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Poker Butterflies

by Nathan Gamble |  Published: Feb 24, 2021


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Thankfully the statute of limitations is up for most of my childhood shenanigans, but the possibility still remains that one day I will simply stop writing because someone cared enough to notify the authorities of my upbringing. My parents, mom specifically, still cringe at the revelation that they allowed me to play poker at such an early age, but they are thankful that I’ve at least managed to turn it into a career while avoiding most of the pitfalls that come with professional gambling.

I don’t know where we heard about the game. Finding a poker game is all about ‘knowing a guy,’ after all, but I do remember the environment vividly. I was a teenager, 15 or 16, and went with my dad to an apartment complex that was about 20 yards away from a local high school and only 100 yards from a police station.

As we approached the door, my heart started beating rapidly, butterflies akin to a first romance. In many ways it was exactly like early love. Will they like me? Will they accept me? Will they let me play? The questions you ask yourself about a high school crush are the same questions that hit you as you walk up to an underground poker game for the first time.

As my dad knocked on the green door with weathered, peeling paint, my nerves had me compulsively flipping through the few hundred dollars I had balled up in my pocket. As soon as the door opened and we were ushered in, I caught my first whiff of 72-degree, smoke-filled air. It was putrid but calming.

Most of the guys were outside on the balcony sharing in some Bud Lights and cigarettes, a classic pre-game tradition for this group, and many others. After a brief introduction to a handful of players, the host started up three tables of no-limit hold’em, two of which were $1-$2 with one big game of $2-$5 set up in the corner.

Looking back, it seems laughable now. These weren’t deep-stacked games and the most anyone would win or lose in a night was a few hundred dollars, but it was the biggest I had ever played in a live setting; perhaps ever up until that point.

While I got a lot of strange looks because of my age, something which I had grown accustomed to, I did also have three years of small-stakes experience under my belt, which was more than enough to clean up in this game. Their grumbling quickly shifted from jokes about my appearance to grumbling about the money they were losing.

The cards kept tumbling off the deck, the beers kept flowing, and I kept growing my stack. As the night progressed, we talked with a handful of the men around the table and they actually confided that this particular home game setup wasn’t to their liking, and that in a week’s time they would be opening the doors on their own underground game, even closer to where we lived. I was up a few hundred dollars and had even scored an invite to another game. All of the signal lights were green and my foot was firmly on the gas!

As I walked to the car with my dad that evening, we counted our winnings and smiled about the events of the night. It had been profitable for both of us. The setting wasn’t at all shady, and we were comfortable with the group of guys. Without any words being exchanged, we both knew that it was a no-brainer to check out the new location.

The following week went much like the first. It was the same group of guys, the same beer and cigarette routine outside, and the same three tables… just a different location. The irony was they had moved the location about 10 minutes away, yet it was in the backyard of another police precinct, perhaps even closer than the original!

The irony was not lost on me as a young man, getting out there and earning my stripes in the world by gaining the respect of a handful of unknown men in an illegal underground casino, all while conducting my business within arm’s reach of the law. It gave me a sense of confidence that bordered on arrogance as I felt like I was almost untouchable by the normal constraints of society. (Thankfully that bravado was never met by the downfall of anything more than a few collapsed relationships, but it sticks with me to this day when I find myself in an environment that would make most other people uncomfortable.)

The cast of characters which made up the weekly game were very interesting. We had the dumpy guy who had a race track addiction that he had to fly to Florida to satisfy; the British man who was almost like a teddy bear, but could fly off the handles with one too many pints; the host who lived up to his name and was a real “Richard;” and even the dealer who was an Indian man that had perhaps the fastest mind of anyone I’ve ever met.

The dealer was once overpaid on $400 in chips at a local casino, collecting an additional $500. The next time he went in, he only played for a few minutes before security approached and told him he was facing a ban until he returned the money. He left, and the next week when they approached him again, he simply produced his identical twin brother’s ID. His brother didn’t play poker, and he knew that they couldn’t ban his brother simply for looking the same. It worked and, as far as I know, he never had to return the money.

Thankfully there were poker players, especially those from Texas such as Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim, that paved the way towards cleaning the crooked games where you were just as likely to get held up as you were to win. Despite playing in numerous ‘illegal’ card games over the years, I never encountered any known cheating, was never robbed, and was never hustled… too much. In my experience, the games were mostly just groups of players that wanted to laugh, show off, and learn the game of poker together. While online poker is profitable, and live games in casinos are legally protected and more comfortable, I sometimes find myself still yearning for the simple days of a self-dealt home game in some shady apartment, and the butterflies which come with it. ♠

Nathan Gamble is a native of Texas where he learned to play hold’em from his father. He is a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, having won the 2017 WSOP $1,500 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event, and 2020 WSOP Online $600 PLO eight-or-better event. He is a fixture of the mix game community and can often be found playing $80-$160 mix games at the Wynn. Gamble is active on Twitter under the username ‘Surfbum4life.’ He is also lead commentator for the Galfond Challenge which he streams along with mixed-game content on his Twitch channel. You can listen to his poker origin story on Card Player’s Poker Stories Podcast.