In the moments before the first hand was dealt, before one amateur and seven pros sat down to play in a made-for-TV poker game, Gene Drubetskoy plopped an enormous brick of cash onto the “Poker Night in America” table and shrugged.
“Sorry, that’s all they had at the bank,” Drubetskoy said as a Maryland Live Casino employee studied the bundle of $20 bills — 500 of them in all, banded and stacked and withdrawn by Drubetskoy on the way to the biggest game he’d ever played.
The 33-year-old Reisterstown, Md., mortgage consultant exchanged the cash for $10,000 worth of casino chips and exhaled; he was ready for his high-stakes close-up.
Drubetskoy had responded to an open casting call for “Poker Night in America,” a new show that’s bringing cash-game poker back to U.S. television. (Non-tournament poker disappeared from the dial after the Department of Justice squashed Internet poker on April 15, 2011, and the sector’s marketing money dried up.)
Producers of the series, who are negotiating a national distribution deal, invited professional players to come in from all over North America for the games at Maryland Live, then added local amateurs to the lineup to provide another potential story line.
“We bring the stars, but we want to make new stars, too,” said Nolan Dalla, the show’s creative director. “This is a dream, to play among the best and be seen on television. We’re serious about giving new talent a chance.”
Drubetskoy was one of three local amateurs picked to play in the first session on the first of two days of filming in the casino at the Arundel Mills mall in late March. So early one recent afternoon, Drubetskoy was under the TV lights in a game with stakes well beyond anything he’d ever played: $25 and $50, with a minimum $5,000 buy-in.
“It’s like just another day at the office,” joked Drubetskoy, who plays recreationally at the Maryland Live poker room several times each week, usually at the $2-$5 and $5-$10 no-limit hold ’em tables. “There isn’t much difference; it’s just poker.”
Of course, there was $68,500 in play as the cameras started rolling at Rams Head Center Stage, which was transformed into a single-table poker room for the shoot late last month
And Drubetskoy was sitting with seven pros with nine World Series of Poker championship bracelets among them — none more notable than the one Greg Merson won in the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event, the most significant tournament in the poker world.
“It’s my dream to have an opportunity to play with these guys and sit with the best,” Drubetskoy said. “I mean, it’s like if you play a sport, you always wonder if you are good enough to be one of the best and play with the pros.”
He didn’t want to become one of them, he added. “My father always said, ‘You need to earn money, not win money.’ ”
Drubetskoy simply wanted to measure his skills against the pros and see what would happen when he tangled with the likes of Matt Glantz, Gavin Smith and Merson, who grew up in Columbia, a few minutes from Arundel Mills.
Could he compete? His wife, Enessa, thought so.
“I told her I was going to buy in for $5,000, the minimum,” Drubetskoy said. “She looks at me and says: ‘No, you’re going to buy in for 10.’ It was kind of cool to hear; she’s really confident in me, maybe more confident than I was.”
The game began. Drubetskoy folded more hands than he played. He avoided major confrontations with the other players. He was winning medium-sized pots — enough to add about $4,000 to his starting stack — but wasn’t particularly aggressive.
“You can definitely tell he’s played quite a bit of poker and knows what he’s doing,” Merson said of Drubetskoy during a break. “There are certain spots where he’s playing too weak, but playing in a bigger game, that’s not the worst thing. He doesn’t want to put himself in a tough decision for a lot of money.”
Tom Schneider noticed.
The four-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner from Arizona had been studying the unknown amateur since they arrived.
“I pick up clues immediately,” Schneider said. “If you come in, like Gene did, and all your bills are 20s, it means you don’t have casino chips and you don’t have 100s. It means you went to the bank and money is probably more important to you. You’ll be a little tighter with it than somebody who comes in with $20,000 in $5,000 casino chips, which means they’re probably a gambler in the pit and money won’t mean as much to them.”
Schneider had decided the amateur wasn’t somebody he needed to spend much time thinking about and adjusted his game accordingly. “Gene is playing a little too passively. He’s a lot easier to play against because I don’t feel like he’s going to make a lot of plays against me.”
Drubetskoy didn’t disagree. “Playing with these guys, I have to decrease the number of hands I play,” he said. “I’m playing tight. But it’s a good learning experience.”
The game resumed, with the action appearing in real time on the big-screen TVs in the split-level, 52-table poker room, which is usually the busiest card room on the East Coast. Mike Smith, Maryland Live’s director of poker operations, stood behind Drubetskoy and talked about what it would mean for a local amateur to beat the pros. “Maryland players are proud, and they should be,” he said. “It would obviously feed that pride.”
Nearby, another Maryland Live regular, Richie Smith, laughed. “Gene is a terrible poker player,” he said. He added that he was joking — which itself may have been a bluff. “Gene’s a good guy, and he’s probably having the time of his life, playing with all those guys.”
Another local player, Jerry Schlichting, threw Drubetskoy a bag of cashews and almonds. “I’m giving you the nuts,” he said, making a poker joke. “I hope it helps.”
Away from the table, Schlichting said it was strange to see Drubetskoy — with whom he’s played countless times, at much lower levels — sitting at a TV table, mixing it up with the pros.
“I’m definitely jealous,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Then, suddenly, Drubetskoy stood up and scrunched his face in displeasure.
He’d just lost a pot, worth about $30,000, to David Baker, the pro sitting to his left. Drubetskoy had two kings; Baker had two aces — and all of Drubetskoy’s chips.
The amateur put another brick of cash on the table in an effort to recover what he’d lost (he was still down about $10,000 when the session ended and the cameras stopped rolling). Then, he slumped in his chair.
“That’s poker,” he said.