Rewind: May 2006, Part 2–Turning Stone

A mere one day after returning home from Vegas, I set off for my next poker meet: The Turning Stone Classic at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York. It was a familiar venue, and not only because I’d played poker there in March.

My first visit to Turning Stone took place in the fall of 1993, at the start of my junior year at Cornell. Word had filtered through campus: a new Indian casino had opened its doors less than two hours away. This was very exciting news. Still more exciting was the news that the casino’s doors were open to anyone over the age of 18. The reason why New York State’s gambling laws (i.e. 21 to gamble) were inapplicable at the new casino was a mystery, but it really didn’t matter to me. All I knew was I was gonna go gamble, and I wasn’t gonna have to use my very amateur fake drivers’ license to do it. One weeknight, selected at random, my buddy Sherm and I hopped into my car and headed off on the very first gambling junket of our lives.

Upstate New York is filled with nice places. These include bucolic expanses like the Catskills and the Finger Lakes Region, charming towns like Saratoga Springs, Lake George and Cooperstown, and crusty old industrial cities like Syracuse, Schenectady and Rochester. But Verona, where Turning Stone is located, is none of the above. Turning Stone Casino is instead situated just to the side of the New York State Thruway’s most boring stretch. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. This, of course, was of little significance to me and Sherm. We merrily made our way north from Ithaca to Syracuse, then turned east on the dark vacant highway towards our destination, our pockets containing an unusually large number of $20 bills.

Back in 1993, on the side of the road, an actual turning stone, a large rock, illuminated by footlights, mechanized in some manner so that it rotated, presided over the entrance to the Turning Stone Casino’s parking lot. Recognizing this wondrous landmark as our destination, I pulled my car in and found a space in the surprisingly small lot. Sherm and I hopped out of the car and hurried towards the strangely nondescript building that housed the new casino. Inside, the building was also nondescript, more reminiscent of an Elks Lodge than the busy, ornate Atlantic City casinos I was used to.

We found the casino floor and saw that it offered a grand total of about 30 table games. It also had a large bar set up at one end, but Sherm and I discovered that no alcohol was being served (apparently part of the casino’s deal with New York State, allowing 18+ gambling). Noticeably absent were the noisy rows of slot and video machines prevalent at every other casino I’d ever seen. Also conspicuously missing was the throng of excited customers. There were maybe 120 people in the joint. This was of absolutely no import. Sherm and I were wild-eyed, excited and nervous as we fidgeted with real clay casino chips for the very first time.

The rest of the trip went exactly as expected. First we “scouted” for a good blackjack table. I don’t recall what the “scouting” was expected to accomplish beyond making us more excited about finally plunking down our money. Then we sat down at a $2 table and proceeded to lose about $40 each. We declared ourselves finished there and moved to a $5 craps table. That didn’t go any better, and after about 2 hours, Sherm and I exited the casino each having lost about $80, which is a lot of money when your average cost per meal is less than $5.00.

Still, the experience was strangely invigorating, and as we pulled back onto the highway, I was replaying the blackjack hands and craps rolls in my mind, trying to envision what I could have done differently to alter the result. But then again, I also felt very guilty about my maiden casino voyage. After maybe 5 minutes of driving, I turned to Sherm and said “you know, we just lost $80 of our parents’ hard-earned money.” “I know,” Sherm replied. “Sick.” “Yeah, I feel like shit, it’s disgusting,” I continued. We drove along in quiet contemplation for about a minute before I broke the silence. “So when are we going back?” The answer was ‘in about a month,’ and I believe the results were similar.

Now it’s 2006, and some things have changed at Turning Stone. The illuminated rock at the entrance is gone. A hotel, spa and golf course have been added. The casino now features a poker room (hence this blog entry, I’m getting to the point, don’t worry). And the proprietors have secured a license to install video machines. As a matter of fact, the casino in its current form is predominantly video machines, with very few table games.

On that topic, there is a widely accepted psychological theory that there are two different types of problem gamblers. The first is the “action” gambler. This type of gambler craves the tactile sensations associated with gambling: holding the cards, shaking the dice, writing down the roulette results. This gambler thinks he or she can achieve the impossible, that he or she can “beat the game.” These people are predominantly male, and they favor table games.

The other type of gambler is the “escape” gambler. This person wants to forget the rest of their life and lose themselves for awhile. These people are predominantly female, and they favor slot machines and video games. And Turning Stone has today found its niche with escape gamblers. The place is always rammed full of people staring blankly at the monitors in front of them, lost in the flicker of light, light years away from the cold, boring, painful lives they live away from the glare. As you might guess, I find the 2006 Turning Stone a rather depressing place.

Many things about Turning Stone remain the same as they were in 1993. The place is still in the middle of nowhere. It’s still a rinky-dink operation. Rooms cost $75 per night, and the rate is the same on weeknights and weekends. $5 blackjack and craps are always offered, even on weekend nights. The nicest restaurant on the premises would probably rank fourth on my block at home. In both its 1993 and 2006 incarnations, nothing about the Turning Stone facility feels like a casino except the casino area itself.

But for the purposes of this blog entry, the most important similarity between 1993 Turning Stone and 2006 Turning Stone is the legal gambling age. The place is still dry, you can’t get any alcohol anywhere, and you still can gamble as long as you can prove that you’re 18 years of age. And that had a profound effect on the 2006 Turning Stone Poker Classic.

As I’ve mentioned before, the world of online poker is a very young one. There are thousands of successful high stakes players in their young twenties and late teens. There are even a few 15 and 16 year olds with more skill (and money) than a solid player like me could ever fathom. And the hordes of young online players are able to communicate with one another through online message boards like 2+2 and PocketFives. And, naturally, they are all eager to square off in the real world, to play “brick and mortar” poker with one another. And the Turning Stone Casino, in late May of 2006, offered them that opportunity.

By late March, the online message boards were lit up with plans for meet-and-greets, challenges, and juvenile threats of “ownership” at the ‘Stone. By early May, it had become clear that this would be an unusually well-attended event. And on May 15 hundreds of poker-obsessed kids from all over the country, many of whom were under 21 years of age, flew and/or drove long distances so they could all meet in Verona. They descended upon Turning Stone for what could be accurately billed as the “underage WSOP.” The Turning Stone hotel apparently ran out of rooms. No matter to these kids: all this required was a post to one of the message boards seeking a space on another player’s floor.

Having booked this tournament two months prior, I arrived on May 16th and checked into my room. Then I made my way downstairs. Gazing around Turning Stone’s poker room at the overflowing mass of adolescent humanity, I was an old man in a sea of baby-faced poker savants. The action was fast and furious, and the stakes did not match the ages of the participants. Throughout the room, like Sherm and I thirteen years earlier, enthusiastic kids were experiencing their very first real live gambling. But instead of risking 80 of their parents’ dollars, many of these kids were sitting behind towers of $100 and $500 chips. It was money they had earned playing poker online.

Watching a pimply-faced 18 year old kid calmly call a $1200 flop bet with only a gutshot straight draw is pretty extraordinary, but something else about the scene at Turning Stone made a more lasting impression, and I think it says something about the current state of poker, and something about the nature of the game in general.

As I looked around the room, I noticed that a disproportionate number of the young men in the room (I’m discounting the handful of women for now) suffered from an obvious affliction of some sort. Some were missing limbs, some had a condition which had stunted their growth, some were morbidly obese. There were an unusual number of wheelchairs in the room. But even many of the able bodied kids had another readily identifiable issue: they were nerds. All manner of geeks were present. In short, this was not an attractive collection of people.

Contemplating the assembled mass, it occurred to me that poker and the internet had joined forces to create a real life Revenge of the Nerds.

Poker is a very competitive endeavor. Doyle Brunson has attributed his poker success to the training he received, in the form of competitive athletics, as an adolescent. And poker does bear a resemblance to certain sports. Like many sports, poker is geared towards players who are able to shape an opponent’s behavior through sheer willpower. Of course, poker differs from those sports in that one must be physically capable of competing to participate in the sport, but not at the poker table.

Physically speaking, there are no prerequisites in poker; the playing field is level. Anyone with some cash can sit down and play. But which individuals are most likely to turn to poker to satisfy their competitive desires? The answer: those who are incapable of or have been discouraged from competing in other arenas.

A short, fat, uncoordinated kid cannot be the star of his high school basketball team; he’d be laughed off the court if he even tried out for the team. But that same short, fat, uncoordinated kid can teach himself to play poker well. And if that short, fat, uncoordinated kid has a good intellect, and if he practices enough, he might even develop into a dominant, fearsome poker player. And with the advent of online poker, this exact scenario is playing itself out all the time. Doyle Brunson had to drive from game to game over the course of many years to hone his chops. A modern-day Doyle only needs to sit his fat ass down, turn on his computer, log onto his favorite poker site, open eight tables and settle in. Instant experience.

Fat Billy may not have scored 25 points last night. Fat Billy might not be dating the homecoming queen. Fat Billy might have no friends. But Fat Billy has more money in his bank account than the homecoming queen’s entire family. And Fat Billy has achieved a sort of national fame in certain internet circles. And Fat Billy makes grown men cry on a nightly basis, without ever leaving his bedroom. Fat Billy was at Turning Stone. Looking for his pound of flesh.

Having sized up my opposition for the next few days, I decided I’d play the $300, $500 and $1000 NLHE events. The kids were as good as advertised; all three tournaments were tough sledding all the way. Somehow I ended up cashing in the $300 and $500 events, but despite over 20 hours of hard work, all I had to show for my troubles on the eve of my departure was a few hundred dollars profit.

So I took a break from the tables and drove 40 minutes into Syracuse and treated myself to a sumptuous dinner at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Q. My last visit to this place had been in 1995. It was just as awesome as I’d remembered. Best food, best ambiance, best music, just all-around bad ass. Satiated and hopeful of achieving another measure of immediate gratification, I drove back to Verona, went to the poker room, and sat in a 2-5 NL game.

Immediately I could see that this was going to be an unusual game. It was populated by a couple of whiz kids and a handful of locals (members of each category were easy to identify). The locals were exchanging amazed looks with one another. A large crowd of spectators had gathered to watch. What was going on here? I unracked my chips and sat down.

On the very first hand, an Asian kid, first to act preflop, moved all in for the maximum buy-in of $500. He hadn’t looked at his cards. The action was folded around to a very young kid in a mesh baseball cap and he immediately said “call.” He hadn’t looked either. There were no more takers. “You wanna look now?” said Mesh Cap to Asian Kid. “Nah, let’s wait till after the dealer runs ’em,” came the reply. And so the dealer dealt the flop, turn and river, at which point Asian and Mesh each slowly turned one of their hole cards up. Mesh had a 3, matching with one of the board’s cards. Asian’s jack did not create a pair. Then the second hole cards were turned over. Both had nines. No help for either player. Mesh raked the $1000 pot with a pair of 3’s. They had played the $1,000 pot blind.

On the next hand, Asian, Mesh and a third whiz kid in a baseball jersey tried a new trick. Someone open-limped for $5, then Mesh, without looking at his hole cards, raised to $10. It was folded to Baseball Jersey, who raised blind to $15. It was folded to the original limper, who called $15. Now Mesh reraised to $20. Remember, this was a no-limit game, not a 5-10 limit game. Next, Asian, giggling uncontrollably, blind min-reraised to $25. And so the open limper was whipsawed, caught in the middle of the whiz kids’ hijinks. Realizing that this would continue until his entire stack was committed, the original limper folded. At that point the three whiz kids went all in. Once again, they didn’t look at their hole cards, viewing them for the first time after the entire board was dealt. Mesh won again, smirking as he raked the $1500 pot. Each time one of the whiz kids went bust, he’d laugh, pull a wad of $100 bills out of his pocket, put five of them on the felt, and rebuy. The crowd was going nuts.

They were just passing the time. There were no seats available in the bigger games. So, having already drunk their smuggled six-pack of Coors Light up in their room, these kids were entertaining themselves by playing way below their normal levels. These players had bankrolls that belied their looks (i.e., very young and very nerdy). They were accustomed to playing online no limit games with blinds at the $25-$50 and $50-$100 levels, where pots of tens of thousands of dollars are commonplace. This $2-$5 NL game with a $500 cap was a complete joke to them, so they were having a little fun. Or perhaps they were flooding the table with enough chips to create the playing conditions they were used to. Either way, it was good news for me. While I could not afford to treat 2-5 NL like a joke, I was not scared of losing a few buy-ins. I figured I’d just wait for a solid hand and gamble it up with them. It didn’t take long.

I was seated right in the middle of the three crazy kids. On my button I was dealt A9 offsuit. Asian open limped blind. Mesh min-raised blind. I called. In the small blind, Baseball Jersey min-reraised blind. This pattern continued until I had about $50 invested. When the action returned to me I announced that I was all-in for $500. Baseball Jersey looked at me, laughed, finally checked his hole cards, and mucked them. But Asian was undeterred. He fixed me with a prepubescent stare and a faux-grave expression. Then he said “nice move, I call” without checking his hole cards, and slid his $500 forward. Mesh, having witnessed Asian’s act, was now laughing hysterically. Gasping for breath between his guffaws, he called as well, also without looking at his cards. $500 of his chips went into the middle. I had just bet $1500 on A9 offsuit against two random hands.

The spectators, energized by the audacity of the old man in seat 7 (that was me), pressed forward. One kid behind me asked me for a “hole card cam,” i.e. to see my cards. Without turning around I obliged, flashing my A9 over my left shoulder to the crowd behind me. The dealer burned and turned: a flop of 9s-9c-6h. Nice. I felt someone behind me grab my shoulder and give it a little congratulatory shake. The turn was the king of hearts and the river was the 2 of hearts. I flipped my hole cards up, hoping that neither of my opponents, who still had not looked at their hole cards, held two hearts. They did not, although Asian also had trip 9s, but with a worse kicker. I raked the $1500 pot amid much fanfare. I heard one of the kids behind me tell another that I had made a “sick bet.” Sick dude… sick.

I picked my spots for another hour or so, increasing my stack to around $2200. Then, satisfied with my first brick and mortar encounter with Fat Billy and his cohorts, I retired for the night. I drove home in the morning, happy that no travel plans were on the immediate horizon.

And so I had returned to Turning Stone, the site of my very first gambling adventure. And at this sacred site I saw the future face of poker. It was disfigured and nerdy.