Inside the World of Underground Poker

Texas Hold'em

By Cristian Santana

A few times a month, poker players from across the city gather to compete in a tournament in the basement of a small bar in Queens.

It is a tournament that under Article 225 of the New York Penal Code could be illegal. Players are not breaking the law but the hosts can if they are profiting from the games.

New Yorkers hoping to demonstrate their skills at Texas Hold’em poker must travel hours to legal casinos that hold tournaments or find an underground game in the city.

Surfing through online poker forms and sites I stumbled upon a blog focused on New York City poker games. I emailed the site administrator to be put on the email list and I got an invitation to a tournament.

A man that I will refer to as “Barry,” guided me into the game. He told me to come to Queens and that he would give me directions from there. After a breadcrumb style exchange of phone calls, I finally arrived at the location.

I walked past the bar patrons who were watching football and descended into the basement. About 50 people were sitting at the tables. Barry approached me and asked me for ID. I reached for it and was about to show him when he said, “Don’t worry about it.”

I bought into the tournament for $100. I drew a card and was assigned a table and seat number like any other casino, “Table five, seat seven.”

The demographics of the room were broad. In clock-wise order my table (which was fairly representative of the room) looked like this: a nervous white man constantly getting up from his seat to get food, a truck driver who spoke of his travels, a drunk 30-year-old white man, a heavy-set man who kept asking for the air conditioning to be turned up (even though everyone in the room had their coats on), an older Italian man with a tan so intense he either just got out of a tanning bed or came back from Florida, a Greek man who never spoke the entire game, and an Hispanic woman who kept talking to me about her husband.

The rest of the room was filled with rowdy and loudmouth men who argued about sports sprinkled with a few women. They could have been anyone — your bus driver, maybe your child’s teacher, or maybe even your landlord.

The tournament finally started. The game was Texas Hold’em poker, a game where players are given two face-down or hole cards and then must play with up to five community cards that are placed on the table by dealer. During each hand, players may bet, raise (bet higher than previous better), or fold (surrender their hand). At the end, he or she must present the best five-card combination in order to win the hand.

The tournament players seemed to know each other well, discussing strategies and outings. Barry sat down to play as the game was taken over by another man. He acted as a sort of referee to all the tables, which suited him well. The bulge under his shirt appeared to be pistol and the language he used made him seem like a law enforcement type.

I was eliminated less than half way through the game.

This was not my first underground poker experience. On an earlier night, I played in a Manhattan luxury high-rise. This time, a friend and I were greeted by a doorman. He directed us to the concierge desk since neither of us were residents.

My friend told the man at the desk where we were going, he smirked and directed us towards the elevator. Stepping out from the elevator, we encountered, a tight hallway with white doors leading to apartments. We rang the doorbell of an apartment. The door peephole had been cut out and turned into a camera.

A man stepped out of the apartment and ushered us into the doorway. He asked us to stand still and passed a metal detecting wand over us. He walked into a small room next to the door and put the wand back. He turned to us and said, “Okay you guys are good, go play.”

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