What a Deal
In Atlantic City, Casinos Offer Free Poker Training and Nonstop Tournament Play

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When it comes to poker in Atlantic City, you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em and know when to stop the game and ask, "Excuse me, does a straight beat a flush?"

Today, everybody's a poker pro -- or wants to be. Online poker, televised high-stakes tournaments and A-to-D-list celebrity players are fueling the craze. To be sure, if Andy Dick can lord over a Texas Hold 'Em table, why can't a Crazy Eights player like me ante up?

Step 1: Learn how to play. Which meant a trip to Atlantic City.

Turns out, if you're ready to ride the poker mania, Atlantic City is happy to teach you -- for free. Several casinos offer scheduled poker instruction or provide walk-up lessons, gratis. And with multiple tournaments open to all levels of play day or night, you can go from rookie to marathon player in a single weekend.

On a recent Friday night, the small crescent-shaped poker room at Resorts Atlantic City was half-full and oddly hushed. (Unlike craps or roulette players, few poker folks scream in glee or wail like widows.) I was the only one at the 8 p.m. class, which was taught by a patient young man named Chris. I told him I wanted to enroll in a tournament by weekend's close; he asked me what I knew about poker.

"Aces are high," I said. "That's pretty much it."

He didn't flinch.

"You don't need to be a pro to play a tournament," Chris said, "as long as you know the basics of the game."

On a scale of difficulty, Texas Hold 'Em is harder than pulling a slot machine arm but easier than besting the blackjack dealer. Chris walked me through the pecking order of winning hands, starting from the bottom: high card (ace, followed by king, queen, etc.), one pair, two pair, three of a kind, straight (consecutive numbers), flush (five of the same suit -- 1{club}, 5{club}, 7{club}, 8{club}, 10{club}), full house (three of the same number and a pair -- 9 {diam} , 9 {heart} , 9{spade}, 6{club}, 6 {diam} ), four of a kind, straight flush (consecutive and same suit -- 2 {heart} , 3 {heart} , 4 {heart} , 5 {heart} , 6 {heart} ) and royal flush (10, jack, queen, king and ace in the same suit -- the elusive snow leopard of the poker world).

"A lot of the younger people are playing Texas Hold 'Em," said Joe Luca, a jocular floor manager at the Borgata casino. "The game is quick, as opposed to stud. It's about chance and calculating your cards against the community cards and the amount that's in the pot."

For Step 2 of my poker education -- betting, blinds, buy-ins and how to achieve the perfect poker face -- I wandered into the unadorned poker room of the Trump Taj Mahal. Paula, a Taj employee, squeezed me in between her floor management duties.

Texas Hold 'Em is made for multi-taskers. Besides focusing on the cards in your hand and on the table, you must calculate bets and read the faces and body language of your fanged competitors. "It's a game of bluffing. You need to know who's honest and who's not," said Gene, a baby-faced tournament player who was dispensing tips. "People will raise to scare you."

It's hard to be frightened if you don't have a firm grasp of the game. For my first real outing, I took a seat at a regular game already in progress. The 10 gamblers, including myself, seemed genuinely shocked when I won a hand. Of course, every good poker player knows to walk away when you're up. So I cashed in my chips and strutted off $8 richer.

The real challenge of my card-shark weekend in Atlantic City was a bona fide Texas Hold 'Em tournament. An afternoon competition at the Vegas-chill Borgata cost $75, for which I received 2,000 "dollars" in chips. (You play for a tournament prize instead of an actual pot.)

The dealer threw out the first cards. And around we went, tossing in our colored chips and taking surreptitious peeks at our cards. I took note of my competitors' expressions and tics; the balding man who never raised his gaze above his nose looked like trouble.

The tourney took on an almost meditative pattern. Cards dealt, bets placed, cards discarded -- repeat. Players were slowly dropping out as they took the big gamble, betting all of their chips and then getting the boot. The game limped along until I saw my chance: I had 7{spade} and 8 {diam} in my hand, and the cards on the table showed a 6 {diam} , 9 {diam} , 10{spade}. I pushed all of my chips to the center, proclaimed "All in," then put on my poker face -- naked gloating. I won it all. I even had the honor of being called a hustler by the mustachioed man in the left corner.

If this hadn't been a tournament, I could have walked off with a couple of hundred dollars. Unfortunately, in tourneys, only the top players take home the cash -- the rest go broke. Ninety minutes into the game, we were three. I had only peanuts left and so I pulled another all-in, hoping that my king really did have a heart. I was trounced by a wan pair of sixes. "You got a bad beat," Jeffrey said conciliatorily as he pocketed $350.

Yes, lady was unlucky that day, but I did have that eight bucks burning a hole in my pocket.

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