My younger brother Stevie still lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where we grew up. Since I moved to Boise nine years ago, I don't see as much of him as I'd like, but recently we decided to get together for some poker bonding in Reno. Some brothers like to camp or fish together, others prefer to ski or climb mountains. Stevie and I like to push chips across faded felt. Ever since we were boys, we've battled over card games.
Reno isn't the most sentimental city in the West, but there's something about two old brothers hanging out together in their twilight years that warms the hearts of even the most jaded casino employees.
On our first night in town, Stevie and I managed to fight our way to heads up in an 18-player tournament at Club Cal Neva. The downtown poker room, just a stone's throw from the "Biggest Little City In The World" arch is legendary for being both seedy and great fun. For a $30 buy-in, you get $2,000 in chips and can play No Limit Texas Hold 'Em just like on television.
Nicknames are huge in poker, and Stevie and I like to introduce ourselves as the Brothers Cheerful. But as we sat staring across the table at each other that night, there was nothing bright or merry about our demeanor. My predatory eyes were hidden behind a pair of wraparound Ray Bans as I prepared to do battle.
"Hey, bro, let's just chop the prize money," Stevie suggested.
"No way. I want to play it out," I snapped. "It'll be better for my story if I win."
Strong players know there's more to poker than the cards you're dealt. You have to create an elaborate dreamscape that engulfs your competitors and forces them to play your game. I'd deliberately let everyone know that I was a journalist on assignment. It gave me an edge; the whole game was now being witnessed from my point of view.
"But the dealers are getting tired," Stevie insisted.
"No, we're not," one female casino worker stated plainly. "We don't get to see brothers battle it out every night."
The poker room at Club Cal Neva, at the rear of the casino, is small and intimate with just half a dozen tables. Most of the staff and some of the players we'd knocked out had gathered around to watch. A cloud of mid-grade cigar smoke had formed over the table like a brewing storm.
Stevie and I were fairly even in chips, with about $50,000 in front of us, but there was no way I was going to call this thing a draw. The crowd cheered as I got my brother down to $2,500, but he rallied back to even by winning seven hands in a row. Finally, I got an ace-high straight and knocked him out. I jumped to my feet and pumped my fist in victory. I felt like we were kids again and I'd just hit a home run.
"You're a cartoon character, Billy," Stevie said with a tight smile.
I shrugged off the insult. I'd won the evening tournament in one of the roughest poker rooms in downtown Reno, and nothing was going to tarnish my accomplishment. I'd earned the princely sum of just more than 200 bucks in real money, but it felt like a million.
"You guys coming back tomorrow night?" asked a man with a shaved head and tattoos of lizards crawling all over his arms as he watched us cash out. "I'd like another shot at you."
"Oh, we'll be here," Stevie assured him.
The following night, I sat down in the same tournament and informed everyone I was living out a poker dream. "Fair warning, people. I won this thing last night, and I plan on winning it again tonight."
I patiently folded a dozen hands waiting for premium cards. Finally, I doubled up with a pair of pocket kings and began to set my master plan into motion. Most people need to concentrate to play their best game. Me, I can chat a mile a minute about almost anything and still focus on getting your chips.
"So, if you could sleep with any movie star, past or present, who would it be?" I asked innocently. There were no ladies at our table, so the men spoke freely.
"What about Morgan Fairchild from her days on Dallas?"
"Are you nuts? I'll take Halle Berry."
My brother immediately picked up on the strategy and goaded the testosterone-fueled conversation to the next level.
"Any real man would go for Sophia Loren," he stated.
Before long, the poker game was delegated to a backstory as the argument gained momentum. Meanwhile, I was gathering up chips like a squirrel at a picnic. Stevie got knocked out early, so it was left to me to get into the money. An hour later, I knocked out a drunken cowboy from Wyoming to win my second title in a row.
"Impressive, big brother," Stevie conceded.
I gave him a hug. "It's all part of the Brothers Cheerful poker lore now."
"Am I going to have to listen to this for the rest of my life?" Stevie asked, rolling his eyes.
"Oh, it's much worse than that, baby brother," I grinned. "You're going to have to read about it in the newspaper."