Everything that was once grand about Atlantic City seems to have washed out into the sepia tones of memory.
The Steel Pier is gone. Miss America is a quaint relic in the time of Britney Spears and Extreme Makeover. Even saltwater taffy has no place in our low-carb world. But the casinos remain -- those enormous, glittering respirators keeping the city alive even though its heart may have stopped beating long ago.
And now the casinos are hitting the jackpot with No-Limit Texas Hold'em, the wildly popular brand of poker that seems to have swept the nation.
Once a game associated with con men and criminals, poker is now the realm of celebrities playing for charity on Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown. ESPN covers the World Series of Poker as if it were the other World Series. Professional players considered degenerates as little as two years ago now hawk books on talk shows and have sitcom development deals.
And there is an overwhelming demand -- from curious amateurs to card-shark wannabes -- to play the game. At the Tropicana Casino and Resort, 2,800 new players signed up for a Trop Poker Club Card in a recent three-month span. The Trump Taj Mahal averages more than a thousand tournament players a week.
Walking through the glass doors of the Tropicana's Poker Turf Club, I felt like I had stepped into a fine gentleman's club. If it weren't for the plasma TVs and lack of smoke, I would have sworn Frank Sinatra was playing that night.
Silver-haired men in expensive-looking suits directed me through rooms paneled in heavy mahogany and hunter green leather to a table where a neat stack of chips stood at attention.
Those chips would soon be my chips. I was about to test my luck in a No-Limit Texas Hold'em tournament.
In Texas Hold'em, each player is dealt two hole cards, face down. Three cards are then turned up at once (the Flop), and two more cards are turned up individually (the Turn and the River). Each player makes the best five-card hand using his two hole cards and three of the five community cards.
In No-Limit Hold'em, you can bet as much as you want, up to all of your chips, at any time. It's exciting -- and dangerous. You can win or lose everything on one bet.
Luckily, tournaments let you experience the thrill of No-limit Hold'em for as little as $20 and allow you to play with a lot more chips than you could otherwise afford. My $2,000 in tournament chips, for example, cost $50.
The action is fast-paced, thanks to a rapidly increasing ante -- called a "blind" -- and players have the chance to win thousands of dollars for a relatively small investment.
You can find a tournament every day of the week at one of Atlantic City's main poker rooms: The Borgata, Trump Taj Mahal and the Tropicana. While the game is the same, there are some important differences to keep in mind when deciding where to play.
For instance, at the Borgata and Tropicana, if you get into trouble, you can buy more chips in the middle of a tournament -- it's called a re-buy. The only way to get more chips at the Taj is to win them from someone else.
Entering the fray
I separated my chips by color and sized up my opponents: a college student who brought her boyfriend to play in his first tournament, some guys in their 30s who looked like they cared way too much, and a gaggle of older gentleman who looked like they couldn't care less.
Flat-screen monitors hung around the Trop's poker room displaying the time left in the current round, the amount of the blinds and an enormous number "130." I asked the guy next to me what that number meant, and he told me that it was the number of people left in the tournament.
"Great," I said. "Now everyone will see that big '129' when I make my perp walk out of here."
No one laughed.
I took a few hits early on, so I called for a re-buy. A hostess came over to the table. I gave her another $50, and the dealer handed me $2,000 in fresh tournament chips. If I could make it to the end of the third round, I could get an even better deal: That same $50 would let me add on 4,000 chips if I needed them.
Add-ons and re-buys give players a break and increase the size of the prize pool, but many players don't like them.
"They make the game too erratic," says Ken Gallo, a casual player from Woodland, N.J. "If someone gets knocked out, they can just re-buy back in, so they'll play crazy hands they shouldn't be playing."
Easy for him to say. Gallo would go on to finish in the money at the Taj's tournament that night. I needed all the help I could get.
My next hand was shaping up to be a monster: ace-king hole cards. I threw what felt like a very real $1,800 worth of chips at the center of the table. I thought the Atlantic Ocean surf had swelled over the Boardwalk right into the casino, but it was only my heart pounding inside my ears.
A paunchy guy in a blue velour track suit and the undergrad's heavily gelled boyfriend called my bet. I twisted my face into the most menacing (but nonrevealing) scowl I could muster.