I drove nine hours from San Francisco to downtown Las Vegas, to the Plaza Hotel, one block from the Horseshoe. I went straight to my room without any supper and unpacked 12 t-shirts, 12 boxers, 24 socks, and five thousand dollars, planning to stay in town until I ran out of cash or clean underwear.
I uncased my guitar and leaned it in the corner. I put my laptop on the table and plugged it in. I collapsed face up on the bed, road weary yet restless, talking silently to myself about the near future:
I will take a nap, then maybe go play some pot-limit.
Who are you kidding? You know you can’t sleep now. You just got here!
This year is going to be different. I am going to get some rest first before I play any poker. Good night.
Okay. Whatever you say. Good night.
::: one minute later :::
You still there?
They still got that Starbucks inside Golden Nugget?
I think I’ll go get some coffee and maybe see what the action is like at The Shoe. You coming?
I thought you’d never ask. Let’s go!
Quadruple espresso latte in hand, I walked into the poker region at the Horseshoe: two sprawling expanses of poker tables on two floors, with tournaments and super-satellites upstairs, and the live action games and other satellites downstairs. Minutes later I was in a $5-10 blinds pot-limit hold’em game.
Several of the most famous faces in poker were at the table next to mine, so I watched for a moment. Best I could tell, they were playing triple-draw low-ball. I could not figure out the stakes because the chips were not red, or green, or black. They were bigger.
Hours later I was tired, hungry, and stuck. Mostly hungry. The last thing I had eaten was a burger back in Barstow, 10 hours and 200 miles ago. I was not in California any more, where players stay at the table to eat and leave the room to smoke. At the Horseshoe, it was the other way around. And that was unacceptable right now because the pot-limit game was down to four players, my favorite number, and if I left the game to go eat, it might break. No big deal, normally. But this was not normally. This was first-night fever, and my temperature was still high.
A new dealer sat down and that meant it was time for a time-pot, to pay the house collection. Twenty dollars would come out of the first pot over $200 of called money. We asked the floorman for a discount, as was custom in shorthanded games at 4 a.m. He said, “Sorry guys, I have to have a collection. We’ll take $20 out of the first pot over $10,000.”
Meanwhile, there was hunger. The waitress stopped by. I glanced at her badge and turned on the schmooze. “Hi Nora. Is there any way you can please get me something to eat? I’ll tip five bucks.”
“Sorry hon,” she said. “I can’t. It’s the rules.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll have a coffee then. Make it half milk.”
Ten minutes later, an angel placed a napkin on the table next to my chips. On the napkin she sat a tall glass of warm brown liquid. Next to that, she sat a short glass, full of green olives.
“It’s the best I could come up with,” Nora said. “Unless you want some cherries too.”
I ate all of the olives, slowly, deliciously, feeling a metabolic restoration inside me, thinking of ancient empires, Popeye’s spinach, and Nora’s good sense.