By Justin Moyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; F01
"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.
The next morning, I enjoyed the luxurious buffet in the Main Dining Room, then checked out. To preserve my reputation for thrift after a night in such luxury, I took the bottles of Greenbrier Citrus Clarifying Shampoo, Greenbrier Citrus Clarifying Conditioner and Greenbrier Citrus Body Balm, plus a Greenbrier Cucumber facial bar. To preserve a bit of my dignity, I tipped the valet and left the holiday ornament.
* * *
Three-and-a-half hours later and 200 miles north in Charles Town, W.Va., I was in another disorganized poker room, doing all I could not to bet on a horse.
Since I haven't eaten meat since 1995, wear pleather shoes and believe that Mr. Ed and Barbaro got raw deals, I can't imagine why suckers like to wager on whether beautiful, noble, highly evolved mammals can run around a dirt track faster than other oppressed members of their own sad-eyed species. Still, tedium breeds moral failure as surely as Secretariat sired General Assembly.
Thus, while waiting more than four hours for a seat in the chaotic, understaffed poker room at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, I found myself placing three bets in the No. 7 race: $2 on Divine Plan, a Kentucky native, to win; $2 on Miss Fantastic, a hometown girl bred in Maryland, to show; and $2 on Florida's own Passum Pattie to place. Since my knowledge of horseracing doesn't extend beyond passing familiarity with "Guys and Dolls," my bets had been guided by "the Fox," a slick-haired gentleman known only by his horseracing handle who, for $3.50, sold me a program and his eponymous photocopied "Fox's Tip Sheet." Though a hard-earned $6 was on the line, I wasn't worried. The Fox assured me that his record for picking winners was unimpeachable.
Standing in the air-conditioned clubhouse bathed in secondhand cigarette smoke, I watched the horses line up at the gate. A hot July sun battered the tattooed crowd, the course and a Taco Bell glimmering from the strip mall beyond the track with harsh yellow light. Then, without warning, they were off. The ponies ran seven furlongs, pounding the dirt with the hearty zeal of mighty beasts unaware that they could one day become glue. Though the enthusiastic exhortations of the audience might have led the uninitiated to think otherwise, this was no photo finish. Passum Pattie handily won the race (for me, paying nothing), Divine Plan came in second (paying 1.5-1), and the Fox's high hopes for Miss Fantastic, who finished seventh, were dashed. In this way, my $6 became $3.
Meanwhile, in the poker room, my name was still adrift on lengthy $1-$2, $2-$5 and $5-$10 no-limit wait lists. Since Hollywood's evolving poker policy prevents players not seated at tables from watching the action -- a strange choice for a casino trying to interest patrons in any new game -- a horde of sweaty dudes convened behind the velvet rope, railbirds without a rail, killing time staring at their iPhones while jockeying for uncomfortable chairs that, in this ad hoc waiting room, were in short supply. I was reminded of Washington's Greyhound station when a bus is late, or the time I was detained by the Canadian Border Patrol.
Committed to waiting out the hundreds of names ahead of mine, I wandered through Hollywood's packed, labyrinthine gaming floor -- with 5,000 slot machines and 85 table games, more than 10 times as large as the Greenbrier's -- to the expansive food court, bypassing reasonably priced, vegetarian-unfriendly Asian entrees at Zen Noodle to plop down $20 for the appropriately named Epic Buffet. With a wide selection of dishes and a decent salad bar, Epic was particularly epic in the dessert arena, where eclairs battled creme brulee battled pineapple upside-down cake for a piece of every hungry gambler's love handles.
But I couldn't mainline maraschino cherries from the brownie station forever. I returned to the poker room at around 5:30 p.m. to claim the first open seat at whatever table I could. At 7:15 p.m., I finally got one in a $10-20 limit game. As at the Greenbrier, the drinks weren't free, but once I was seated, my game was run as efficiently as any in a Las Vegas casino.
Only about half of the room's 27 tables were going, but rumors circulated that the other half were merely awaiting approval from West Virginia's presumably rigorous gaming inspectors. A floorman confirmed that, though only 28 dealers were available, 100 had been hired and were awaiting licensing. Charles Town won't rival the Borgata, but it could offer a medium-sized poker room with daily tournaments by the fall. The dealers are competent and the field -- unfortunately -- not just Appalachian rubes; I was surrounded by tough opponents from Washington and Baltimore who had taken half my stake before I got comfortable in my seat.
At midnight, I didn't leave Hollywood broke, but with substantially less than when I'd walked in. Unless I wanted to pay for a suite, the Inn at Charles Town, Hollywood's on-site, 153-room hotel, was fully booked. I retreated to a $60-per-night, one-star Knights Inn across the street with a drab carpet, iffy hot water and an asthmatic air conditioner. Free HBO blunted memories of an argument I'd witnessed in the poker room: the loser of a pot berating the winner for his poor play until said winner invited him to settle the debate in the parking lot.
Hmm . . . smoky, crowded and intimidating. It was just like going home again.