Otis and the slot hoki Bicycle Bears

A city boy, accustomed the shine and noise of his urban landscape, would probably feel a little off-balance crossing the county line on Highway 124. It’s a dark place, void of streetlamps, often void of cars all together. The road winds its way along the Saluda River, skirting a local slot hoki -lite speedway, all of it promising it will eventually dump you somewhere in the middle of civilization. But anyone who has seen “Deliverance” and knows it was filmed about an hour and half from here knows that civilization is never quite close enough for the city-minded.
Then again, as I took the S-curves as quickly as I could in a big SUV, massaging the radio buttons, listening for something hard-driving and full of menace, I knew this for a fact: I’m a country boy a heart.
And I’m on my way to a poker game, which makes this drive even better.
***
At first, I thought I was going to be late. Start time was 8pm and I had forgotten if my shortcut through the county backroads actually worked. Whether my eagerness fueled the drive or my shortcut was actually effective, I made it on time–early even–and pulled into a dark parking lot. Cars lined the buildings and a fairly large crowd of people stood in small groups, talking quietly, smoking cigarettes, sizing each other up through the milky light of a nearby convenience store.
I found a parking spot in a dark corner of the parking lot and parked Emilio. Something was wrong with my nervous system. It had regressed back to the first times I played live cards. My leg was bouncing, my fingers were tapping, and I had a pleasant tightness in my chest. I remembered this feeling. Women do this to me. The first breath of casino air does this to me. It’s fear wrapped in sex, wrapped in risk.
I walked through the darkness to an open door in the back of the building. At first I was taken aback by a lone ugly table in the entryway. This is what I showed up for? I’d heard this was supposed to be a nice rom.
There was a line snaking out the door. I took a spot in it and craned my neck to try to see the host. He was sitting at the head of the line, marking names off the reservation list, taking cash as he went.
Eventually, the line led me into the main room, where I was pleased to see five beautiful, 10-seat tables, fantastically appointed, and beckoning me to sit down.
I made my way to the front of the line, pulled out my $80, and gave my name.
The host looked at me from his seat. “Otis? You were referred by BadBlood, right?”
“That’s right,” I said, spotting BadBlood across the room talking to Teddy Ballgame.
In a few short seconds, my money disappeared from my hand into some unseen recepticle.
“Thanks, Otis. We’ll start in just a few minutes.”
***
Fifty people signed up for the $75+$5 NLHE tournament. Forty-nine showed up. I drew Table 2, Seat 10. I sensed there might be an organizational problem when a discussion began about which seat was which. I sat down in the ten-seat and waited for someone to figure it out. There were some obviously casino veterans there, so I had a hard time believing when the table agreed to seat itself counter-clockwise. I thought for a moment about protesting, but I didn’t want to walk straight into an unknown game and start playing table captain. So, I took the one-seat, which isn’t the ten-seat, but apparently plays one on TV.
After a tiresome discussion about chip values, the host stood near the front of the room and addressed the players.
“Alright, if the cops show up, keep playing. There’s no money this room. You’re playing for points and pride.”
From across the room, sosmeone asked, “So, what’s our rally point if we have to bug out?”
Obviously, whoever it was didn’t understand we wouldn’t be “bugging out.” I think he just wanted to say “rally point.”
As the preliminaries continued, I sized up my table. It was a good mix: a couple young kids, the requisite talker, a couple of guys in their mid-40’s (one of whom had driven almost four hours from the coast), a lady, the ubquitous Big Man, and a thirty-something goateed guy.
Several of them seemed like solid players and I wanted to play as best I could. I vowed to either raise or fold for the first two levels. No limping.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t be a hard vow to keep.