A couple of days ago I played a poker tournament in Connecticut’s newest poker venue, the Mohegan Sun Casino. “Newest” is actually a misnomer since Mohegan Sun is neither new to poker nor to me. When I walked into Mo’ Sun’s still-familiar confines, a funny thing happened. I felt some pangs of unexpected nostalgia.
To enter the poker tournament, I needed a Mohegan player’s club card. Mohegan Sun is now much larger than I remembered it, so it took me some time to locate the player’s club booth. I eventually found it, and as the attendant handed me a shiny new card I asked him, out of curiosity: “could you tell me the last time I gambled here?” He poked around on his computer and had an answer for me within a few seconds. He smiled wide and said “2003! It’s been awhile, Mr. Zeitlin. Welcome back.”
Indeed. Mohegan Sun is a relic from another time in my life.
If, like me, you were fortunate enough to graduate from an Ivy League law school in 1998, you were in a good spot. The economic climate was very different from the gloom of today’s financial marketplace. In fact, I’d say the conditions were completely the opposite. In 1998, if you could provide your prospective employer with proof of moderate scholastic competence at University of Pennsylvania Law School and accompany that with the slightest glimmer of ambition, you were rewarded with a six-figure job at a big law firm. And that is exactly what I was given, along with all of my law school friends.
One might think that handing over $100,000 to a 24-year old whose only significant accomplishment is completing law school would make that person humble and appreciative, but you’d be wrong. In actuality (circa 1998 at least), the average first-year associate at a big NYC firm quickly cultivated a remarkable sense of entitlement, matched only by the bullishness of the prevailing legal job market. Unbelievably, I received no fewer than three market-based pay raises in my first year out. Each time, the sequence of events was the same: One major firm would announce an increase in their pay scale. Associates at my firm (and all the other big firms) began to openly salivate. Some other firms would match the pay raise. Associates at my firm (and at the remaining holdout firms) became incensed, bitching and moaning at every turn and in every forum open to them. My firm eventually caved and gave us all a raise. Rinse and repeat. By the time my first year was drawing to a close I was making something like $125,000. Pretty neat!
I spent my days doing what junior litigation associates do: occasionally drafting legal memoranda and document indices, but mostly firing snarky emails and instant messages back and forth to my similarly situated friends, being sure to stay at my desk until at least 7:00 every night, whether I had work to do or not (you gotta look like you’re working hard!) I spent my weekday nights ordering chinese food in to my upper east side apartment and watching ballgames. And I spent my weekend nights carousing Manhattan’s newly gentrified lower east side, part of a group that invariably ended its drunken sojourns at a dumpy falafel joint, stuffing our faces full of shwarma before sharing taxis back uptown.
Once every month or two–usually in the company of a couple of the friends and typically on a weeknight– I afforded myself a special treat: a drive up to Connecticut’s newest casino: Mohegan Sun. Student loans or not, my friends and I had disposable income, we loved to gamble, and if we drove faster than we really ought to, we could reach Mo’ Sun in about two hours–it was the closest (above ground) casino to Manhattan.
In those days there wasn’t much to the place. Mohegan Sun then consisted of a crummy food court, a handful of junky stores, a low wattage radio station (the WOLF!) and a gas station/mini mart. And, lest I forget: a casino. A casino with plenty $5 craps tables with 3-4-5x odds and an uncanny habit of paying me money. For reasons known only to the Indian gods, I always ran ridiculously hot at Mo’ Sun. We’d saunter onto the barren casino floor, sidle up to a craps table, play for a few hours, order free drinks (they served free milkshakes!) and more often than not, pocket a few hundred dollars. Making things even sweeter, probably becuse management was trying to lure players from the elder Foxwoods casino up the road, Mo’ Sun’s comp system treated us rather lavishly. If we played four or five hours of $5 craps we earned some handsome rewards. On the way out, our little posse would stop at the gas station/mini mart and stock up on free Hostess Fruit Pies and soft drinks, then help ourselves to a complementary tank of gas. Sweeeeet!
Back then, there was no hotel on Mohegan Sun’s premises, but my friends and I could not have cared less. We were perfectly happy to drive home at 2am as we scarfed down fruit pies, listened to Joe Benigno on WFAN and prattled on about the stupid shit some other craps player had been saying each time the dice were tossed. We’d get to bed around 4:00 or 4:30. By 10:30 am, we were all at our respective desks, earning our bloated paychecks and bitching to one another over AOL Instant Messenger about how tired we were. Good times.
Meanwhile, I continued to receive market-based pay raises as my life progressed (really, regressed) in ways that I’ve dicussed in this blog many times. I caught the poker bug late in 2001, about a year and a half before Chris Moneymaker officially lit the fuse. To satisfy my growing curiosity, I bought two books and did some cursory reading about poker’s mysterious championship game: a two-card game called hold ’em that was apparently was all the rage out in Vegas. Naturally, after reading the two books I believed I was qualified as a grand master of hold ’em. I was itching to play against other experts. Again, enter Mo’ Sun.
After one of our Mohegan craps sessions, I vowed that the next time I set foot in the place it would be for a special purpose–to explore the strange, quiet room off on the periphery–the poker room.
I knew that poker was not an especially social game–at least not in the same way that craps is a social game– and that to play in earnest I needed to set aside plenty of time for a multi-hour session. So the next time I drove to Mohegan Sun I did so alone, in the middle of the day, ready to wade into unfamiliar waters: my very first poker game at a felt-covered table. Not at my grandparents’ kitchen table. Not at a collapsable table in my parents’ basement. Not at a carved up wooden dormitory or frat house table. And not even at an Ikea table in some colleague’s Manhattan apartment, but at an honest-to-god felt-covered table, surrounded by real poker players who desperately wanted my money. On the trip up, I had butterflies. There was serious tumult in my gut as I parked my car and walked into Mo’ Sun’s poker room. As I put my name on the 2-4 (limit, there was no such thing as no-limit then) list, I was beset by a nervous feeling that was strong enough to make me consider skipping it entirely and heading for the more familiar craps table. Yeah, I was scared shitless.
I don’t remember too much from that first session of 2-4 limit. I do know that I lost heavily, dumping two buy-ins of $80 apiece. I remember that I was suprised at how old the average player was. I know that the game moved way too fast for me, leaving me completely befuddled most of the time. For about 90% of the session it was my turn to act and eight retirees were glaring at me as I fumbled with my hole cards.
I only remember one specific hand from that first losing session:
A dark-skinned guy with a ponytail was sitting two seats to my right, having a great time. His demeanor was relaxed and he had a way of flipping his chips into the pot that said “this ain’t my first rodeo.” He scared the shit out of me. And he was playing an odd brand of poker: constantly raising and sometimes reraising preflop, before the board cards were dealt! When we got involved in the same hand, I simply folded, not knowing how to handle him. I remember thinking that he was a reckless idiot, but also that there possibly was a method to his madness. His antics were certainly effective–the bastard had the largest stack at my table. The prospect of counterattacking him terrified me, but I knew that there was a way I could possibly trap him: I could wait for super-strong hole cards and raise every time he bet. It took a few hours of quietly losing money, but I finally found a good opportunity to execute my special plan.
I was in the big blind and I had pocket queens. About five people limped and the guy with the ponytail raised. I swallowed hard and squeaked “reraise” as I bet $6. Everyone folded back to the ponytailed guy, and he nonchalantly said “cap it” as he reraised again. “Shit, he has pocket aces,” I thought to myself as I stuck in another $2.
My heart skipped a beat when I saw the flop: Q-10-6! The nuts! I checked and then merely called ponytail’s $2 bet, continuing to execute my perfect trap. When the turn card fell, my heart skipped two beats. Another six! The mortal nuts! Again I checked, carefully placing more foliage over the concealed forest hole I was about to dump Mr. Ponytail in. He bet $4, just as I suspected he might. Now it was time to spring the trap! My heart totally aflutter, I maintained a semblence of outer cool and checkraised to $8. To my suprise and utter astonishment, Mr. Ponytail considered my bet for maybe one second, looked straight through me, grinned a big gap-toothed grin, then folded pocket kings face up. Holy shit, this guy is really fuckin’ good, I thought to myself as I nervously raked in the biggest pot of my felt-poker life.
I sat for another hour or two and lost what was left in my stack. The experience left me hungry for more. I especially wanted to discover the secrets of the Ponytailed man.
That would be my last poker session at Mohegan Sun for a very long time. In a classic case of inauspicious timing, Mo’ Sun managment decided to close its poker room just as Moneymaker’s bomb detonated. As my recreational (and eventually, professional) life began to revolve around poker, I swore off Mohegan Sun’s friendly confines and became a devotee first of NYC’s underground card rooms, and then of the Atlantic City casinos, along with Foxwoods and its massive poker room. At the same time, my group of friends were getting married and having kids, with little time for weeknight craps runs. Alas, since The Sun had no poker, The Sun was no more.
Until last week when Mohegan Sun opened a new poker room and held its first tournament. It was good to be back. The place is about ten times bigger than I remember it, and I didn’t do anything in its inaugural tournament, but it was good to be back. I’ve always liked it up at Mo’ Sun.