I’m up money quick.

Orel and I talk Phillies. My “brother” bets into me when I’ve got a flush. I look up a few hands later, and the very same woman from yesterday takes a seat across the table. She kind of looks like a living incarnation of a prune. Sagging face. Puffy eyes. Push-up bra, for some reason. And next thing I know, she’s raising the table, and I look down to find myself with a pair of kings. It’s time to gamble.

Orel calls the bet, and I re-raise to a hundred bucks. Our lady of the adversarial four-bets all in. Orel folds, and I’ve got a decision to make. Chances are, she’s got ace-king, which means I need to dodge an ace as the cards run out, but I’m safe on most other streets. Otherwise, she’s holding a pair. If they’re aces, I’m dead. If they’re anything else, I’ve just gotta dodge the situation that bounced Mr. Whitehead and I’m home free. Fuck it, I think. You don’t get kings often. I call.

The woman turns over her own pair of kings. She has spades and clubs. I have hearts and diamonds. We’re probably going to split Orel’s thirty bucks and call it a day. But the cards had other plans.

The flop is three clubs. Fuck me. The turn is a heart – safe – but the river is yet another club. Her kings became a flush. Mine stayed paupers.

When you suffer a bad beat, the first reaction is always vowing to quit. It’s the simplest way to separate. Fuck this game. It’s dumb luck anyway. But we all know that’s bullshit. If you like action, you’ll keep seeking it. But it doesn’t mean you won’t self-sympathize. It doesn’t mean the cards can’t echo life itself. Of course, my company went out of business. Of course, I got mugged at Popeyes. Of course, those fucking kings hit clubs and made me broke. This is just who I am. Just where lady luck always goddamn takes me.

I wish I could capture luck in a bottle and run. Use it when I need it most. Know when it’s on hiatus. Know when it runs dry. Everyone hits the skids. Gamblers smash through them.

GAMBLING RULE #4: What ifs, maybes, and might-have-beens fly soft petals on a breeze. Reality, though, is a harsh bitch.

I’m in bed the next morning, and I’m watching handsome Nick win ten grand while his girlfriend watches boobily. Is he lucky or is he fake? A great player or a great product? Does it even fucking matter? Of course it doesn’t. But of course I’ll let it affect me anyway. The culture changes, but the tenets of the gambler remain: envy, prejudice, and the fascination with the ineffability of fifty-two cards.

I think about all the luck I don’t have. I think about all the money I’ve burned. I think about all the action I found, and where it got me, and how it ended me up on the wrong side of a storm. And first, I’m filled with regret and self-hatred and those horrible feelings of worthlessness. At first, I’m sick, metaphorically and literally.

But just then, my Instagram algorithm pops up with something that makes me smile. A quote from Norm MacDonald that stands the test of time – from the halcyon days of Sailor Roberts to the modern digital age of Instagram Nick: “Yeah man,” said Norm – “they call gambling a disease. But it’s the only disease where you can also win a bunch of money.”