The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect a couple guys who work in magazines.
Billy left his office to meet Steve around 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2. The two friends had traded e-mails: Steve was going to this new underground poker club, City Limit, because the old club on Third Avenue had shut down. It was the same guys who owned that club, which had been called Straddle. This new one had been open for only about a week. Billy agreed to meet Steve there.
He printed out an e-mail that Steve had forwarded him, which would grant him access. When he arrived in the lobby, he was confronted by a huge dude in a blazer. He began rifling through his bag to show him the e-mail, but the man waved him on.
The elevator let him off on the seventh floor, where another big dude awaited, a Latino with close-cropped hair. He looked like an off-duty cop. Most poker clubs in the city have two doors: You get buzzed into a little chamber, somebody looks you over through a video monitor, and then you get buzzed through a second door. In this place there was only the one door.
Billy showed the e-mail and was granted entry.
There were 10 tables in the long, narrow club; about 75 people total. The chips were distributed at the front; Billy bought in for $150.
The club was new; you could sort of smell the paint. The walls were beige with white trim. Billy thought it looked pretty classy. There was a kitchenette staffed by a Latina bombshell waitress. There were flat-screen TV’s on the walls showing a football game. Billy saw Steve at a table toward the back. Billy sat down and said a brief hello to Steve. On his first hand, Billy drew pocket eights and an eight hit on the flop. But there weren’t enough people in the hand to make any real money. He made about $100.
The guy sitting next to him was a sharp-dressed Indian guy; He seemed like a somebody. Across the table there was a jackass stock broker type in a bespoke shirt. He was being a bully, as a good poker player having a bad run will often do.
The stockbroker lost a big hand to the natty Indian. He said to him, “Dude, you make like 10 times more than me in real life.”
Billy and Steve ordered Chinese food and the waitress set them up with little eating stands.
There was another crazy hand where the stockbroker had a flush but another guy pulled a full house. The stockbroker fussed and fumed.
Another guy at the table looked like a retired cop—shoe-brush mustache, white hair. Billy had watched him get set up at the chips desk, and he had been like, “Yeah, so-and-so says I got an account here. I’m good.” And they just handed him $500 in chips. He was reading the Arts section of The Times. A headline confused him: “Looks It Not Like the King?” He looked over toward Billy and said, “Is this grammatically incorrect or what?”
Billy explained that it was a reference to Shakespeare.
Then this old guy, probably in his 80’s, sat down. Steve whispered to Billy that this guy was the worst; the whole game was going to slow to a fucking standstill. He was clearly a retired guy and poker was kind of like his thing. Not a charming old guy, but an annoying old guy, who doesn’t know what’s going on, so the dealer has to reannounce every raise to him and he always stays in for five bucks.
The Indian guy left and a black guy who Billy and Steve had played with before took his place. He was some sort of Euro black guy; looked a little like Seal. But he’s a total dick. Before Seal even had chips on the table, he slapped a hundred bucks down and said, “I’m all-in,” before he even knew what the fuck his cards were.
Billy was sitting on an ace-jack. When Seal inevitably raised, Billy called and added $25 to the pot. Seal went all in on him and Billy folded: He didn’t stay here for three fucking hours to lose his money to this guy.
After the hand Billy asked Seal what he had. Seal said, “I had nothing,” and laughed. Total dick move.
Billy rebought for $50, so he could have a decent stack. Two hands later, he was head-to-head with Seal again. Seal went all in again. This time Billy called, doubled up on him and destroyed him with pocket tens. Billy and Steve and Seal got into a big hand. The dealer was a skinny Asian guy. Billy and Steve wanted to slow-play their hands: Billy was sitting on ace-king diamonds, and Steve had kings. They both figured Seal didn’t have squat.
Just then there was a loud scuffle at the front, followed by an odd silence in the room. Billy turned and saw a ski mask. He turned to Steve: “Dude, get under the table.”
There were men in ski masks yelling, “Get the fuck down! Where the fuck is the rest of it?!”
One of them had a duffle bag, another a large pistol, a third carried a sawed-off shotgun. Billy saw one of them go up to the guy behind the desk and knock the guy down.
All the men who had been playing at Billy’s table were now huddled under the table.
The man with the shotgun walked toward the back of the room; Billy could see his shoes. The gun was black, polished.
“Everyone get on the fucking floor. Empty your pockets!”
“Number Two, Number Two, where are you?!”
One of the men hurled a chair. It knocked a Coke onto the floor. Billy felt the Coke seeping through his jeans.
Under the table, the old man was shaking. Seal was silent. Steve was lying on his back, and Billy was lying on his stomach with his head resting on Steve’s stomach. Before diving under the table Billy had grabbed his bag. He’d thought, “Fuck, I don’t want to get robbed.” He was scared but he didn’t think anyone was going to get killed.
Steve whispered, “Dude, I have a fucking thousand dollars in my wallet.” The next day he was planning to go on a trip with his wife. He removed the cash from his wallet and shoved it in his Manhattan Portage bag. Billy decided to sneak his wallet into his bag, so that he wouldn’t have to deal with having to renew his license.
A gunshot went off. A huge sound. Then silence.
Billy heard whispering, then a crash, then footsteps. Billy thought, “What the fuck am I doing here?!” He could feel Steve’s stomach going up and down really fast. Steve whispered that he was worried that the gunmen would discover the hidden cash in his bag and kill him.
Billy heard the men shuffle down a staircase at the back.
Everyone started to get up.
The old guy said, “I’ll still play. Are we still going to play?”
“Let’s play this hand out,” Seal said, resuming his seat. Billy asked the dealer what the deal was with the chips; the dealer said not to worry about the chips right now. Billy and Steve—who had a huge stack, probably around $1,400—decided to put their chips in their bags. Maybe the next club would honor them? They had heard about that kind of thing happening before, when other clubs had been robbed.
The lights were raised bright. Someone said, “Is there a doctor in the house?!” Everyone looked over; a man was lying flat on the floor. Later Billy would learn that the man’s name was Frank DeSena, a 55-year-old former math professor from New Jersey and a married father.
A bouncer—a wiry young Latino—entered the room. Blood was streaming from his ear. He shouted for everyone to stop gawking and leave through the staircase in the back. Before the cops arrive, the bouncers kept advising.
Everyone filed down. Someone mused, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they fuckin’ staged that shit.”
Billy and Steve walked across the street. They joined a conversation that was going on among some players. There was a guy in a yellow slicker who had been under a table with Mr. DeSena. He said that the man with the shotgun had been shaking, and the shotgun had slipped and dropped to the floor. When the gunman rushed to pick up the shotgun, it went off, and hit Mr. DeSena.
They waited: It took 20 minutes for the ambulance. Two of the club’s female waitresses were sobbing. People kept saying what a nice guy Mr. DeSena was. He would be taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital where he would be pronounced dead shortly before midnight
A detective approached Billy and asked if he had been in the building. Billy shook his head, slinked off and grabbed Steve. They decided they needed a drink.
They found a place. Steve ordered a vodka martini, Billy a beer. Steve decided he could no longer go to poker clubs. He said he wasn’t that scared, until the gun went off. They agreed that in some ways the gun having gone off was lucky for the rest of the players, because it was clear that the gunmen had had the intention of robbing and a possibly roughing up everyone in the place. They wondered if Mr. DeSena would live.
That night when Billy got home, his girlfriend gave him a hard time about going to the poker club and mentioned he had neglected to do some chore.
He had a hard time getting to sleep.