Scarfing down chicken wings, losing thousands in a night at the table, men—and the occasional woman—flock to the Big Apple’s illegal poker parlors. A former waitress reveals what goes down there.
They take place in apartments, tenement basements in the East Village, luxury high-rise condos on Lexington Avenue, and lofts in the Meatpacking District. You can go at almost any hour of the day. As long as you know the right name to give at the door and have the right amount to buy in, you’ll be able to find a game. The true players rarely leave the tables. They don’t have to—the beauty of these apartment poker clubs is that the kitchens function as fully stocked bars, and they have a “waitress” there to order in whatever else is needed.
That was my role.
The waitress is usually (but not always) the only woman present. She fetches beer, orders delivery, cleans up, and if she so chooses gives back massages for a dollar a minute. She gets tipped in poker chips, then trades them in for cash at the end of her “shift.”
About a year ago, I had just left my bartending job at a strip club and needed some fast cash. I had a friend who worked and played in these rooms, and he offered to hook me up with some work.
Thus I became a waitress in one of New York’s many underground (and illegal poker clubs (it is not illegal to play in these clubs, but it is against the law to run one or work there). I figured it couldn’t be any “rapier” than the strip club—a place where I thought I’d be safe since I was one of the only ones actually wearing clothes. Little did I know that strip club patrons subscribed to the Groucho Marx school of thought when it came to boobs: they didn’t care to be part of a club that would have them as members, so they wanted the boobs that were not available for purchase. The poker players couldn’t be any worse. I’d already dated one, anyway.
He was much older than me—in his 40s—and used to play in a room on 14th street that he was sure was rigged. He called me up griping that he had lost $1,000 to a player named Frank “The Trappa” Saulle, we later found out he was a pro player, and that never would have happened at the other club he went to in Park Slope. Looking back, that strikes me as highly unlikely since A) all rooms are “rigged,” as these are miniature casinos and the house always wins, and B) the players just like Frank The Trappa in Manhattan were probably just a lot better than the ones in baby-carriage Brooklyn. They probably had a lot less to lose, so they wouldn’t have the obvious “tells” of a husband and father who would be in deep trouble for gambling and losing his family’s money.
That old guy and I had long since parted ways the first time I walked into one of these poker rooms. It was nothing like I had pictured. The lights were overhead and fluorescent, the walls were bare save for flat-screen TVs playing a constant loop of ESPN’s SportsCenter, the furniture was sparse and cheap—minimal except for the large green poker table that took up nearly the entire room.
The players, too, were far from what I expected. As opposed to a bunch of Draper clones in bespoke suits, they were mostly middle aged, often overweight, and dressed in cargo shorts and flip flops. They even had paper towels tucked into their shirts so they could turn away intermittently from the game to quickly gorge on chicken wings or burritos before returning to the task at hand. The players who smoked stepped outside to the balcony out of politeness, but smoking can also be a tell, so I don’t think the room regulated the smoking. It was an undeniably masculine environment, yet almost entirely devoid of sexual energy.
The first room my friend took me to was on the lower end of the spectrum with just a $200 buy-in. The guys were a little younger, dressed in more street gear than suburban dad attire. This was probably the bottom tier of games in the city. The waitress there was a pretty Russian girl who also sold cigarettes, which she would periodically announce to remind the players. As we were leaving, one of the guys yelled, “I’ll give you 200 dollars to leave your sexy friend here.” And that was the most any of them had acknowledged me. (Note that he offered my friend $200 for me, but did not offer me the $200 directly. Wonder what that says about women being objectified and commodified as props).
The second club was nicer, a converted two-bedroom apartment in a luxury high rise. On the way over he informed me that it was poor etiquette to ever mention another one of these rooms. At the second room, if anyone asked us where we’d been previously, our answer was, “You know, around…” He told me that they had spotters on the streets, who had already informed the higher-ups of where we were coming from, our appearance, and our arrival. This part at least seemed exciting. I hoped we would get to use a password like “fishwife” or “bouillabaisse,” but we just had to announce ourselves and who had invited us at the door.
Upon entry to the second club, I could see it was a much more moneyed operation, though with the same fluorescent lighting and casual attire. They had two rooms with poker tables so multiple games could go on at once, and more flat screens. To my delight, one room was entirely empty minus an ATM machine. I wondered if it charged an eight-dollar fee like the strip club.
This was the one where I would work.
Once I got hired, my friend told me not to wear what I would normally wear to bartend—in other words, tone down the cleavage. Other rooms required girls to wear lingerie or bikinis, but this room had a lot of serious players who didn’t want any distractions. It was the opposite of the strip club.
My job consisted mostly of sitting quietly and watching them play Texas Hold ‘Em poker—a game that I didn’t understand. Occasionally one of them would ask me to fetch him a beer and tip me in poker chips. I was basically to be a quiet, subservient Rent-a-Housewife.
I was amassing a rather large pile when one of the dealers took a break and sat down beside me. I imagined myself becoming a card shark, but the dealer quickly discouraged me. He explained that the players I had thought were doing well actually were losing big and that most of those chips weren’t won but had been purchased at the buy-in. He told me who was a hired gun—a player with skills who was brought into spice up the game, and he pointed out a “Whale”—a guy who continually loses a lot of money but can’t seem to stop himself. This particular “Whale” was a large, slovenly Asian guy. I realized he’d been at the first room I had visited. Apparently when he showed up at a game, the word got out around town very quickly that a lot of money was about to be put on the table and lost. So other players showed up hoping to profit off his failures. Rumor has it he had blown through his sizable inheritance in about six weeks.
I ran into a former boss of mine from a nightclub I had bartended in. I had never seen him out of a suit before and used to be terrified of him, but here he was with sour cream on his t-shirt slinking out after losing thousands of dollars on a Sunday afternoon.
The dealer also explained to me that the players’ positioning at the poker table was very indicative of their skills and status. The player sitting directly next to the dealer on the right side was responsible for the lead off. He was a skilled player who was effectively an employee of the house and raised the stakes in order to keep the other players in the game … but they didn’t know that.
Then the dealer said, “Do you give back massages? Most of the girls do. It’s a dollar a minute.” With some trepidation I agreed, and he brought me back to the room with the second poker table, which at the time was serving as a break room. I mentally ran through all the scenarios of what I would do if shit got rape-y, eyeing my different escape routes. My forethought was uncalled for. My “client” just had really tight shoulder muscles.
I had taken a shiatsu class my freshman year in college (I guess I did learn something useful at NYU) and put my skills to work. After about 20 minutes, he announced to the room that I had the greatest massage skills of any poker waitress to date. A star was born. I was booked solid for the rest of the evening in 15 and 20-minute increments. My hands started to hurt, but I was surprised how few lascivious remarks were directed my way during all of this. The conversation at the table consisted of three things: 1) Poker, 2) Sports, and 3) Steak, particularly the best steakhouses in the city and who specialized in each cut of meat.
I was the only girl in the room and they could not have cared less. I think they really only have waitresses as a prop, or symbol, to lessen the homoerotic undertones of this male bonding ritual.
They could also show no emotion, no celebrations of victory, no pangs of disappointment. After one young player left, another sent me to go get him a sandwich at Quiznos (health and an active lifestyle are not high priorities in these rooms). The first guy had left quietly but seemingly in good spirits, but in the street I saw him on the phone crying to his significant other that he had just lost $3,000.
Over the course of a “business day,” which would start in the afternoon and sometimes not end until 7 a.m., about $200,000 would exchange hands in this room with the house always taking home at least $25,000.
Female dealers were also very highly paid and sought after within the community, but rarely the recipients of much attention. A friend of mine was one of these highly paid female dealers. She could make about $6,000 working one tournament. She told me a lot of rooms were getting busted (this was fairly soon after one was shut down where Yankees star Alex Rodriguez had been playing) and as the waitress, I was considered an employee and thus a co-conspirator, and could receive considerable jail time. This was another verboten topic within the rooms. No one openly acknowledged that what was going on was highly illegal. I realized that this is why they made me answer the door—it bought them time and made me appear to be the one in charge. Most of the busts took place on the weekends, where the most money was exchanged.
I only lasted a few weeks in the poker rooms. Then I decided I preferred my criminal activity on my television set and quit poker waitressing to go home and watch The Sopranos.
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