On the road … West L.A. Murderers’ Row

Nothing is better than friends

Lance Bradley

“That dude from ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ lives across the street,” said our host, Shane.

“No way,” I said. “We should invite him to the game. If he’s good, then it’s a great spot for him because we’re a bunch of dead-money donks. If 90210 is atrocious and a degen, then it’s an awesome spot for us because we get to rake in some sick 90210 residuals. I’d love some Aaron Spelling bucks to pay my rent, but it’s never gonna happen by selling spec scripts for a ‘Saved by the Bell’ reboot. So inviting your neighbor to join us for some 5-card PLO is the closest I can get to fleecing a former child actors out of their royalties.”

I have been without a steady home game ever since I departed foggy San Francisco and moved back to smoggy Los Angeles. It’s more difficult than you think to get a group of a dozen or so thirtysomethings together to play poker on a regular basis. The vast urban sprawl and omnipresent road congestion is an extreme hindrance when arranging a get together with friends. I’d host a home game ourselves if the apartment I share with my girlfriend, Nicky, was not limited by space and lack of parking. If you’re a denizen of Los Angeles, then you know how “no parking” is a deal breaker.

Fortunately, Shane is amazing at wrangling people together. He was jonesin’ for a night of poker in his new house and he put out the call to mutual friends. He wanted to reprise a legendary game that was nicknamed Murderers’ Row.

Was I interested? Snap-call.

What the hell is Murderers’ Row?

During the height of the online poker boom in 2004-06, my friend HDouble hosted a weekly home game in his West L.A. apartment. The game was dubbed “Murderers’ Row” by Chris Hanel, a video game programmer who incurred more bad beats in the game than everyone else combined. The regulars were so strong that the level of talent resembled the 1927 New York Yankees (anchored by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth), a remarkable feat considering that everyone held day jobs and no one played poker full time.

No matter how well you played at Murderers’ Row, you were still not guaranteed to leave without getting your junked kicked so far up into your esophagus, that you needed emergency colon surgery at Cedars Sinai to pluck your swollen testicles out of your digestive track.

HDouble was an exquisite host and cushioned the blows early on with free booze and free pizza before the tournament started. He squeezed two poker tables into his tiny apartment, and when one table broke, a cash game popped up on the other.

Murderers’ Row was filled with some of the best minds I had ever met in poker including an eclectic collection of astute programmers, talented writers, thespians, an art history PhD, and a few film and TV executives. After all, the game was hosted in a showbiz town. Even though no one was a pro per se, they still killed it at the tables whether it was online or at the super-loose local cardrooms like the Bike or Commerce.

The game was truly a minefield because one misstep could cost you a limb. At any moment, you could be ambushed by a tight-aggressive chameleon or a shitfaced maniac. The more everyone drank, the crazier the game got. Although everyone had been playing with each other every week for over a year, it was impossible to get a read on each other. You constantly played the guessing game and had to switch gears on every hand in order to survive. If you weren’t careful, a night at Murderers’ Row could be a disastrous bankroll buster if you fell off the deep end.

“Since the game as a whole is essentially uncrackable, I look to show up every time as tabula rasa,” explained Ryan, a sitcom writer and Murderers’ Row veteran who shipped an event at the 2006 L.A. Poker Classic. “I measure victories by inches while losses come by the foot. If I’m not on megatilt by the end of the tourney it’s a pretty good night.”

The evenings were always highlighted by a Scandi ghost. The host’s wife talked to her dead grandfather, in Swedish of course, and asked him for assistance with her hands. The “one player per hand rule” was waved for ghosts and other supernatural apparitions. She played any two cards and often waited until the river to consult her deceased grandfather. Her antics could set you on tilt for weeks.

I played in the game a couple of times in 2005 and 2006. Even though I was living in Las Vegas at the time, I made the sojourn through bat country and drove from Vegas to West L.A., just to sit down at a table and witness the Murderers’ Row hijinks for myself. Yeah, I was that hard-up for a juicy game that I was willing to travel four-plus hours to play it.

The first night I ever played was a special evening that I’ll never forget because it’s also the same night I met my girlfriend for the first time. At the time, she was an executive at a Hollywood production company. Not only did I bust out of the tournament when my Aces were cracked, but she was the one who busted me. She flopped a set with pocket fives. A five was the door card.

I know I told you a bad beat story, but this one has a happy ending. That night was almost nine years ago. We began dating a couple months afterward, and we have been together ever since. It’s not every day you get Aces cracked by a beautiful woman, but if I was the type of stubborn person who held grudges then I might not have wanted to get to know her better. I mean, some ultra-sensitive people take poker personally. Very personally. If you put a beat on them, then you make a sworn enemy for life. Lucky for both of us, I’m not one of those people. My girlfriend and I often get asked how we originally met, but that’s the only poker bad beat story that I will voluntarily tell.

Flash-forward to a couple of weeks ago. Shane was persistent to bring back Murderers’ Row. When you’re in your teens and early 20s, you did everything with your friends. However, as you grow into your 30s and 40s, it gets harder and harder to spend large chunks of time with friends because life gets in the way. Whether it’s family, kids, wife, or work … something is always going on. For a home game to work out, you have to coordinate and juggle a dozen schedules to find an appropriate time to get together. As soon as we all agreed upon a date, I circled my calendar. I did not want to miss the reboot of Murderers’ Row.

Once the original game broke up, the regulars scattered all over. A couple of them moved to Ireland to work at Full Tilt. Another moved to Thailand. A few others migrated to San Francisco or Las Vegas. A few of the regulars recently moved back to SoCal, so we finally had enough players to get the game going once again.

None of us play poker as much as we used to. I mean, back then, we were all hardcore poker enthusiasts. Borderline junkies. Obsessive compulsive. Both live and online. We all breathed poker 24/7. Most of us played every waking hour we had free. But that was almost a decade ago. People change. Priorities change. Hobbies evolve and disappear. The UIGEA and Black Friday happened. But despite the fact we were all rusty, we all still had a passion for the game. As the night progressed, I realized the return of Murderers’ Row was not really about poker. Rather, it was always about people.

Poker has come full circle for me. One of the things that attracted me to poker in the first place was the camaraderie aspect. Very few things in life can beat sitting around a table, shooting the breeze, and taking intoxicants with friends. But I was also sucked into the online poker world, which was fun in its own way because how can you be bummed out when you have an easy way to print money whenever you want to play? The biggest downside to online poker is the solitude and the loneliness of clicking away in the dark. While diving down the online poker rabbit hole for several years, I missed socializing in a live poker setting. Online poker was a lucrative venture considering you never had to get off your couch and multi-tabling is still the best way to maximize your gambling time. Yet, the online realm can never match the visceral, real-life experience of live poker. The softness of the felt. The annoying, yet soothing clatter of chips. The table banter. The anticipation that builds while you wait for your second card to be dealt, which happens at a far slower pace than with an instantaneous online dealer.

People make a huge difference. It really takes one rotten apple to ruin a fantastic time, but people also have the infectious power transform a crappy experience and make it fun. I’ve always said, give me four friends that are cool, funny, engaging storytellers, and low maintenance to deal with … and I’ll do any arduous task with them from gutting fish in Alaska 12 hours a day, or being in a band and traveling in a cramped van for 10 weeks at a time.

That’s how I always felt about the regulars from Murderers’ Row. It really doesn’t matter who won and how much during the relaunch of Murderers’ Row (I busted fifth and my girlfriend ended up winning the tournament). The bottom line was that I forgot how much fun I used to have playing poker with friends. Poker brought us together initially and poker was the common bond that brought us all back.

November 2014