The whole thing was the government’s fault. I know that’s not exactly an original sentiment these days, but I’m not talking about abortion, or guns, or any of the other shit that gets people bent out of shape on talk radio shows every afternoon. For me, it was much more personal than that. They took away my livelihood.
On April 15, 2011, the Department of Justice shut down online poker in the United States. A lot of folks were pretty pissed off, but I’m guessing that it wasn't really that big of a deal for most of them. I suppose that it made it harder to chase the pipe dream of parlaying a thirty-nine dollar satellite buy-in into a huge payday at the World Series. Some guys probably had to find new hobbies. People bitched about it for a while, and then got on with their lives.
My situation was a bit more complicated. By 2011, online poker had been my full-time job for more than three years. When they blew it all up, it was like they personally handed me a pink slip. Even worse, actually, because there was no notice, no severance package, nothing to cushion the blow. They even froze my playing accounts, so I couldn’t even get to the cash that I’d already earned.
I’m sure that the administration’s lawyers weren't thinking about guys like me back then. They were just enforcing the laws, and if they thought they were hurting anybody, it was the shady offshore operators who ran the poker sites. No one was looking to put the players in jail. I guess that was fair enough, but it didn’t change the fact that I was out of a job.
That’s what I mean when I say that everything was the government’s fault. If they hadn’t ended my career, I would have been happy to stay up north. I never would have come down to the Keys, and I never would have gotten involved with John Wainwright, or his daughter. Maybe I’d have become a big-time card player and won millions playing tournaments on TV. Maybe I’d have met a nice girl and settled down. But that’s not how things worked out. Fucking bureaucratic assholes….
I met John Wainwright about three months after I moved to Marathon, in a lawyer’s office in the strip mall across the Overseas Highway from the airport. He was a handsome man, every bit of six feet tall, with an air of fitness about him and a closely cropped patch of white hair covering his head. I guessed that he was around the same age as my father. His khaki trousers and plain white dress shirt fit him nicely. Compared to the other old men shuffling around town in their lounge wear, he looked positively dashing.
His arrival took me by surprise. The lawyer was out to lunch, and so was our receptionist/secretary/paralegal, so I was the only one there at the time. It wasn’t a busy practice, and we didn’t get many walk-ins. I was just about to head outside for a cigarette when I heard the door open, so I slid my lighter back into my pocket and walked around the corner to see who was there. I saw Wainwright standing in the doorway, looking around as if he was trying to figure out if anyone was home. As I came into the room, I greeted him. “Good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon,” he replied in a rich, deep voice, as he shut the door behind him.
After he did so, he turned to face me, and I sensed that he was sizing me up. That went on long enough to make me uncomfortable, so I finally spoke. “Can I, uh… can I help you with something?”
He smiled and extended his hand. “John Wainwright,” he announced. I gripped his hand firmly and told him my name, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries before he went on. “I was hoping that we might discuss…”
I interrupted him before he could finish his sentence. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wainwright, but I’m… uh… not a lawyer. I mean, I think you probably want to talk to Mr. Baker.” I made a show of checking my watch. “He should be back after lunch.”
A look of amusement appeared on the old man’s face. “Lunch, huh?” he asked, and when I nodded, he started laughing. “Well,” he chuckled, “if you want to call a pint of bourbon and a handful of ice cubes ‘lunch,’ then I reckon that’s true enough.” I smiled awkwardly and shrugged, trying to figure out how I was supposed to reply to that, but he spared me. “My apologies,” he went on. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He smiled again before adding, “I’ve known Bob Baker for years.” I noticed that his Southern accent seemed to be thickening with each word that left his lips.
Relieved, I exhaled and tried to flash him a knowing look. I’d only been working for Baker for about two months, but I’d already figured out that he was a drunk. Hell, I’d met him in a bar, lamenting our lots over Wild Turkey and ginger ale. I told him that I needed to find a way to make some cash, and he said that I could help him out with a few things. When I showed up at his office the next day, it took him a few minutes to remember who I was, but he held up his end of the bargain. He operated at the very bottom of the legal barrel: nasty divorces, phantom injuries, and shady insurance claims, and he put me to work on some real lowlife shit. I followed various scumbags around town and took pictures of them, usually while they screwed women that weren’t their wives or played pick-up basketball after they’d told their insurance companies that they weren’t able to walk. At first, I had a tough time with it, and I had to keep reminding myself that it was just a temporary gig. I was absolutely sure that I’d sort myself out quickly and move on.
Baker paid me by the job, usually a couple hundred bucks each time, in cash. It was all off the books. I’m pretty sure that you’re supposed to have some sort of license to do private investigation work, but both of us were OK with bending the rules. He got incriminating pictures for his cases at a cut rate, and I made more cash than I would have if I’d been waiting tables at Applebee’s. Also, to be honest, I found myself getting off on the voyeuristic aspect of it all. There was something unexpectedly compelling about watching the high school football coach bang the school nurse in a motel room while their respective spouses were home watching Wheel of Fortune. I’m not saying that I wanted to do it forever, but I have to admit that it hadn’t taken long for me to get more comfortable with it than I ever thought I would.
Wainwright spoke again. “I’m not actually looking to see Bob today. I was hoping that maybe you could help me out.”
I hesitated for few seconds before stammering out a reply. “I don’t think that I’m the guy you wanna talk to. I don’t, uh… really… work here… officially. I just sort of help Mr. Baker out sometimes….”
He smiled and nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Just a little help. A little unofficial help.”
“Well, I, uh…” Before I was able to say anything else, the door opened and Baker’s secretary, Annie, returned from lunch, clutching her Diet Coke in one hand. She looked surprised to see anyone else in the office, but she walked right past us and took her place at her desk on the other side of the room without saying a word. I turned back to Wainwright to continue our conversation, but he ended it before I could say anything else.
“Tell you what… if you want to talk some more, why don’t you stop by my place tonight. Say, seven o’clock?” While he spoke, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a card, which he handed to me. On it was his name, along with an address in Grassy Key, maybe fifteen minutes outside of town. While I was reading it, he leaned in and added in a low voice, “Of course, there’ll be some cash in it for you.” Without waiting for my response, he turned and walked out the door. I stood there for another minute or so, running my fingers over the card and trying to make sense of what had just happened, before I went outside and finally had that cigarette.
Moving to the Keys wasn’t the first thing I’d thought of doing once I figured out that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing poker in my living room. After the government shut down those web sites, it took me a few days to understand what had happened. I kept trying to log on to PokerStars, but every time I did, the only thing that popped up on my screen was an ominous-sounding notice which began, “This domain name has been seized by the F.B.I. pursuant to an arrest warrant…” The message went on to cite the various federal statutes that one would violate if one were to engage in the business of conducting, financing, managing, supervising, directing, or owning all or part of an illegal gambling enterprise. After seeing it enough times, I finally got it through my head that the situation wasn’t going to fix itself any time soon, and I tried to figure out what to do next.
Right away, I decided to pursue the most obvious avenue that I could see, which was to keep playing poker. The government had only closed the online arena; there were still plenty of places to play the old-fashioned way, with people you could see and cards you could touch. I didn’t live that far from Atlantic City, and all of the casinos down there had perfectly legal poker rooms. The newer places in Philadelphia were adding them as well, and even the Indian joints in Connecticut were close enough. I also remembered that, back when I’d lived in New York, there had been a number of card rooms scattered around Manhattan. Those weren’t sanctioned by the state, and I figured that the ones I’d known were long gone, but I was pretty sure that I could find their replacements if I asked the right people. I imagined cruising around the tri-state area in search of the juiciest games, kind of like a real-life version of Matt Damon’s character in Rounders, minus the life-threatening debts to the Russian mob. I was thrilled to give it a try.
My enthusiasm for this plan lasted all of one day. I woke up early and drove to Atlantic City, where I spent nineteen hours playing a series of $1-$3 No-Limit Hold ’Em games at the Borgata. I did OK, money-wise, but the experience revealed a number of drawbacks to live play that I hadn’t taken into account. First of all, there was the radical difference in the pace of the game. Online poker moves quickly; you don’t have to wait for dealers to shuffle cards, players are forced to act within thirty seconds, and empty seats are filled instantly. In real life, all of those little delays add up to a considerable amount of dead time. Poker is a game in which a good player might expect to have an advantage over his opponents, but that advantage generally will be small. In order for it to translate into significant profits, it needs to be applied to a large number of hands. When I played on the internet, not only was each table dealing many more hands per hour than they would in a casino, but I also had the ability to play multiple tables simultaneously. Even after one day, it was clear that I was going to have to play higher-stakes games if I was going to have a chance at making anywhere near as much money in person as I did online.
That led me to think about the quality of the opposition that I’d be facing. It stood to reason that higher-stakes games would be tougher to beat, so I was hesitant to move in that direction. Even at the lower levels, the standard of play at the Borgata was generally higher than what I’d been seeing on PokerStars. Novice players that watched poker on TV and wanted to give it a try might have been willing to turn on their computer and throw away a few hundred bucks, but they were less likely to get in their cars and drive to the shore in order to try it out. Not having guys like that at the table definitely took away some of my edge.
Those were real concerns, but if they were the only issues I had with live poker, I might have been able to work around them. I could have gotten used to the slower pace, and I probably could have discovered venues that offered combinations of stakes and difficulty that I would have found profitable enough. But even if I had managed to sort all of that out, there was no way around the single biggest problem with playing poker with real, live people, which is the simple fact that poker players are a bunch of assholes. Paranoid, abrasive, petty, defensive… sitting with them for a day was like taking a crash course in antisocial personality disorders. I understand that psychological warfare is a legitimate element of poker, and if you can get your opponents flustered or angry, they’re likely to make mistakes that you can exploit. Certain well-known players employ these tactics with great success, which is part of the problem; everybody watches those guys on TV and wants to imitate them. If I ever play against a famous pro and he starts giving me shit, it might well get into my head and affect my game. When that stream of disparagement comes from a middle-aged deadbeat who can’t get over the fact that I had the audacity to outdraw his pocket jacks, it’s just annoying.
Spending that one day in Atlantic City with those people was enough to show me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on a full-time basis. It was funny, because most of their bullshit wasn’t even directed at me. I pretty much kept quiet and did my own thing, and I managed not to draw much fire from my table mates. Even so, the amount of arguing, sniping and general unpleasantness was enough to render the whole atmosphere toxic. As I drove home late that night, I realized that enduring it for any length of time would have defeated the whole purpose of playing poker for a living. If I’d wanted to spend long hours in a depressing place, surrounded by rude people looking to second-guess everything I did, I would have just become a corporate lawyer and at least gotten a regular paycheck out of it.
Once I abandoned the idea of taking my poker career from the internet into the real world, I thought about getting another “straight” job. In the eight years since I’d gotten out of college, I’d worked for a bank, taught SAT prep courses to high-school kids, and then, after a two-year spell tending bar, worked in sales for a pharmaceutical company. Actually, at that point, my parents still believed that I had that last job. I figured that they wouldn’t have been thrilled to hear that I’d given it up to become a gambler, so I never mentioned it. They seemed happy that I wasn’t living in their house or using their money to pay my bills, and they didn’t ask a ton of questions about my situation. It wasn’t all that difficult to maintain the fiction.
I spent the next few weeks combing job listings and sending resumes, but I wasn’t able to attract so much as a nibble. Given that I was thirty years old, had no marketable skills whatsoever, and hadn’t ever stayed in a job, other than bartending, for more than a year, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the market’s lack of enthusiasm for my candidacy. As time passed and my already-paltry cash reserves started to dwindle, I got desperate and started looking into restaurant and retail openings. As awful as those prospects seemed, they were more appealing than going to my parents with my hat in my hand. I was prepared to do almost anything to avoid that.
It was ironic, then, that I was spared having to go down that road by a call from my father. He called me on a Saturday, about six weeks into my fruitless search for new employment. It actually wasn’t the first time I’d spoken with him since my poker income had dried up, but nothing interesting had come out of our earlier conversations.
Given my circumstances, I wasn’t particularly enthused at the prospect of talking to him, but I still answered quickly when I saw his number pop up on my phone. “Hey, Dad. How you doin’?”
“Good. I’m good. How are you?”
“I’m, uh, hangin’ in there.”
“Everything OK at work?”
I paused before replying, searching for a way to convey the fact that things were not OK without letting it slip that I was referring to an entirely different job than the one he was asking about. In the end, I never got the chance to say anything, because my father stuck to the game plan that he’d been following for three decades and went on without waiting to hear my answer. “I’m asking because of the article I read in the Times this morning. Did you read it?”
“Well,” he said, sounding slightly annoyed, “you really should take a look. There was a lengthy piece in the business section about layoffs in the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey. They mentioned your company by name. I just wanted to make sure you were OK.”
My first instinct was to give him the usual bullshit and tell him that everything was fine with my make-believe job, but as I opened my mouth to reply, it occurred to me that maybe this was an opportunity to come (sort of) clean. I wasn’t going to tell him the whole truth; there didn’t seem to be any point in that. But sooner or later, my parents were going to find out that I wasn’t hawking cholesterol medicine anymore. Given the news in the press, they wouldn’t question an imaginary layoff ending my pretend career in pharmaceutical sales. It seemed like the perfect way to clue them in to my current situation without having to explain too much.
I must have dithered for too long while I was pondering all of this, because the next thing that came through the receiver was my father’s impatient voice: “You still there?”
“Uh, yeah… Sorry. Got distracted. What were you saying?”
He exhaled theatrically. “The layoffs… Your company…”
“Right. Of course,” I replied. I took a deep breath and continued. “I was, uh, actually gonna call you and Mom over the weekend. They came and talked to me the other day. Looks like I’m out.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that. I was afraid when I saw the article. Tough times in that business, it seems.” He sounded genuinely deflated. I was tempted to tell him not to worry about it, but I let him go on. “It’s too bad. I was thinking that maybe you’d finally found a home. You were there for what… around four years, right?”
“Yeah… just about four years.”
“Did they at least give you some sort of severance package?”
“Uh, yeah. A small package.” I was trying to keep my answers as short and as vague as I could.
“Good. That’s good.”
He hesitated for a moment before moving on to the next question, the one that I knew was coming. “So,” he began, “do you have any sense of what you’re going to do next?”
“I’m working on figuring that out now.”
He seemed to be waiting for me to say something more, but once he figured out that I wasn’t going to elaborate, he continued. “I was thinking that maybe we could think about your next move together….”
That was a conversation that I definitely didn’t want to have, so I tried to deflect his suggestion as diplomatically as I could. “Thanks, but… you know, uh, this just happened… I’d really like to take a little time to process before we try to figure out next steps, OK?”
He was persistent. “I’m just worried. You’ve been out of school for a few years now and your career hasn’t really gotten going…”
I wasn’t in the mood for the full recap of my disappointing professional life, so I interrupted him. “OK. Sure. Let’s talk. Can I call you in your office sometime next week?” I had no intention of doing that, but I needed to change the topic. To make sure that he didn’t come back to it, I tried to steer in a different direction by adding, “How’s Mom doing?”
It worked. “You know your mother. She’s always got some project or another,” he laughed.
“Stuff with the charity?”
“Charities, plural, is more like it. I feel like we’re always gearing up for some sort of event. Actually, come to think of it, are you around next week? You wanna go with her to the Sloan-Kettering fundraiser?”
It was my turn to laugh. “That’s more your department, I think.”
He sighed. “Yeah, that’s what she says as well, but I’ve got to make some time to get down to Florida and I’m just not sure when…”
I cut him off. “Florida?”
“Yeah. I still haven’t finished with your grandfather’s estate. You know that house that he had in the Keys?”
“Uh huh.” I remembered that my grandfather had owned a house down there, but he’d been dead for more than a year, and I had just assumed that my father had already sold it. Since none of the proceeds were headed my way, I hadn’t bothered to keep tabs on the situation.
My father went on. “Probating the will took a while, and there were some hang-ups with the transfer of title. Bottom line is that I haven’t gotten around to selling it yet, and last month I got a tax bill for the place. I need to go down to Marathon and get everything sorted out so I can get it off our books.”
He went on for a few more minutes, complaining about the colossal waste of time and money that the whole thing had been. The gist of the story seemed to be that my grandfather had been bitten by the deep sea fishing bug and bought the place on a whim, but had only used it a few times before losing interest, or something like that. By that point, I wasn’t really paying attention anymore; I was too busy scheming, and when my father paused, I jumped in.
“So, uh, all of this gives me an idea. Maybe I can go down to Florida and help you out.”
“I don’t know if that’s…”
I went on before he could object. “Look, I have some free time now. And I know that you’re really busy. I could take care of this for you.”
The initial silence with which this proposal was greeted prepared me for the dismissive response that followed a few seconds later. “I don’t think that it’s the best idea for you take a vacation to Florida at this point.”
Eager to cut him off before he could gain steam, I corrected him. “It’s not a vacation. I’d just be working on the house… for you.”
“I really think that you should focus on finding another position.”
“Dad… look… I could really use a couple of weeks to clear my head, and you just said that you don’t have time deal with this. Seems like this would be perfect for both of us. When’s the last time anyone’s even been in that place?”
“It’s been a while. After Grandpa died, I had a realtor go over there, but they didn’t do much.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. One of us should spend a little time down there. I could go through Grandpa’s stuff, clean it all up, and get it squared away for listing.”
Once again, there was silence on the other end of the phone, but my sense was that he was considering giving in rather than thinking up another way to say “no.” I wondered if his hesitation was rooted in any real concern about my career, or if he was just afraid that I’d fuck things up in Florida. I figured that it was some combination of the two, but I was betting that his desire to avoid inconveniencing himself would outweigh his misgivings. Sure enough, when he spoke again, it was clear that he’d talked himself into it. “I don’t want this to drag on forever, you understand?”
“I’m serious. I’m not in the business of putting you up in Florida long-term. I expect you back in a couple of weeks, tops.”
“I absolutely need to have this place sold by the end of the summer, so please let the realtor know that when you meet with her.”
“Call my office on Monday. You can get the realtor’s name and number from Janet. I’ll ask her to book a plane ticket for you as well.”
“Actually, I figured I’d drive. Might want to have my car down there, you know?”
“Just rent one.”
“I’d really rather drive. More chance to clear my head.”
“Suit yourself. Call me on Monday and I’ll give you all of the info.” I imagined him shaking his head as he spoke, like he always did when he was convinced that I was about to do something stupid and he’d exhausted his appetite for counseling me against it.
“I was wondering if I could get, uh… a little cash, maybe? To get me down there?”
He sighed. “That’s fine. Just stop by the house when you get a chance. You should see your mother before you go, anyhow.”
“OK. I’ll come by tomorrow. Talk to you then.”
Before I could hang up, he added one last thing. “When you get back, we’re still going to have that talk about finding you another job.”
“Great,” was all I said before ending the call.
That conversation with my dad weighed heavily on my mind as I drove out toward Wainwright’s place in Grassy Key that night, particularly the part where he told me that he expected me to come home after a few weeks. I felt like I could actually hear his voice, just as clearly as if he’d been in the car beside me, saying that he wasn’t in the business of giving me a free place to stay in the Keys. Needless to say, he was less than pleased that I was still in Marathon three months after he’d delivered that message.
His angst was amplified by the fact that Labor Day had come and gone and Grandpa’s house was still on the market. That certainly wasn’t my fault; I’d actually held up my end of our bargain on that front. I mean, I may have wasted a few days on the beach here and there, but mostly I’d worked hard at getting the place in shape. It only took a couple of days to go through everything that my grandfather had left behind, which amounted to very little beyond the functional necessities that one would have expected to find in a vacation home: linens, flatware, casual clothing, that sort of thing. Given that he died a very rich man after a long career as a partner at a venerable investment banking house in New York, I was disappointed not to have found anything more valuable, or at least more interesting, but it seemed like my father hadn’t exaggerated about how little time the old man had actually spent there.
After going through everything, my intention had been to re-paint the whole house, but after spending a few days in the mid-summer humidity, I wrote that idea off and settled for a thorough room-by-room cleaning. I was pretty proud of how much I accomplished in those few weeks, and the realtor seemed optimistic when we brought the listing online in the middle of July. A few prospective buyers came to see it right away, but we got only one lowball offer that my father dismissed out of hand, without even deigning to counter. The last showing had been in late August, and the realtor was pressuring my dad to lower the asking price. Dad wanted to stay at $1.6 million, so we waited.
Deep down, I think my father understood that the delay hadn’t been my fault, but the fact that I was still down there was clearly driving him nuts. I knew that, but I was living in a million-dollar house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean for free. I didn’t see any reason to give that up until I really had to. Besides, I’d skipped out on my lease in New Jersey, so it wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go.
Beyond what I’d brought with me in my car, all of my stuff was in a storage locker outside of Trenton. I’d been playing straight with my dad when I told him that I just wanted to go to Marathon for a couple of weeks and help him with the house. I always thought that I might stretch it out a bit, but my intention had been to head back north by the end of the summer, at the latest. Once I got down there, though, I found that I really liked it, even if I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that appealed to me. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t all that different than the other places I’d lived. It had the usual assortment of fast food joints and big box stores, and the local high school looked like every other high school that I’d ever seen, except for the fact that it was painted teal. When you drove down U.S. 1, you felt like you were driving through a typical American town, until you got to Seven Mile Bridge and found yourself surrounded by water. I think I was fascinated by the incongruity of finding all of the trappings of the modern world set up on this string of tiny islands sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Or maybe I just really dug living in that house for free. My grandfather had spent his life making money, and here I was, looking out at the sea through his bedroom window and enjoying the fruits of his labors more completely than he’d ever taken time to. I’m sure that wasn’t lost on my father, either, as he spent his summer busting his ass in Lower Manhattan while I was lounging on the beach. He always seemed to feel that it was necessary to remind me that I was getting a free ride, but it really wasn’t. I may have been short on work ethic, but I had a full ration of self-awareness. I understood perfectly well that I was coasting, and I was OK with it. In fact, I welcomed it. I also understood that it was temporary, and I was prepared to move on to something else once the situation played itself out. Uncertainty didn’t trouble me. Maybe that was the real difference between my father and me. For forty years, he’d always known exactly where his next paycheck was coming from. He’d probably figured out what he was going to do with his life when he was still in elementary school. I think it was hard for him to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to do the same.
Once I decided that I wanted to try to stick around, I spent some time looking for a job. It didn’t take long to figure out that Marathon wasn’t exactly a hotbed of economic activity. There seemed to be two industries in the Keys: tourism and fishing. Some entrepreneurial locals combined the two and took the tourists fishing. There didn’t seem to be much else on offer, so I was feeling pretty lucky about having stumbled into Bob Baker’s sordid world of adulterers and insurance cheats. Even so, I didn’t want to live in that world forever. As the summer ended, I started feeling more pressure to figure something out. I knew that the house would sell, sooner or later. Even if it didn’t, I sensed that that my dad might have been one good temper tantrum away from hopping on a plane and dragging me home by my ear.
Finding a source of steady income was obviously critical to my plans. The more respectable that job turned out to be, the easier it would be to sell my parents on the idea of my permanent relocation to Florida, but that was a secondary concern. As long as I made enough money to pay my own bills, I would be able to ignore their views on my career, which was all that I was really worried about.
I didn’t think that taking Wainwright up on his invitation that night would lead to any sort of long-term solution, but I wasn’t in any position to turn my nose up at his offer. My logic was pretty straightforward: the more cash I had, the more time it would buy me once I got kicked out of my grandfather’s place. The money that I was making with Baker helped, but I was spending it as quickly as I earned it. I figured that whatever I could get from Wainwright could go straight into my rainy-day fund. Since a downpour looked inevitable, I never stopped to consider the wisdom of continuing my conversation with the old man. It was a no-brainer. Once he mentioned cash, I was always going to hear him out.
I wasn’t nervous at all as I headed out toward Grassy Key. In hindsight, maybe I should have been; I was going to a complete stranger’s house to discuss something that he clearly didn’t want to mention in public, and that fact alone probably should have raised some sort of red flag. At least some of my cavalier attitude was probably a natural result of my size. I’m about six foot four, and probably still a solid two-twenty or two-twenty-five. Not a lot of people intimidated me; Wainwright certainly didn’t. I guess I was naïve, but I was sure that the old guy wasn’t going to throw anything at me that I couldn’t handle.