Mikey is holding an eight of spades and a ten of hearts. The man to his immediate right makes a pre-flop raise to $30—clearly he was holding something better than out-of-suit numbers. Mikey shifts in his seat and allows the tiniest smile to curl on half his mouth—this is his bluffing technique. He calls, along with three others. If he looks slightly satisfied but not obvious, then the older gentlemen at the table believe he is just a kid who hasn’t learned to hide his expressions yet.
The pot is now a little more than $150, and the dealer turns the first three cards: 10 of clubs, three of clubs and a queen of diamonds. The man raises another $30; Mikey and two others call. The dealer flips a three of spades and Mikey pushes all in. “You gotta play big to win big,” he says aloud, and the others chuckle lightly at his brazen naivety.
Although this year has been a little rough on his bank account, Michael Salsbury still dreams of becoming a world famous poker player. While Mikey works straight into overtime every week at his job, he always seems to wind up in the smoky poker rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino—or worse, the blackjack tables. Since he turned 21, Mikey has lost more than $4,000 gambling. It may have something to do with the young poker player’s motto: “It’s only money.”
The pot is now a little less than $500, and the only other player left is the same man who earlier made the pre-flop raise. He smiles at Mikey, who just keeps a calm demeanor and watches as the dealer flips the last card: a nine of hearts. Mikey is holding two pairs: threes and tens. Not a bad hand, although not a great hand. Yet the man to Mikey’s right looks too satisfied as Mikey flips his cards.
“Two pair,” the dealer calls out, “and you, sir?” The man flips his cards: pocket nines. He has a full house.
“I cannot believe you hit that fuckin’ nine on the river,” Mikey says disbelieving. If the last card were anything but a nine, Mikey would have won.
“You’ve gotta play big to win big,” the man quotes mockingly as Mikey walks away; he just lost all the money he made from his 10-hour bartending shift.
Even though the world of poker is nearly invisible when compared with the hype surrounding contact sports such as professional football or hockey, it still has quite a following. Like any other sport, poker is a game of skill, and in order to be great you have to not only learn how to read the cards, but also learn how to read your opponents. What Salsbury has as an advantage is he’s extremely hard to read, and it has everything to do with his natural carefree attitude. While he is capable of getting upset, it honestly takes a massive blow to his ego just to get him to frown.
At Bloomingdale High School, Salsbury became a certified nursing assistant when he was 18 years old. A year of working at Central Park Health and Rehabilitation Center made him never want to see another bedpan again, and he began to juggle jobs at Applebee’s and a catering service. Then he was introduced to poker, and their turbulent romance began.
While Salsbury’s hobby is little more than a calculated addiction, he does manage to win quite a bit. This year hasn’t been too good to him though, and Salsbury made the decision to drop out of Hillsborough Community College this semester after his grades dropped irreparably. He was only one semester away from receiving his associate degree and transferring to the University of South Florida to work on a bachelor’s.
Because he dropped his classes, he was forced to pay back his scholarship award since enrollment is required. Then, to make matters worse, his 1989 Buick Century died one morning while driving home. Already owing quite a bit of money to quite a few people, Salsbury decided there was a quick fix to all of his money woes: a free poker tournament at the casino.
Since there is no buy-in for the midnight tournament, registration began at 9 p.m. but it was wise to come earlier. Only 200 people will be allowed to play, and the winner will receive $5,000. Second place gets $3,000, and third place gets $2,000.
Mikey gets a ride to the Hard Rock at 6 p.m. where an unorganized line has already started forming in the poker room. Security officers randomly make everyone disperse just for all the players to come back and clog the hallways again. Mikey walks over to a black-clad officer and quietly asks when the line will start forming. Since Mikey is a regular at the casino, the officer recognizes him and tells him he isn’t too sure. “Soon though,” he answers. “Come back around seven.”
Mikey plays blackjack for an hour and manages to turn $40 into $300. This is why he loves the casino: the adrenaline of winning so much money so quickly. Why even work? Yet he manages to lose $200 before he leaves the table to go stand in the poker room again. There are more than 500 people patiently waiting at tables or in the hallway.
His timing is impeccable. As soon as he walks in, the same security officer gives him a nod and the intercom turns on. The announcer threatens the players that if they get out of hand while forming the line they WILL be kicked out of the casino. “No elbowing. No running. Now—GO.”
Mikey is in the first 40 people in line and receives his voucher to play. He goes to a nearby friend’s house, sleeps until 11 p.m., and then returns to the casino. He loses the remainder of his winnings playing blackjack before the tournament, and at midnight he re-enters the crowded poker room and takes his assigned seat.
There are 10 people at each table and the game is Texas Hold ‘em. Mikey is sitting with nine other men and one woman. Asides from Mikey, there are two other young players, and the rest of the men are in their fifties. The woman looks around 40-years-old, and she later proves to be a tight-passive player. The dealer wishes them all good luck and begins to hand out the cards.
Small blind is $25 and big blind is $50. (In Texas Hold ‘em, blinds are mandatory bets that rotate clockwise so each player eventually pays for both blinds. Blinds force players to contribute to the pot instead of hanging around in games and betting nothing.) In order to weed out the players quickly the blinds will double every fifteen minutes, and each player starts with 7,000 credits in chips. In his first hand Mikey is dealt a pair of sevens (in poker terms this is called pocket sevens). Mikey calls (matches the current bet) and the man to his left raises 250 chips. Another man raises it to 500. Mikey calls again and the man who originally raised goes all in. This act, so popular on TV poker tournaments, is when a player bets all his or her remaining chips on the hand in play.
This is one of the most aggressive tables Mikey has ever sat at, and he just got caught in a three-bet (a bet, raise, then a re-raise). The man who raised to 500 folds his cards and Mikey throws his away too. This all happens before the dealer shows the first three cards in the flop. The man who went all in wins the pot instantly and shows he was holding an ace and a king. Mikey could have won that hand.
Blinds are now 100 and 200. Mikey wins an impressive pot with a king-queen. The lady playing against him had pocket queens, but the flop was in Mikey’s favor with a king, king, eight, giving him three of a kind, a strong hand. He went all in, and she called; he won.
In order to stay in the tournament longer, Mikey folds any hand that isn’t exceptional. He doesn’t plan on risking his chips too quickly, and the blinds are starting to cripple him. The casino allowed 234 people to play (the last 34 were forced to buy in for fewer chips) and already half of the competitors are out.
Mikey loses a little more than 7,000 of his 10,000 chips in one bad hand. He is holding an ace and a queen, but the flop gives him nothing. Another man wins the pot with a pair of eights and Mikey is starting to lose his cool.
The next hand gives Mikey pocket threes. He goes all in and luckily hits a three on the flop to give him another three of a kind. He is back to 6,000 chips. His table has fluctuated quite a bit, and more than half the players have been replaced with players from broken tables.
Twenty hands later and Mikey is low on chips. The blinds are now 800 and 1,600. Mikey is holding an ace and a king of diamonds; he smiles slightly when the flop come ace, nine, and jack. Mikey is holding top pair and top kicker, but he is holding out for a flush since two of the cards on the board are diamonds. The dealer flips the next card: two of hearts. Mikey internally groans. He has gone all in and is praying the last card is a diamond. Two other players are still in the game and the dealer flips the final card: a two of spades. The man who was big blind has pocket nines and wins with a full house—Mikey has busted out.
It’s 2:14 in the morning when Mikey steps outside and calls a friend to drive him home. He finished in 118th place.
“Oh well,” he says. “There’s another free tournament on Thursday, but it’s at seven in the morning. I could get here after work and just play some blackjack.”
He sticks his tongue out childishly and laughs. “It’s only money.”