On an eventful Friday night in the earliest days of spring, March Madness has reduced its way down into an excitingly small collection of this country’s most talented and skilled college basketball teams. At the same time, the professional league is coming down with a case of “load management” as they gear up for an exciting start to the playoffs. Major League Baseball has just begun conquering the headlines of the sports journals, and some distinguished junkies are already talking about spring training baseball. There is simply no valid reason any self-respecting connoisseur of athletic competition and sport would willingly be watching an invitational poker tournament with such a variety of other activities on the menu. Playoff college basketball games are snapping off every 30 minutes, forming a frenzy of bracket mathematics and sports betting excitement, and yet a loyal follower has somehow been distracted by a poker tournament… and to make matters worse, this poker tournament took place in 2014.
My situation must have been dire and desperate. Maybe my cable was spotty? Maybe the internet was out? Maybe I pissed away my streaming subscription funds getting shellacked in some online Ponzi scheme. There must be some rational reason an avid sports fanatic and healthy supporter of professional athletic competition would be willing to ignore true and captivating events. March madness is something that simply can’t be neglected. Even for the few adrenaline junky competitive poker fans, the ones who get as aggressive as a shallow water bull shark during their monthly beer games, they couldn’t even be bothered to tune into the action here today with so many other things to enjoy. It was meaningless to those who found meaning. Boring to those who might be entertained by it. Trash, to those who love trash. But here I am, eyes wide and stinging red as I cling to the screen in front of me with each click and clack of the clay chips. The genetically standard invitation poker game consisting of casino predators and online assassins doesn’t make very many ripples in the sporting world whenever they feel like occurring. This wasn’t even the last day of the tournament, it was the second day of the three-day affair and over 100 players are still in play. It wasn’t even the grand finale.
The herd of painfully average-looking human beings (skilled poker professionals) from around the world have been coaxed into their velvet roped coral with the hopes of coming away from this thing king. The stable contains a wide spectrum of amateur and professional poker players who have all agreed to separate themselves from their respective lives of superstardom and meet here to do battle. Not a single alarm clock was owned among the bunch, they gathered here on sacred ground to form small respective clans of eight players at 12 or so tables – a vested chieftain to monitor their play and deal the cards. Everyone acted independently of one another, small countries that border each other on a busy continent. The foreign diplomacy of these nations consisted of the normal
posturing and the prodding, the deceit, and the demagoguery. It struck similar to the current state of global politics. The handsome smiling face and the outstretched hand waiting patiently to lead you into danger. A downright collection of snakes and serpents all willing to play nice as long as a clear benefit was ahead and in sight, the reptiles who wear dark sunglasses indoors on a smoky casino floor. I am introduced to Antonio Esfandiari – a man with a smooth face, a couple of eyes, and a nose. He had a nice and sensible haircut which I assumed he must have splurged for since he would get a shot here today to be on television… maybe his co-workers knew about the tournament, maybe his entire hometown was watching him. My brain wandered through the chain of events that led this family man into the neon arms of the devil’s bingo. A tale as old as time I suppose. Every man has his vices. An old friend of mine once said to me “I was lucky with gambling, I never won.”
A razor-edged gray banner swoops onto the screen beneath Antonio’s image – words bulleted: “First on All-Time Money List”. My mind buffered and paused for the screen to pan over to another man. A simple delay among camera operators working tirelessly behind the scenes of all this aggressive, nonstop action. Nothing more than a harmless lul in the energetic marathon coverage. Cut to camera 2 boys. Show me the back alley thug with a smashed nose and crooked tooth….but it didn’t…and it wouldn’t. He was the man. The smooth-faced man with the ears and the eyes and the nose. He had won more money playing poker than anyone to play poker. Older gents might have won a good deal too, but when you factor in inflation and the price of gas and all that, my statement rings technically true. He had won more money playing poker than anyone to ever play poker. The man who handed you a coffee just this morning. Antonio Esfandiari had arrived in his element. The goat was here. What a tournament. 2014. You could cut the goddamn tension with a knife, but a machete would do it with much more respect.
If the enthusiasts of Walmart were gathering to degenerately gamble until all but one had funds left in their sweatpants pockets, someone ought to be documenting the action I thought. Individually at each table, a game of its very own unfolds in every sense of the known word. It’s a task of strategy, emotion, cunning, technique, personality, truth, and trust. It would all crackle gloriously around at random in the dark center of the floor with only the screaming peaks making its way out to the walls of the large room, out towards the onlookers. A curious dopamine rush told me to scan Twitter. Surely I must not be alone in all this. Maybe among the die-hards I could find some bleachermates for the spectacle about to unfold in front of the lucky few sensitive enough to sniff out good entertainment when it was alive and well. I wonder what select friends of mine would enjoy this. It had been a long while since we last played around with the cards. Could I make a phone call to a close companion? Maybe he would find this as interesting as I did…. but….you just can’t call people late at night about a god damned poker tournament
from 2014. They would whisk me out of bed in the morning and drag me to gamblers anonymously, start offering me food, drink, and canned goods like I had lost my way to the allure of the smoky casino floor. Maybe it was one of those radio commercials for a betting app that crawled its way into my ear. “If either team hits a three-pointer, we’ll match your bet with a $200 bonus!”. That’s a lock, I don’t care what you say. Have you watched basketball lately? It’s a god damned three-point competition. You would have to be a sucker to pass up free money, and I sir, I am no sucker. You can’t call a friend in the middle of the night about a poker game on television that took place eight years prior, and I hope you know this because it’s true. It might help you out someday kid. But we both know you’re not a kid anymore. And I’m not either. Where has the time gone…
I didn’t care one iota about the money at hand, the chip leaders, the notable faces, the commotion, or the drama. I didn’t care about the spandex wardrobe of the drink girls who darted from table to table. It all played a role respectively in the great big spectacle of it all, but the core arousing attraction was much simpler in nature, as most attractions seem to be. It was innocent and curious, a genuine and real allure that grabbed me and pulled at my collar like a deep-sea fishing line with spandex coated drink girl on the other end gripping the reel. At first, I noticed the bystanders sandwiched between the tables, they seemed to mostly consist of some friends but mostly proud supportive spouses simply trying to keep their only chance at reproduction by sitting at the table in front of the content as they played. They looked on and watched closely, but try as they might, standing just behind their lover’s chair in a supportive role, they never will quite understand the divine intricacies of what happens at that table. They never will quite understand why their spouse loves this game so much, and why their eyes glaze when they get those cards in their hands. It’s a game you either love or don’t care enough about to hate. These outsiders were sensitive to the random screams of commotion. It would spring up from each table around the room whenever their games boiled up, a cameraman rushing to pivot into place to capture it. From Russia, a shout of anguish and a scream of excitement as France tossed their spades onto the felt. Over down to Australia as it curses blatantly at elderly England. Everyone was fighting and warring proudly, only calming down to a quiet smolder when their soldiering fingers got too tired to move aggressively. It was a glorious orchestra of human gluttony, greed, temptation, and orgasmically equaled stimulation. Mutually agreed acts of betrayal and deceit are followed by a definite winner and definite loser. It was the American way of life really when it came down to it… or maybe Guam.
All was silent at the end of Antonio Esfandiari during his 2014 campaign. The forces that surrounded him at the table were warm and limber from a few hours of playing before he had arrived. Things unfolded forward the same as they were leaning before him as if he had never joined the group in the first place. This went on for some time. It
was a definitive and exact amount of time, but not measurable to anybody but to Antonio himself. Just the exact amount of time it takes to forget someone’s presence after they had arrived, disturbed the empty chair, and nodded hello. Without warning, at a tone and volume above any chatter this tournament had produced in the last few complete hours, he began to sing. “Olay… Olay, Olay Olayyyy….Olay…Olay.” I assure you when I report handsomely, the dealer himself was thoroughly flustered by this sound. Players at different tables who were fighting different wars poked their heads up from the trenches to look at him. Bullets stopped whizzing around the immediate room for a just moment, and the snakes stopped their hissing and their slithering and turned their heads toward the new one. Antonio glanced his eyes right back at them, looking around the table to each and every one of his opponents. Did they recoil? Did they smile? Did they give a response or did they try their best to ignore him? Who was intimidated by him sitting at the table? Who was comfortable around him and who was nervous just to be outside of their homes? He sang out: “Olay…Olay Olay Olay…” The hand belonging to the player at his right flinched to make his move, an attempt to start up the action again. Antonio snapped at him, “What a bust!…this guy’s such a bust, ya know? He’s got the shades, he knows what you have everytime, he’s like Arnold Schwarnegegar…he’s in the gym all the time, he gets all the girls back home. He really does it ….” As he spoke, he took the time to look around the table at each card player. Some glanced towards him to grant him a grimace of attention, but all in attendance did their best to ignore him. After a lul, and the focus had been restored, the game went back around the table without interruption. Antonio now appeared bored as he sank down into his chair and watched the cards, not the players. He had gathered his information on each of them. He wasn’t even in the hand, and somehow he had clearly won it.
“Vanessa, have we ever played with you as the brain?” He shot out towards a fellow player as the cards were dealt for a new hand, a seasoned veteran and acquaintance. She took a moment to respond flatly, without a singular shred of emotion. “Oh yeah, in the premier league we did.” He turned back toward one of the innocent and silent players at the table. “I have played with her before so you might want to pick a different brain, I honestly don’t remember but.” He jabbered down to the confused fellow. The unknown decides as a reply, to tilt his head down at the felt table and not supply an answer, hoping this unwarranted conversation had ended and everyone could go back to playing nice and standard as they had before. Antonio snapped down towards him again, not letting him go silent. “Anybody else here you know?” After a buffer the shy player poked his thumb over to the man next to him, hoping to divert the attention, “Maybe him”. Antonio pivoted towards another player. When he spoke, his words were generic and plain, but his tone was sharp and aggressive. “What’s your name again?” A stuttering Norwegian blinked thoroughly with visible pain from the direct attention. His entire focus shifted away from the game in order to answer the question more quickly than he needed to. He spoke clear and plain, “Yngve”. “What is it”? Antonio asked. The Norwegian repeated himself in an apologetic way as if he was apologizing to Antonio for his name being alphabet soup. “You want to play the brain? All you gotta do is think of the answer to a question. Very simple,” Antonio spoke slowly as if he was dealing with an idiot and peeked at his cards. Ingvar whispered back half-heartedly in reply “Yes sure..” Why not? The winningest poker player of all time is talking to me, I can’t look bad, I can’t say no. All I want to do is play poker but this guy’s asking me silly questions, the winningest poker player of all time and he keeps bothering me. Doesn’t he know this is a big deal? I’ll probably be on television. “How much legally would Vanessa have to be paid, to change her last name, legally, for the rest of her life, to Frankenberry?” Everyone at the table smiled. They were outsiders to the conversation, but a captivated audience would be a better-suited description. While a simple question was being asked, it wasn’t being asked for an answer to be provided. Poor Ingvar was a prisoner to this whole show and his participation wasn’t necessary. Their giggling stopped, maybe somewhat in relief. “It’s my favorite question of all time” he looked around at the smiling faces. Humor thrives greatly when tension is abundant, even nonsensical humor like funny names. “Would your wife be tilted Vanessa?” She seemed to be more immune than anyone, and gave him a fitting reply to his childish little show “Yea, I think so.” She didn’t show any emotion, and to her, this entire spectacle was a heavy-handed attempt at soul reading and intimidation. She spoke to him as if he was a robot. Antonio picked up a stack of chips with a cruel chuckle, “How much is it? 24 thousand? I’m in.” He threw the chips onto the table with a toothy smile.
What people seem to unanimously believe about baseball is that when a pitch crosses the plate half an inch outside of the strike zone, and the umpire waves his arms around signaling a strikeout, and the batter throws his helmet down in disagreement, that he, the batter, has been unfairly treated. Anyone who has watched a complete game of baseball knows that plenty of balls that land outside of the strike zone get knocked into the seats or laced into the gap for standup doubles. It doesn’t matter all too much what cards the dealer slides across the table to you, what matters is the people sitting around you – what matters is how you present yourself and who you perceive your competition to be. Getting dealt a winning hand is an advantage that I’d wager, many of us would prefer over the alternative, just as a major league baseball player would prefer a fastball over the heart of the plate…but that’s what makes poker so special. When life deals you a six and a deuce and somehow you manage to bluff your way to victory with a wicked smile, a whisky in your palm, and the drink girl’s phone number in your back pocket.