On the Road: Black Hawk, Colorado

Pot, Chowder, Poker and Asshats

She dealt like a robot. Like a fast robot. Born in Laos, Pot had been pitching cards in different casinos in Black Hawk, Colorado, for several years.

“Pot in Colorado has been legal for only a few months,” she deadpanned while washing the deck before firing out a round of hole cards. “What’s the big deal with pot? I’ve been legal since I turned 18 years old.”

man playing pokerPoker dealers develop of wry, yet cynical sense of humor to cope with the fact they spend their waking hours adrift in a hostile sea of poker players. Yet, I imagine she must have dropped that legal pot line a million times since Jan. 1, 2014, when Colorado officially legalized recreational marijuana.

At the end of every summer, I make a pilgrimage to Colorado to visit friends and family. At some point during my vacation, I take a side trip with my buddy Wildo. We drive up to the mountains and gamble all night in the various casinos nestled in a narrow canyon in Black Hawk, Colorado.

This latest trip was the first one I made since Colorado and legal weed became synonymous with one other. I was curious, from a sincere journalistic standpoint, to gauge how the Rocky Mountain High translated to the gambling community. Marijuana dabblers were not afraid to stand outside and take long drags off a vapor pen, the preferred manner of consuming concentrates because it drastically reduces the pungent and ubiquitous odor of marijuana flowers. Pre-legalization, pot-toking gamblers had to fight back paranoia and duck into the parking deck or hotbox their hotel rooms. However, in the wake of legalization, marijuana-fueled gamblers with vapor pens are now discretely scattered among cigarette huffers in designated smoking areas.

Wildo wanted to take a shot at the deep stacks event in the Colorado State Poker Championships hosted at the Golden Gates Casino. The elevator from the parking deck conveniently opens up right inside the rustic-decorated poker room. These days, I’m strictly a cash game player and I had not played in a sanctioned tournament in a couple of years. I was more than rusty … I was as ice-cold as carbonite-frozen Han Solo in “Empire Strikes Back.” Despite my dormant MTT skills, I covered almost a thousand poker tournaments over the last decade and saw far too many undeserving donks fall ass-backward into six and seven-figure scores. I just had to put myself in a position to get lucky; as long as I minimized mistakes, picked up a little run-good and the occasional deus ex machina from the fickle poker gods, then anything was possible.

The tournament ticket read table 13. I’m not a superstitious person. I sing Peggy Sue whenever I board an airplane, I talk about no-hitters in the middle of baseball games, and I purposely step on sidewalk cracks and walk beneath ladders. The only superstitious oddity I adhere to is $50 bills. I refuse to accept one under any circumstances. But aside from avoiding fiat currency with Ulysses S. Grant’s mug on it, I have no other hackneyed superstitions. I scoffed at the notion of triskaidekaphobia, and gladly accepted the ticket that said table 13.

“You’d be surprised about table 13 hysteria,” said the cashier. “I’ve already had a dozen people ask for a different table assignment.”

It’s easier to discretely reassign a seat for an overly superstitious customer than to endure an irate malcontent bitching and moaning until the cows come home. Then again, poker players love to complain about everything. If you’re sitting at a poker table for more than 20 minutes and you do not hear an unsolicited bad beat story or a grovel about a grave injustice in the poker world, chances are you’re sitting next to a mute.

I could never get anything going. I usually like to be the kamikaze at the table, but I got stuck at one where everyone was a loose cannon. By the time I finally got some momentum going, I busted roughly 65th out of 130. Dead smack in the middle. I knew I was dead money before I even took a seat at dreaded table 13, but now it was time to get my money back in the cash games.

When Wildo busted we headed down the road to the Isle, which has a spacious gaming floor with abundant natural light and high ceilings. Black Hawk casinos provide their customers with unique perks like free self-serve soft drinks and coffee at various filling stations throughout the casino. The poker room at the Isle went one step further by offering free craft beers and food to poker players.

“Free clam chowder!” exclaimed Wildo. “You’ll never get free soup like that in Vegas.”

Judging by the number of players ecstatically slurping down soup, I picked the best night in weeks to show up. They had a fresh batch of clam chowder. Some of the locals skip dinner and show up just in time for a free meal while trying to hit the bad beat jackpot. Competition in the gaming world is fierce, especially in Black Hawk, so poker rooms have been using every trick in the marketing playbook to lure in new players and create a batch of loyal regulars.

I almost forgot that Colorado cash games had a $100 cap on raises. The average low-stakes cash game had a slightly different strategy with a pot-limit vibe during pre-flop action, but then again it was not uncommon to see players insta-raise in $100 increments post-flop. On looser tables with gigantic stacks, your run of the mill $1-$2 NL game almost played like a $100/$100 limit Hold’em game.

The influx of green gold (aka legal marijuana) boosted tourism and generated an overnight wave of local entrepreneurs and growers with disposable income. Any boost in the economy is great news for casino bean counters. And in the poker world, starving sharks love a steady flow of fresh fish. I don’t know about you, but with the exception of bacon, nothing makes me salivate more than seeing noobs with deep pockets sit down at my table.

Unfortunately, I was seated at a table populated by old timers and retired nits. They were not going to pay me off no matter how loose I played or how badly I tilted them. The $100 max-raise benefited the uber-fish more than anything else because it minimized how much they could lose. I’d have to grind it out playing small-ball with the old guys, but I was really waiting to pick off one of the weed-entrepreneurs. These are not your typical California stoner brahs. These are European banker types with nubile courtesans slyly introduced as their “niece.” Even the previously-snoozing old guys took note of Mr. Fancy Pants and his Pricey Hooker with the Unicorn Tattoo. He became an instant target for everyone in the poker room.

Alas, I never got a chance to get free money from the guy with big watch and top-heavy lady friend. Wildo stacked him a couple of times. He was not even at the table for a full hour before he dusted off several rebuys and quickly left.

Instead, I amassed a stack utilizing one of my favorite strategies: tilting the locals. I felted two of them. The first was one of those ornery dilettantes with tacky jewelry that spends her entire session chasing baby flushes and berating anyone that sucks out on her. I quickly got on her shit list. She flopped two pair but slow-played and gave me a free card. I had flopped a gutshot and turned a flush draw. I even raised her on the turn, but she only called. When she bet out on the river (she assumed correctly that I missed a flush, but overlooked the obvious paint on the board), I min-raised her hoping it would incite a raising war, which it did. When I raised the max to put her all in, she flashed me the evil eye and was already bemoaning the bad beat before she tossed chips into the pot.

Ornery lady was livid and tilting harder than Matusow on a meth binge. She raised my big blind and indicated she would do it the rest of the evening as a punishment. I insta-folded because non-confrontation would infuriate her more than if I played back at her. Over the next few orbits, I walked away from the table just before my big blind so she couldn’t exact revenge.

I felt sorry for my other victim, a gregarious guy with an oxygen tank that looked like one of the dudes from ZZ Top. I flopped a boat and he flopped trips. Ornery lady was chasing a flush draw that never materialized. I sandbagged my boat and he walked right into that ambush. He never recovered mentally from that one and proceeded to dust off two buy-ins over the next orbit.

Enter the drunk guy.

Some pros like Phil Hellmuth love verbal jousting. They use psychology to manipulate their opponents in order to take their game to an entirely different level. But that night at Black Hawk, we encountered a top-shelf D-bag who purposely acted like a jerkoff and tried to get into a fight with every player at the table, every dealer, even the floor guy. The only one he didn’t insult was the waiter, and that’s because he was plowing him with double whiskey and sodas.

Drunk guy was the worst kind of troublemaker because he really thought he could pull off a poker brat type of persona. Yet in reality, he justified that strategic ploy as an excuse to be a belligerent asshole.

I’ve been playing poker in casinos for almost 20 years and I’ve only seen one person get asked to leave the room and that’s because he got into a fistfight with another player at the Excalibur poker room in Las Vegas. But now I can add a second person to that list.

Wildo is the size of an NFL linebacker. He’s an oilman and used to working onsite at some of the most rugged facilities in Colorado and the Dakotas. All it took was one evil glance from Wildo that suggested, “You really don’t want to go there, drunk guy, because I can snap you in two with my pinky finger.”

Once this the whiskey tango D-Bag realized he could not get a rise out of Wildo, he did what all bullies do and went after the weakest links at the table: the ornery lady and guy who was vertically challenged.

The initial incident occurred in a hand between D-Bag and the short guy. The whiskey-drenched D-bag jumped out of his seat and screamed, “What the hell, Webster? What do you got?”

“What’s your problem? Why are you trying to embarrass me?” said the player.

He did not care for the Webster crack. It was an obscure pop culture reference about a 1980s sitcom called “Webster,” about a very small kid who was adopted by his parents’ best friends.

When dealing with asshats, you need to have a thick skin. The best way to beat a troll is to not respond and simply ignore them. Trolls are seeking validation and attention, so if you do not give them the time of day, they will get even more irritated or eventually move on to someone who will respond.

D-bag had a classic tell. The more he talked, the worse of a hand he had. When he was quiet, he was sitting on something strong. I was waiting to spring a trap on him. I took a smallish pot off him, but it was too bad he got 86’d before I could stack him. He pissed off the dealer one too many times and he had tested the patience of management.

The floor manager walked over with an empty rack, dropped it on the table, and said, “It’s time for you to go.”

Like a little whiny bitch he tried to blame everyone else at the table. But the final decision was clear — rack up your chips and leave peacefully, otherwise you have to deal with the Man and his thugs in the back room.

“See ya later, Webster! The J.V. is out back.”

“I like to talk shit. That’s 80 percent of game! 80 percent is shit talking!” he kept trying to explain to the floor guy that was not buying this clown story.

“Very well then. Take your 80 percent elsewhere,” said the floor guy.

“See ya later, Webster!” said the entire table as they waved goodbye to the guy being escorted out of the room.

October 2014