All poker stories go the same way: I had the money; I did everything right; I lost the money. For the first time in a long time, I picked up one of those stories last weekend, when I played in the Downtown Missoula Partnership’s annual poker tournament at the Elks Club. Normally I try to stay away from charitable events, but I make an exception when gambling is involved — not that poker should be considered gambling, as anyone will tell you after they’ve lost a hand.
I did not fare well, and in the name of salving my conscience, here’s how: I put in a substantial preflop raise with kings on the button, hoping to thin out or at least punish three limpers. The big blind went all-in. Thinking he had put me on a bluff, I pushed back. He had aces, and I lost, as one does. I am not with you at this moment, but I can see your eyes glazing over. Someone else’s beat is the second most boring story in the world, after their dream.
I used to listen to a lot of bad-beat stories around the middle part of the last decade, when I played a lot of poker. The Press Box had a lively game in 2005, as did the late Boomers, the Fox Club, the Lucky Strike (RIP), the Silvertip, the Silver Slipper, Stockman’s, Flipper’s, Hooters (gone now too, mercifully), the Hilton and the Oxford. The Ox continues to host the slowest play in the world, and Stock’s and the Hilton still spread healthy games. The others are done. The college students no longer come out en masse, and the tourists seem to prefer a casino environment to a bar game’s shall-we-say rugged authenticity. The poker fad is over.
That is probably good. Poker is a type of gambling, no matter what your recently divorced uncle says, and gambling is probably bad for you. It’s certainly bad for some people. When I played regularly, I knew a grad student who had blown $24,000 in loan money on $3-$6 Omaha. I knew plenty more who didn’t keep track of what they lost, because they didn’t want to think about it. These people had a good time playing cards when they were winning, but it was miserable to watch them lose. Whatever broad trend makes it harder for them to gamble is probably good.
“If you have a gambling problem, Missoula is here to enable you. It only asks that you stare at a screen instead of sitting at a table with other people.”
It’s not hard to gamble in this town at all, though. Even the chicken place has a bank of keno machines. Flipper’s, which put pool tables and then seating in its poker room, still devotes half its floor space to glorified electronic slots. Those machines are everywhere. It’s a wonder they’re not dinging away in the library. If you have a gambling problem, Missoula is here to enable you. It only asks that you stare at a screen instead of sitting at a table with other people.
I used to know a dozen hustlers in this town, guys who played for a living, or what passed for a living in a quiet mountain-town economy. They were sporadically broke and routinely drunk, but they tightened up around the end of the month and made rent with a quick kill at Stock’s or the Tip. The internet made a couple of them rich. Poker made them sullen and ebullient by turns, quick with figures and slow with everything else. Years of folding and waiting had rendered them incapable of picking anything up without rolling it across their fingers. They all seemed to share the same cough. They were a community, united by their willingness to put in 50 or 60 hours a week to avoid getting a job.
You can’t do that here anymore. Mostly it’s because the poker boom is over, and the players who remain play better than the guys who crawled out of their basements quoting Rounders. But the rent has gone up considerably since then, too. The bar games have withered away, and those that still spread take longer to fill up, and break earlier. Missoula is a different town from what it was a decade and a half ago. Fewer people expect to make a living without working.
I don’t think many people would tell you that’s bad. You’re supposed to work; it’s immoral not to, unless you’re rich. Our community is probably not suffering for a lack of bar gamblers. It is suffering, though, isn’t it? The old places shut down and the new places are chains. The whole town keeps getting nicer in ways fewer of us can afford. The riff-raff moves out, and the fit professional families move in. This mountain valley is becoming so valuable that soon only the best people will live here. It doesn’t do any good to complain about it. Nobody wants to hear your bad-beat story.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.