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“There’s no luck in gaming,” Chloey Rice says, “only math.” But there’s a little bit of magic, too. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Green Felt Underdog
Never underestimate the youngest person at the poker table
This story first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Welcome to the poker table, kid

“What table, Miss?”

The question pulls my head up. I’ve been staring at my feet — rhinestone boots. Right thing to wear here? Well, they’re not the wrong thing. When it’s pointless to fit in, stand out.

“1/3,” I answer. The woman asking is a young brunette in all black. I watch her type my name — quickly, efficiently — and it pops up on the overhead screen. CRICE — Chloey RICE — is in the eighth spot. How ironic. The number 8 has journeyed with me all my life. From my middle school locker combination to my junior varsity number, that upturned infinity has done me good. Hopefully that continues.

But there’s no luck in gaming. Only math.

I stare at the two decorated aces etched in the tile beneath my boots. I trace the spade with my heel and wait for the eighth spot to open. Time to study the competition: sunglasses, hats, AirPods, stone-cold faces. Men in Gucci sweatshirts are usually the loudest in the room, but not with their voices. Their money tends to speak for them, especially after their sixth buy-in, since the coolers — those good hands that get topped by better ones — always seem to find them. The players in causal cotton are the quietest, and most likely the smartest. Sharks are always silent hunters. I follow a tall gentleman to my seat. I’m the only woman at the table. “Welcome to the game,” the dealer says. Or welcome to hell, I think.

Two stacks, a hundred dollars each, meet my fingertips. The red and blue chips dance in my hand as I wait for my first two cards to slide over. The other players look me up and down. I can feel it. I guess we young folks don’t make many appearances here, especially women. Tonight the Wynn seems reserved for tourist play — the guys who gamble their commitments and wives away. The seven men sitting around me have frozen faces, but their hands move around warmly.

“Just turned 21, huh?” a European accent asks me.

Writer Chloey Rice wrote a personal essay about her first time player poker at a Las Vegas casi ...
"Just turned 21, huh?" a European accent asks me. Am I really that readable? (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Am I really that readable?

The green felt holds my fate as I pick up my first live hand. The first one makes me smile inside — a red king. The second, not so much — the deuce of clubs. I fold. And I fold once more. And again for the next three hours. The antes have eaten up a quarter of my stack. I can’t even bare to look into my opponent’s eyes when it’s my turn. Something about their sunglasses makes me shiver. Are they looking at me? Should I stare back?

My teeth bite the inside of my mouth and the metallic taste lingers. I can hear Matt Damon in Rounders in my head: Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker. Guys around here will tell ya, you play for a living, it’s like any other job. You don’t gamble, you grind it out.

I’ve never been the sucker, other than when I first learned how to play. Even then, two years ago, I made some people get up and leave. Hearing those cards slap the table in disgust never gets old. I’m not a big bluffer, and I’m definitely not a gambler. I’ve waited for this day, and for these decisions to be mine. I’ve visualized money swooping into my delicate hand. I’ve practiced for this moment. I’m better than this.

My lifelong friend Justin has proven my excellence countless times. Playing against him is exhausting, mostly due to his having no range or boundaries. The worst hands get him excited, since he believes any ace is cursed. Good players call him weak; better players coin him as a polarizer. He either has the best hand or the worst, with no in-betweens. I’ve held his regret in my hands. I’ve made him sweat too many times to count. I’ve sat in his dining room playing a light-hearted duel, his lack of knowledge of expected values, the average results of his gameplay, making me cringe.

I am remembering a game with Justin one year ago: He’s sitting in front of me with a daggerlike smile. There’s no worse feeling than getting beat by the sucker. All’s fair in love and war, my consciousness sings to me. Or perhaps that was my sixth White Claw harmonizing its courage. The eight and nine of spades meet my eyes.

“Just fold now,” he says.

That’s Justin’s No. 1 tell sign. I’ve learned that he shouts those words — and only those words — when he wants me to fold because he has the worst of the deck. His ADHD doesn’t help his poker face. No reverse psychology there. Three aces appear on the flop. An exquisite sight. Neither of us bet until the river, the last card on the board. The eight of hearts makes him throw out $20 — our whole buy-in. My head screams every curse. I can’t fold a full house, but I can’t win against quads. “I think the board plays,” rushes out of my mouth.

It’s not a lie — the board does play for him, just not for me. “Shit,” he says. “You’re probably right.” Once my stack meets his in the middle and the sound of my card hits the table like a knife slicing through the wind, his anger roars through the room. It’s safe to say I just won an Oscar for that performance.

The live table at the Wynn is a revolving door all night. I watch as people’s shadows get up and leave and new ones sit in their uncomfortably warm seats. From across my seat, I see women in short dresses pass by and men with even tighter suits brush along their shoulders. Their shoes sound almost the same as mine, the icy resort tile clicking beneath them. The man to my left has been getting massaged for over an hour. I wonder if he thinks that’s bringing him luck or not. The dealer’s remarks are always the same when they switch out, except for the one lady who just complimented my nails. I’m sure she doesn’t get to do that often. I fidget with the silver ring on my finger as I receive my luck of the draw. One ace. Another ace. Are those pocket rockets smiling at me or is there some mysterious omen behind their spades? My father’s glistening pre-game encouragement is all I hear internally:

“Don’t forget about your edge,” he whispers. “Use it to your advantage.”

I’m under the gun and place $50 in front of me. Being the first player to act is a double-edged sword. Three players fold. Three players call. The last man with dark Ray-Bans raises.

“A hundred,” his crisp breath remarks. He pushes the chips elegantly behind the white line while simultaneously peering into my soul. His face shows a mild smirk; I don’t think he realizes this. The next man, in a blue cotton button-down, says the powerful words “All in” and tosses one black chip in the middle.

All eyes gaze upon me. Am I the predator or the prey? It’s an easy choice for me, actually the easiest as I look down on the best starting hand in Texas Hold ’em, the absolute cold-stone nuts. I wait a few seconds, already knowing what I’ll do. There’s nothing wrong with letting them sweat. (Justin would disagree with that philosophy.) “Call,” I say mildly, without too much excitement. A perfect indifference. The third “call” I hear is from the mysterious sunglasses guy, but he doesn’t take them off. Instead, he pushes his frames forward. No money is left behind, so we all go to showdown. I stare at their pocket kings and 10s. The players whoop as they see my aces. Everybody is standing. I’ve already smelled the blood in the water, but I’m praying I don’t sink.

The flop reveals a rainbow of five, jack and seven. I squirm my lips. The turn winks at me, showing the queen of hearts. No cracks yet. The river, the final card, will seal my fate. Here it comes, down and dirty. The three of diamonds flips over dramatically and I finally exhale.

The dealer seems to have moved in slow motion, awarding me a rainbow of chips. My shoulders drop back and I reach out to take the pot. I hear the other players’ around me: Wow. Damn. My two diminishing stacks turned into six. I finally do what no poker player should, and smile. My stone-cold face perks up for the first time in over six hours. I chuckle as the two men reach inside their designer wallets to buy back in. No quitters here, not so long as they’ve got something left to spend. Maybe they’re wondering what’s worse — getting beat by aces, or by someone wearing rhinestone boots. ◆

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