At 9:45 on a Sunday morning, I pull up to Calgary’s Cash Casino. I scan the packed parking lot for my dad’s car, although I don’t know what he’s driving now. As I enter the casino, I avoid the circus-like main room, so that I don’t have to look at the backs of the people playing blackjack, roulette, or slots and find my father’s long torso among them. My father wanted to gamble more than he wanted to love me, something my new poker pals might call a cooler—a strong hand beaten by an unexpectedly stronger one.
I head through the back door and downstairs to the basement poker room, where I hand over my $40 buy-in for the morning no-limit Texas hold ’em tournament. Wilson, one of the pit bosses, welcomes me back. “Hey, Shelley Kelly,” he says, calling me by my happy, rhyming married name, and he hands me a random seating card. I’m grateful to be here under a secret identity. Outside, in the real world, people know me by my maiden name, which is also my professional name. No one in a poker room is exactly who they seem to be.
I’ve drawn Table 3, Seat 7, giving me a clear view of my nine opponents. Smart players know that winning has less to do with the cards they’ve been dealt than with understanding what makes their opponents tick. Try to get a read on me: if you ask what I do for a living, I’ll just say I’m a stay-at-home mom. Given that I’m jobless after twenty years as a magazine editor, that is not untrue.
What kind of mother lets her husband take their twelve-year-old twin daughters to Sunday Mass while she plays cards in a casino basement? I should feel guilty about this, and I do. I understand better than most what’s at stake. But I don’t feel enough guilt to have accompanied them on this particular Sunday, or the Sunday before it, or the one before that. Mornings in Calgary’s oldest casino are almost romantic. I love the rituals, the secret language, the music of shuffling cards and tossed chips. I love the pit bosses and the waitresses in platinum wigs. I love the dealers, by turns bubbly, hapless, and taciturn. But what I love most are the dramas that unfold over marathon sessions of hold ’em—the so-called Cadillac of poker games.
Being successful at poker is all about spinning the best story at the right time to the right person at the best price. There are five legal rooms in the Calgary area, and, while the players at Cash Casino aren’t the slickest or the youngest or the wealthiest, they consider themselves the best at tournament play. They have the patience to ride out the inevitable swings in fortune. Although a few play poker for a living, most live to play poker. They have jobs, but they’ve chosen gigs that don’t require punching a clock: salesman, entrepreneur, repairman, corporate vice-president, realtor, funeral-home director. They see me as dead money: a player still in the hand with virtually no chance of winning the pot.
This card room is the one place where I don’t have to give anything away. There’s just enough intimacy here. No one cares where you come from or who your daddy is—unless he or she can use that knowledge to needle you off your game. I love being a fly on the wall, soaking up a world that is at once reassuringly alien and dangerously familiar. The regulars remind me of my father, and of the parts of him I’m afraid are in me, too. And yet here I am, following in his size-thirteen footsteps, trying to figure out why I feel so at home in the one place I swore I’d never go.
I can’t explain how to play no-limit Texas hold ’em with any concision. It took Doyle Brunson, the eighty-two-year-old godfather of the game, some 200 pages to explain it in his 1979 book, Super System, the first poker bestseller, and he had to write a sequel in 2005 because the game theory is always evolving. Let’s just say that it’s a variation of seven-card stud, pioneered in the late ’50s by rattlesnake-smart Texas road gamblers who wanted to maximize their advantages in card sense, people sense, and unblinking aggression.
No-limit Texas hold ’em is like Spock’s version of chess in Star Trek — a game of analysis played in multiple dimensions. You start with two hidden hole cards that only you can see and use. A pair of aces is the best starting hand, but not necessarily the best ending. We bet. If someone raises enough to get everyone else to fold, that player wins. If not, we see the flop: three cards, face up, that anyone can use. We bet again. Then comes the turn, a single communal card. We bet once more. Now comes the last communal card, the river (a throwback to poker’s riverboat past), and there’s a final round of betting. At each juncture, players make one of three decisions based on their read of their opponents’ weaknesses and, to a lesser degree, the strength of their cards: Do I call (go along for the ride), raise (make the ride go faster), or fold (get the hell off)?
That’s the basic structure. It is then inlaid with advanced calculations of probability, odds, and expected values, and overlaid with position: when you’re the last to act, you have the most information, so the order in which everyone bets changes with each deal. Played at the highest level, no-limit Texas hold ’em is a game of aggressive defence: the goal is to make the most money with your best hands while losing the least with your worst.
There’s a final, diabolical twist: during any betting round, a player can bet every one of his chips (going all-in), forcing his opponent to decide whether it’s worth risking everything to find out who really has the winning hand.
Dad dabbled in poker, but no-limit Texas hold ’em requires too much patience to have been his game of choice. That would be roulette—an easy spin of a wheel—or blackjack, which offers the illusion of control but comes down to following a few basic rules. A child can learn to play blackjack; I did. A child can even learn how to count cards; my father did. He could keep track of cards dealt from eight decks at a time, in order to increase his bets when the deck was hot—that is, packed with good cards.
Card counters flip the odds from the house’s advantage to the player’s, which is why casinos boot them from the tables or reshuffle the decks more frequently. I play tournament poker, the only casino game in which you’re competing not against the house but against other people. You can manipulate odds and outcomes by the choices you make. There are no shortcuts, and every victory is hard-won.
Young or old, black or white, male or female, rich or poor—everyone is welcome at Cash Casino, particularly if he or she is a weak player, known as a fish or a donkey. In a tournament, you just have to pay the entry fee, and that’s the most you can lose. The money is paid out in cash in white envelopes. I want a white envelope. But what I really want is to be a regular—to get a welcome hug from Cowboy, a Stetson-wearing businessman from one of Calgary’s oldest families, and for Harry to bring me a mint-chocolate shake.
The worst thing would be to bust out early. I don’t care about winning money; I just need to play, a self-medicating reflex. That’s why I’ve made a list of fail-safes to create a moat between a hobby and a problem: I don’t gamble during the week, I don’t play in high-stakes tournaments, I don’t drink at the table, and I don’t leave my children alone.
What I won’t do—what I can’t do—is play in cash games, where thousands of dollars can change hands. My dad must have been a cash-game player. My mother says he emptied their joint bank account, along with their retirement savings and college funds. She also says he once got a $5,000 loan using a company car as collateral without telling her. (My father disputes these accounts, although he agrees that my mom doesn’t have a dishonest bone in her body.) When she finally called the bank to make them stop giving my dad money, the manager treated her like a crazy woman.
“Are you sure we’re talking about the same person? ” he asked. My father made a terrific first impression.
“If you lend him one more nickel,” she shrieked, “I’m going to come back and burn down your bank.”
This was the rhythm of my childhood. Dad would get a new job, selling on commission. Things were going to be great. Then he’d boast about a promotion or a big bonus, neither of which would come through. He would quit in a dramatic snit and not tell my mother until the creditors started calling. At night, I’d lie in bed and listen to Mom yell and cry, while he never said a word. I’d pad downstairs in my pyjamas and try to referee. I thought he deserved to win, but I didn’t understand the game.
When did my dad start to bluff? His childhood wasn’t always easy: his mother was the selfish, demanding baby of the family, doted upon by his father, a successful businessman who beat his only child with a thick black strap. They moved incessantly, and my father was always the new kid, fighting to prove himself. Maybe it’s no surprise that he developed all the attributes of a problem gambler. But the hardest thing for me to understand is why he squandered the nuts—poker slang for the winning hand. A semi-professional football star, he was also a math whiz, an artist, and a voracious reader. At six-foot seven and a half inches, he was so striking that strangers would ask to paint his portrait or hire him as a movie extra.
My mother, a sheltered Audrey Hepburn look-alike still in high school, was grateful when the well-mannered older athlete began pursuing her. He was offered a contract with the Edmonton Eskimos but turned it down, because he was making more money working in the oil patch. They waited until she graduated from nursing school to get married, so that she could support them when he went back to university to study mechanical engineering. Every day, he left for school in the morning and then returned to their apartment, studying in the spare bedroom while she worked long shifts at the hospital. At the end of his second semester, she felt compelled to open a letter from the university that he’d left on a table. He hadn’t attended a single class since Christmas and had been expelled. (My father disputes this, maintaining he told her right away that he’d quit.)
“Why? ” she says she asked him. “Why did you lie to me, to my parents, to your parents, to everyone? ”
“It’s not that important,” he said.
“So what did you do all day while I was at work? ”
“I just killed time until you came home.”
He was telling the truth, in his way. He wanted to kill time, and maybe parts of himself, too. I think he did that by playing cards. Even in our games after supper — cribbage, bridge, hearts, smear, Chicago — he couldn’t tame his competitiveness. Deal him in and he’d set out to destroy everyone at the table, including his daughter. Although I wanted him to teach me how to skate or throw a football, our thing was cards. Sometimes I took a hand or two, but he was always the last man standing.
Winding up in a casino was probably my destiny. I was pushed there in 2012, after I turned down not one but two dream jobs, both of which would have meant moving to Toronto and putting my career before my children. I got a rebound offer from another publisher that let us stay in Calgary. It was a bad fit, but I stuck it out for a year before quitting. There was a brief wave of relief before regret overwhelmed me. When I wasn’t hiding in the bath, I was deadening my anxiety with wine. Then, one Sunday morning, a friend asked if I wanted to play in a tournament with her at Cash Casino. That’s what finally got me out of the house.
Every tournament, I try out a new strategy from the poker books I’m devouring. Today’s lesson is to see cheap flops by just calling the big blind (to make the minimum bet, cross your fingers, and hope the next three cards look something like your hole cards). But the tough guys at my table won’t let me limp in—poker-speak for not having the balls to raise.
I know my opponents can’t always have the big hands they’re representing, and I have to fight back. The goal is to look strong when you’re weak and weak when you’re strong. In this round, I have the advantage of being the last to bet. I look at my hole cards and see a pair of sevens. The best way to take this pot is to raise enough to get everyone else to fold before we see any communal cards. But not at this testosterone-fuelled table: Garland, one of the most aggressive regulars, raises the bet to five times the big blind. Sam, who plays a little tighter, re-raises it. All I can do is call and hope I hit one of two remaining sevens. Any of the other thirty-two cards left in the deck, I run away.
The flop comes: nine of clubs, seven of spades, ace of diamonds. I’ve made a set, or three of a kind, which is very, very strong. Better still, the guys aren’t even paying attention to me, just going mano-a-mano with one another. It’s the perfect set-up to win a monster pot; I just have to figure out how to trick them into going all-in without their realizing that I’m way ahead.
Garland throws in a yellow chip, worth $500, as well as a $1,000 silver chip. Sam re-raises to $3,000. (Thankfully, this is just tournament money: the most I can lose is the $40 buy-in.) I call, trapping them by appearing weak. Garland calls.
The turn is the king of spades. It’s an action card, which means all three of us probably have something worth betting. I could be up against a high pair or two pairs, some combination of aces, kings, and nines. My gut says neither of them has three of a kind. No one can make a straight (five cards in sequence), but there is a possible flush (five cards of the same suit) in the offing. Garland is crazy enough to chase a flush. Sam is still steaming from the last pot he lost to Garland, so he’ll come along for the opportunity to get his chips back. Garland bets $4,000. Sam calls, which means he’s likely got the ace of spades in his hand. I know I should bet all my chips and make them sweat, but I’ve lost my nerve, so I just call.
The river is the nine of spades. That completes at least one flush, and my three of a kind is history. Garland pushes his stack all-in. Sam snap calls. I fold. Sam’s ace-high flush beats Garland’s jack-high flush, just as I’d figured. It had taken everything for me not to gamble—I love going all-in—but now I silently pat myself on the back for a good fold.
It isn’t until Sam pulls the mountain of chips toward him that I realize the nine of spades didn’t just complete a flush; it also paired the board. I had three sevens and two nines, a full house. I had just folded the nuts on the biggest pot I’d ever been part of. All I can do is keep a stone face and force myself to utter the curt phrase—nice hand—the pros say after a bad beat. There is no place for regret at a poker table; the only thing that matters is what you decide to do next.
Late one Friday night, when I was a toddler, two RCMP officers knocked on the door of our house in Calgary and asked my mother if they could come in. She said no. She was waiting for her husband, she told them. He was the fleet manager for General Motors. They told her my father had been arrested after an incident in Mayerthorpe, 120 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. He had been drinking heavily. My dad could drink two twenty-sixes and appear stone-cold sober, but he’d wake up the next day and not know where he was. That night, he broke into the town pharmacy. He didn’t take anything, he says, but his fingerprints were found on a carton of cigarettes.
The crown prosecutor ordered my father to undergo a pretrial psychiatric evaluation. The night before his interview, Dad announced that he wouldn’t go. Mom told him he had no choice. He got out a .22-calibre long rifle and threatened to blow his head off in front of her. She was just a tiny slip of a thing, but she made him give her the gun, then called the police. He says he doesn’t remember any of this.
It was determined that he knew the difference between right and wrong and thus was fit to stand trial. That my father might also have some sort of personality disorder, or an addiction to alcohol, was never considered. He was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, which made my mother furious. “You have some nerve,” she said to the judge when she took the stand as a defence witness. “My husband is not a criminal.”
“Madam, alcohol is no excuse for anything,” the judge replied. Still, he gave my father a conditional discharge and probation. The family minister told my mother to leave him, as did a psychiatrist at the hospital where she worked. “Whether he has a single dollar or a million dollars, whether he’s in jail or in a mansion, he will live exactly the same way,” the doctor said. “He’s found a way of being that works for him.”
When most folks bust out of a tournament, they either slink away or migrate to the cash game at the table closest to the door. I seem to be the only one who’s happy to stay and watch other people play. My voyeurism is called railing, and it prompts Wilson, the pit boss, to try to tempt me to the dark side.
“There are seats open at the cash table.”
“I can’t play cash.”
“You’re good enough. I’ve seen you.”
“Wilson, I don’t play cash.” He’s on to something, though. I’m making final tables far more quickly than I should. In fact, I just placed third and won $195.
“Just go over to the window and give them a hundred,” he whispers. “You won’t miss it.”
The back door swings open and in walks a trio of donkeys, flush with money from the oil patch. They sit down at the cash table and signal for the waitress. The regulars keep tossing in chips, bantering away, but there’s an imperceptible sharpening of their focus. It’s not as if they are going to collude overtly—that would be cheating—but for the next several hours, they will band together to take down the fresh meat.
I bite my lower lip, eyeing an open chair at Table 1. “Wilson, you don’t want me to say yes. If I give in too easily, where’s the fun in it for you? ”
I tell myself I’m being disciplined, but mostly I fear what I might be capable of. I’ve already given in to superstition: I can only park on the left side of the lot (because I’m left-handed), and, before I can get out of my car, I have to gloss my lips melon-orange with Chanel Volupté. Although I can see better with my glasses, I made my first final table wearing contacts, so now I always wear them, even if I have to squint to tell eights from nines. I put so much thought into how I dress that my husband complains I care more about what my poker buddies think than about what he does.
While I have always been a sucker for lost boys, at the tables, I know, I’m looking for a daddy. I gravitate toward Joe, a mountain of a man whose name is always at the top of the poker-league standings. He’s not easily charmed, but eventually he lets me sit behind him and see his hole cards when he reaches a final table. I’m a quick study, but I don’t want anyone to figure that out. And so I play the blond card with Cowboy, who’s got a delightful way of turning everything I say into a naughty double entendre. I do the same with Sam, a retired cop who was left paralyzed from the waist down after a tree-trimming accident. The pit bosses jump into action when Sam rolls in, clearing a space and making sure there’s a black coffee waiting, followed by a coffee with cream, and then, if he’s doing well, a Kokanee. He looks a bit like my father, not so much for how handsome he is but because of his dull, wary eyes and the ruby ring on his finger. Athletes and gamblers love their man-jewels, which meant my dad loved his twice as hard.
I’m driving home along deserted streets, wired after winning the $200 Friday-night ladies tournament. The female regulars are tougher nuts to crack than their male counterparts, and, after grinding my way to the final table, I had to shoot back a beer to calm my nerves. My husband is waiting up in bed for me. I’m excited to tell him about my miraculous finish and the envelope full of cash.
“Do you know what time it is? ” he says.
“Yeah, it’s, like, 2 a.m.,’” I answer, getting undressed. “But I won—I actually won the whole thing—and this time I had to play with a cold deck and be really patient.” I beam up at him.
“I called you. I called you several times.”
“Oh, I didn’t even look at my phone. I was losing and was on a short stack, so then I had to go to work to build my stack back—”
“I was really worried. It’s way past midnight. You’re in a casino in a lousy part of town. You’re terrified of driving in the winter. You didn’t call. You didn’t answer your phone.”
I apologize and promise to check in with him as often as he wants. I’ll say whatever’s required to make him trust me again.
Bit by bit, my dad chipped away at the illusion that he was like other fathers. He always took me out for my birthday, a special date to the best restaurants, just the two of us. The night I turned twelve, he took me to the Four Seasons, where I ordered a magical main course called “Scampi in Love” and the tuxedoed waiter made cherries jubilee tableside for dessert. When the bill came, my father pulled out a company credit card. That was when I knew I’d outgrown him.
He was selling life insurance then, and his boss called my mother to tell her that he had to let my father go. After seventeen years, she decided to cut her losses. He left with a suitcase and $10 in the bank, refusing to go to court during the divorce proceedings. He didn’t pay child support. While I was paying my way through university, he became a car salesman. After that, he spent eighteen years in the casino industry, working his way up from dealer to slot supervisor to pit boss and then, finally, to camera surveillance. All in all, he enjoyed himself.
He never hit me or even raised his voice. He was always proud and positive, telling me I could be the prime minister of Canada, and that I would someday transform from an ugly duckling into a swan. But it was hard to believe him; the only thing he did consistently was lie. I began killing him off in my head, which worked until I married a good, responsible man and had children of my own. My father came to my wedding and happily enjoyed the hospitality paid for by his ex-wife, daughter, and new son-in-law. He thought he could pretend to be a grandfather, but that wasn’t good enough for my five-year-old girls, and I stopped returning his infrequent calls. I guess I hoped losing me would make him grow up. Or, if I wasn’t enough for him, that not seeing his golden granddaughters might do the trick. I was wrong.
I didn’t see him for seven years, although I agonized over my decision. Then, in 2012, I ran into him at the entrance to my bank. He said hello as if we had met for lunch the week before. The girls were with me, and they recognized the gaunt stranger with the liver spots; they looked at me with such empathy that it was all I could do to keep myself from crying. My husband led them inside.
Without missing a beat, my dad started reciting a list of everything bad that had happened to him since we last spoke. The anger, the shame, the regret, the loss all bubbled up in my blood, and what came out of my mouth was the truth: “You were a terrible father.” I paused and pushed the last of my chips forward. “I’m sorry I had to say that. If you want to talk, if you ever want to really talk, I will listen. But you have to be willing to go there with me.”
There was a silence between us that didn’t last nearly long enough. Then he shrugged. He said, “Things happen.” Six months later, I started playing poker at Cash Casino.
“Welcome back, Shelley Kelly.” Wilson takes my $40 and hands me my seating card for the Wednesday 10 a.m. tournament: Table 4, Seat 1. I hand it right back. “I’ll take any other seat but that one,” I say, superstition fully in charge. I can’t win at Seat 1, with pocket queens, or if Glenn is dealing. No matter how hungry I am, I can’t order the beef dip, which is the best in the city. If there’s another woman playing at my table, I’m sunk.
“You haven’t been around much lately,” says Leo, my favourite dealer. He’s right. I’ve stopped playing on weekends so that I can be with my family. Now I just pop in for the occasional weekday morning tournament. It’s the best time to play poker. All the regulars are here, ordering $2.99 breakfasts, busting each other’s balls, and avoiding the buzz, buzz, buzz of customers wondering when the hell the furnace guy is going to show up. I miss the camaraderie of the room and the challenge of the game, but I don’t need them anymore. I’ve moved on.
“Here comes the shark,” Joe announces, bemused and a little pissed at the progress I’ve made under his tutelage. Cowboy gives me a hug, pressing his dry-cleaned Wranglers into me. I’m happy to see the Bills: red-haired Bill, tall Bill, old Bill, comb-over Bill (also known as Farmer Bill), and courtly Bill, who reaches into his jacket to give me chocolates. I pour myself a cup of coffee, make sure my phone is on mute, and take my chair. For the next few hours, it’s just me, with cards to come, chips to play, and my own choices to make.
This appeared in the January/February 2016 issue.