You’d need a bolt-cutter to get into the Mayfair Club now, where once all you needed was an introduction from a regular. It was a carpet joint, the last classed-up poker room in a city that used to be lousy with them. I got my introduction from a guy named Scott, who played in the high-stakes games when he was running good and night-managed when he wasn’t. I knew him from a friend, but when we met late one night on a nondescript East Side corner, and walked into an even-less-descript high-rise, I half-expected Eliot Ness to come screaming out of the darkness to arrest me for intent. He didn’t, so we continued through the lobby, down the stairs and past two security doors.
The place made sense to me the moment I walked in, like St. Patrick’s might to a different sort of man. Behind the desk was a girl who looked just like you’d hope she would, counting out green, red and black poker chips. She asked me what level I was playing, and before I finished answering she had the right amount broken down, stacked up and slid across the desk for me to take to my table of choice.
I played Texas Hold’em that night, but the only thing I was holding when I went home was my MetroCard. I had been cleaned out by men who knew how to fold early, bet strong and run the table like Rudy runs the city: with total authority. These were men with names like Joel Bagels, Freddy the Watch, Joe Angel, Johnny Handsome, Johnny Dark and Johnny Boy, who was neither a boy nor named Johnny. These were men who “knew people,” men you wouldn’t want to look at the wrong way, men who called the waitresses “dear.” Staring down these card sharps over a pair of eights or four to a flush, I felt like Jerry Quarry must have as he glanced across the ring at a young Muhammad Ali. I knew I was going to lose; I just hoped I wouldn’t get K.O.’d.
Still, I came out swinging, fighting to ignore the churning in my guts, the pulsing at my temples and the rivulets of cold sweat that were growing on my upper lip when I tried to hard-sell a bluff. Didn’t matter. They clocked me as an amateur and busted me out.
When you get broke at a card table-really gutted-here’s what happens: You sit there for a moment, grappling to find a graceful exit. You realize there isn’t one and push back from the table with your head down and the blood slowly starting to creep out of your face. You rise as some other guy slides around you and into what was, until moments ago, your seat. Then you start calculating: what kind of money you have left at home, what you could’ve done differently, what you’re going to have to do later to find a way to fall asleep.
It’s at this moment that most people walk away for good. They’ve taken their shot with the professionals and decided that they’ll stick to the occasional home game with their buddies from school, work, the old days. But as I watched my last chip being raked from the center of the table into someone else’s pile, I knew two things: I was out of my league, and I would be back tomorrow.
I came back, the next night and the night after that. I didn’t become a top player-that takes too much discipline and talent-but I made a good run at it. I won thousands and lost thousands more. I skipped work when I shouldn’t have and came home later than I had any right to. But I have a patient wife, and we survived it. My partner Levien and I even wrote a movie about the place, called Rounders , that came pretty close to capturing what it felt like to go all in with nines full against aces full of nines.
What no movie could capture, though, was the rhythm of a routine Sunday night at the Mayfair. There were usually eight games going, from 5-10 Hi-Lo stud, where you could win or lose $500, to the Top Game, 75-150 HOSE, where you stood to risk upwards of $5,000 a night rotating between Hold’em, Omaha Hi-Lo, Stud and Stud Hi-Lo.
The games began around 8 o’clock, and if you arrived early, you’d hang your jacket in the closet, tell the desk what game you were playing, and try to quiet the anticipation that you knew was showing on your face. While you were waiting, you might pick up a pool cue if you were handy with one, or grab the Post off one of the chairs to check the betting lines.
A waitress would approach and ask how you did the night before, even though she probably already knew the answer. “Up a few hundred,” you might say, or “They hurt me in here last night,” or “Same as always.” She’d smile, or nod in sympathy, and ask if you were planning on eating anything. As you watched her heading back to the kitchen, the front door would buzz open, allowing a few more players to enter the club. You’d take your chips, move over to your seat at the table, and forget to look up again until the rest of the city was deep into its morning-exercise routine.
Poker players will tell you that gamblers are suckers. What they mean to say is that, at poker-unlike blackjack, craps or any other casino game-you do not start out with house odds against you. In fact, at poker, you do not play against the house at all. The card room merely collects an hourly rent on the time you spend at the table. This rent is known as “the rake.” It is what distinguishes the poker club from the casino, and it is what kept the Mayfair in business for generations until that recent night when the battering ram led New York’s Finest through the door.
The Mayfair club is gone now. It’s gone the way of the topless joints and the squeegee men and the three-card-monte hustlers on West Broadway, and New York is none the better for it. But the thing about this town is, even Mayor Giuliani can’t outlast it. He will be gone soon enough, and soon enough the city will breathe. Space will be rented, and card tables will come out of the closets along with the card players.
In poker, there is a moment when all the betting is done and the cards are turned face up. It is called “the showdown.” No more talking, bluffing or angle shooting; the cards speak, and the winner is announced. For the denizens of the Mayfair club, it was when they were most alive, when they had put it all on the line, when they were either going to get cracked or paid off. And that’s the way I want to remember the place: at the end of a huge hand, the chips piled to the ceiling in the middle of the table, the cards about to be flipped over, all the players leaning in, even a few waitresses stopping for just a second to look. All of us caught up in it, underground, but somehow above the whole city, waiting to see who held the aces.