Poker at Charles Town Races and Greenbrier

Writer and poker player Justin Moyer leaves the smoky, crowded card rooms of Atlantic City for the genteel poker tables of West Virginia.
Map of The Greenbrier and Charles Town Races in West Virginia
By Justin Moyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Smoky, crowded and intimidating have a place. Just not here."

This is the motto of the Greenbrier Casino Club, one of two West Virginia casinos that, under the watchful eye of the West Virginia Lottery Commission, began spreading live poker earlier this month.

Now, I'm a poker player from Philadelphia who learned the game in Atlantic City's smoky, crowded and intimidating card rooms long before Jennifer Tilly appeared on Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," and even though I quit smoking, I'm set in my churlish, misanthropic ways. A "nice" card room? Sounds pleasant, but unnatural, like Catholicism without guilt.

Still, for a member of Washington's huge, underserved poker community exiled to penny-ante home games and sketchy underground card clubs, Texas Hold 'Em in a neighboring state sounds like paradise. Sure, slots have been available at Charles Town Races for years, but serious card players won't walk across a casino -- and certainly won't drive to Appalachia -- for a visit to the one-armed bandit.

But West Virginia coal magnate Jim Justice has brought honest-to-goodness table games to the Greenbrier, a 232-year-old resort nestled in White Sulphur Springs, just over the Virginia border. Might this magic mountain have a card room to rival the Borgata or the Bellagio? I booked a $350 room and made the four-plus-hour, 250-mile drive west to find out.

The first problem was parking. "Valet" isn't a four-letter word, but when free self-parking is available within a one- or two-day walk from his final destination, a cheap poker player dare not speak it, lest a uniformed gent who depends on tips to survive appear with high hopes and an expectant look. My search for self-parking on the narrow lanes of Greenbrier's lush 6,500-acre property did include near-collisions with two small children and three large horses, but it did not end in success. I slunk back to the valet, resigned to the inevitability of gratuity.

An hour later, I left my well-appointed room and its complimentary holiday ornament and, on the way to the casino, stopped in the upper lobby for the Greenbrier's daily complimentary afternoon tea. I prefer gambling to tea parties, but there was no way not to be charmed by this olde-tyme Southern-flavored ritual. I sipped a cup, ate a pistachio-flavored cookie, watched a high-stakes checkers game and felt like Mark Twain without the handlebar mustache and white suit.

I was, however, wearing a jacket. By Greenbrier diktat that sacrifices business to keep out the local riffraff, one must be both a guest at the expensive hotel and, after 7 p.m., appropriately dressed to gamble. I made my way down the hotel's sweeping staircases to the basement, where, not far from a decommissioned Cold War-era bunker designed to house the entire United States Congress in the event of a nuclear attack, Justice has built a modest casino with 320 slots, a dozen table games and, for your correspondent who could have made a shorter drive to spend his weekend in Atlantic City, a "poker room": two poker tables that didn't open until 7 p.m., manned by one dealer. The second table was, it seems, only for show.

"They're not really sure poker is going to take off," the lone dealer said when questioned about the Greenbrier's meager poker zone. (Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?) He added that there hadn't been enough interest to get a game going since the casino's opening night, a star-studded affair on July 2 featuring Shaquille O'Neill and Barbara Eden, among other celebrities.

With Shaq and Jeannie long gone, I wandered around the Greenbrier killing time until a game got going. I ate tempura and steamed bok choy at In-Fusion, a serviceable pan-Asian restaurant staffed with talkative student workers imported from China's Guangdong province who were less than thrilled to be spending their summer in wild, wonderful West Virginia. I played Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" on one of the many pianos that litter the hotel like abandoned newspapers. I watched a preview of "Prince of Persia" starring Jake Gyllenhaal loop on my room's flat screen.

When I returned to the casino at around 9 p.m., I helped get a pitiful three-handed $1-2 no-limit game going. By 10 p.m., the casino was still half-empty -- most people preferring craps and blackjack to slots or poker -- but we had enough players for a full table. On the stroke of the hour, a recorded voice boomed over the casino's P.A.; all gamblers were directed to watch a posse of waiters and waitresses who, apropos of nothing, danced in David-Lynchian fashion to "The Greenbrier Waltz," an original composition, for the entertainment of all assembled. (I've been to many casinos in my life, but the Greenbrier's is the only one that demanded I stop gambling to do something else.) By 11 p.m., our table was still full. Though a few players expressed interest in starting another game, there was no wait list, no second dealer and no way to accommodate them. There were no chip racks. The booze wasn't free. Some players were surprised that the casino existed at all.

"I was sick of dancing and was, like, wait -- isn't there a casino down here?" said a young medical student in the 8-seat, a refugee from a wedding hosted by the hotel upstairs. This player's drunkenness and the dealer's inability to count side pots made for excruciatingly slow action. Around 12:30 a.m., I took my considerable winnings -- the field at Greenbrier is microscopic, but weak -- and retreated to my room to dream of a better gambling experience.

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