Like so many others, I’ve fallen in love with poker, Texas Hold’em in particular, as soon as I’ve learned rules of the game. Although I missed the golden years by a bit, there was still money to be made with the game and becoming better was a true challenge. Having played chess quite seriously for a few years in the past, it was right down my alley.
After I’ve learned the game online, I’ve started to dabble with live tournaments and cash games as well. The problem was, however, most cash games here in Bosnia were (and largely still are) of the underground variety. And, while there weren’t that many actual incidents, many of the characters that you’d sit at the table would give you chills. There weren’t professional players or honest businessmen looking to blow some steam.
Although I’d like to think I am at least a decent poker player, I’ve always been a type of guy who preferred to avoid any type of conflict if at all possible. For that reason, I mostly avoided these games even though I knew a lot of people who were regulars in them. Until one night…
It was during one particularly boring summer. If live action wasn’t going strong in general, it was especially slow during summer months as people went on vacations and similar. Although the online action was more than enough to pay the bills and then some, I always loved to get involved in some live games from time to time as well.
So, when my friend called me on that warm July day and asked me if I’d go to play with him that night, I accepted without giving it a second thought. It’s been over a month since I had a chance to raffle some chips (I have my own set, of course, but that doesn’t really count) and those live games, although a bit scary, were really juicy. Most guys playing were level one thinkers at best.
He picked me up around seven and we drove for maybe twenty minutes. While we were driving I did ask him if there was anything I should worry about and he ensured me that everything was fine. He told me that all the guys playing in this particular game were either players or regular business owners. I took his word for it as we’ve been playing together for a few years and he had no reason to lie anyways.
Shuffle Up and Deal
We’ve arrived to our destination and it was clearly a bar that was either closed for business or it was reserved for the game on that particular day. The host, a plump man in his fifties, greeted us as we entered and he was smiling cordially. The atmosphere in the room was relaxed as people were sipping on their drinks, just chatting and laughing.
– You see?, my friend patted me on the back, as he went into the room, shaking hands with everyone who was there.
I’ve started after him and he introduced me to several players. None of them looked menacing in any way, so I relaxed, took a drink myself and started chatting to one of the guys. He was just a bit older than me and told me he was a lawyer.
– Yup, nothing to worry about here, I thought to myself.
After couple more guys arrived, we took our seats. There were actually almost two full tables and I waited for my friend to take a seat so I could sit at a different table. I didn’t want people to think that were colluding, although everyone knew each other anyway.
The game was as soft as expected and, thanks to catching some cards as well, I was sitting at around €800 from the initial buy-in of €200. Officially, it was a 1/2 game, but straddling and re-straddling was pretty much mandatory, so, effectively, we played much higher.
New Player Arrives
Around midnight, a new player was seated at my table. The way he was dressed and even his haircut clearly indicated that he was much different from anyone in the room. I glanced at the host and noticed even he was uncomfortable. A few players at the table nodded at him, indicating they knew him, and he nodded back, and that was that. The game continued, although the atmosphere at the table visibly changed.
The guy bought in for a full €1,000, as there wasn’t really a cap to how much you could bring to the table. He wanted to make sure he had everyone covered and since it wasn’t unusual, nobody objected. After all, most of these guys were here to gamble, so they wanted as much money as possible at the table.
We played for maybe an hour when I got involved in a hand with him. I flopped a huge draw with a suited 10 J and proceeded to play it very aggressively, even though I knew this guy wasn’t going to give up easily. By the river, everything bricked and I had about €350 in front of me.
It seemed to me like he didn’t have much, maybe a very weak top pair at best and there was already a lot of money in the middle. I went for it and shoved. If I busted, I already knew I wouldn’t rebuy and would just sit somewhere waiting for my friend to wrap up. Ever since that guy arrived, I just didn’t feel like playing any more.
He took maybe two minutes but in the end, he released his hand. I casually moved my cards toward the dealer, as I most certainly wasn’t going to show a bluff to this guy. But, before the dealer could muck my hand, he reached across the table and turned my cards over.
Now, even in private games, this wasn’t something you’d see often. People who knew each other for a long time would sometimes take a peak for laughs, but only when it was done in good fun. This time, the entire table went silent as if they were expecting something bad to happen.
– So, you were bluffing. His eyes pierced right through me. You are a brave man.
As he tossed the cards and leaned back in his chair, I noticed something behind his back. I only had a brief moment to look, but it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. The guy was packing.
Even in the games with some really serious guys, I knew that no one was allowed to bring guns to the table. Those who happened to have guns on them would have to leave them aside before sitting down. It made perfect sense as the last thing anyone wanted was for someone to go on a huge tilt and go trigger happy.
Realizing this guy was carrying a gun made me understand why everyone was so tense. The fact he was allowed to play also indicated that he was no small fish, so to say. This must have been someone with strong connections in the criminal world and I had the good fortune to have him seated to my immediate right.
I wanted to leave right then and there but I was afraid as to how he might react. I had no idea how to act in a situation like that and I knew I had no friends there. If the shit hit the fan, I honestly believed no one would try and stop him. So I remained seated, pretty much determined to fold my way through the rest of the night, get the hell out of there, and never come back.
Everything seemed to go according to plan, as I kept folding for nearly two hours and the guy didn’t say a word to me. I guess he realized the effect he had on me and that made him satisfied. And then came the hand I will probably remember for the rest of my life.
To at least give an impression I was playing, I would peak at my cards before folding them. As the guy to my right raised, I looked down and saw to black aces. I be damned if I’ll fold pocket aces, I thought to myself and proceeded to reraise.
In retrospect, it was really a stupid move on my part, since I’ve already decided that this has stopped being a poker game quite a while ago. I noticed that everyone was avoiding this guy and it seemed like everyone was just waiting to wrap it up and go home. But, I guess a poker player in me took over, and I just did what you should do with pocket rockets.
– You again, he smirked.
His voice clearly indicated that he was still not over the last hand, and it had nothing to do with the money. He wasn’t here because of the money, because it was obviously nothing to him. Actually, to this day, I have no clue why he was there at all. I later asked my friend, but he told me he had no idea who he was. I guess I could have found out if I was really interested, but once the night was over, I just wanted to put it behind me.
As he made the call, he kept eyeballing me intensely and we saw the flop came A – 5 – 5. In a different situation, I would be thrilled, but at that moment I was just disgusted. What now?
He checked to me and I proceeded to bet, hoping he would just go away. I didn’t care about the pot anymore, I suddenly realized that I was in way over my head here. On the other hand, I was also afraid to check it down because I had no idea how he could interpret that. So, I decided to just play the hand the way I should and hope for the best.
By the time we arrived to the river, there was around €500 in the pot, and when he checked to me, I bet another €300. He quickly called, immediately turning over pocket 3s, with the board reading A – 5 – 5 – J – 7.
– I know you are bluffing, RIGHT?
He was staring at me, clearly challenging me to turn my hand over. Once again, the silence was deafening. Do I risk it? In the split second before making my final decision, I realized his right hand was behind his back.
To this day, I don’t know if he would actually pull a gun out on me. And, if he did, would he actually shoot me or just make me piss my pants. But I decided I’d rather not find out.
– You got me, I even mastered a coy smile as I pushed my hand towards the dealer, praying to God he doesn’t pull the same stunt and turn it over.
Luckily, he didn’t. As the dealer picked up my cards, he started laughing as his right hand found its way back to the felt.
As we drove back, I felt totally exhausted. I briefly told my friend about what had happened and he swore to me he had no idea that guy was going to be there. I believed him; in fact, I believe that no one really knew. But, he was obviously way too important and way too dangerous to be denied a seat.
Now, over the years I’ve had some unpleasant experiences in casinos. Poker can be a very intense game sometimes, but things never went beyond verbal altercations. What I experienced that night was easily the biggest scare in my life.
It goes without saying that I’ve never played in another underground game again. Of course, what happened that night was an exception rather than a rule, but the idea that it might happen made sure that I would never feel comfortable in such an environment.
I mean, I love poker and all, but come on…