Weekends in Atlantic City
WEEKENDS IN ATLANTIC CITY
On most weekends between 1993 and 2001, I played poker in Atlantic City.
Atlantic City poker rooms are where I earned my faux make-believe post-graduate degree, majoring in finance and psychology, with a minor in survival and self-defense. Atlantic City poker rooms are where I first began writing about gambling and poker’s unique culture. Atlantic City poker rooms are where I met many of my closest friends, to this day. Atlantic City poker rooms made me who I am, for better and for worse.
Marieta accompanied me about half the time on these weekend excursions, depending on what kind of hotel deal I could swing on Friday and Saturday nights. One of the reasons I started writing for Card Player magazine way back in 1993 (as the first, and only, Atlantic City correspondent) was for the comps. I didn’t request it, but the casinos often comped my hotel rooms, and even provided gourmet food. Now get this “job description”: Play poker. Stay in the hotel and eat for free. And get paid to write articles. What a freakin’ gig! (remind me to write something about staying in the top-floor “Frank Sinatra suite” one night at the Atlantic City Hilton to cover a Paul Anka concert).
The problem with being a poker player though — is time. To win, playing poker takes time. Lots of time. Lots of hours. Non-poker people don’t understand this, which gives the game some mistaken taint of degeneracy. We don’t sit in poker rooms for 10-12 hours at a time because we’re degenerates or even because we like being there. We sit there for hours because the game is good (or, we’re stuck and are clawing to get even — okay, I’ll admit it).
I’ve never been a great poker player. I’ve never even been a good poker player (insert jokes here). But, growing up in Texas among road gamblers, I did play the game of Texas Hold’em reasonably well, when most East Coast players were still stuck in the Stud mud. Recall that before 2003, Atlantic City was OVERWHELMINGLY a Seven-Card Stud haven. Out of 100 tables going citywide, probably 90 were Stud games. So, most weekends were profitable for me, not because of my own strategic brilliance, but due to the fact that most Atlantic City poker players were novices and went on tilt very easily. New York and Philadelphia’s well-deserved reputations for ballbusting bravado were perks and paid my mortgage for many years.
[Recommendation: Jesse May’s stellar narrative Shut Up and Deal, based entirely on the Atlantic City poker scene during that era.]
I did lots of cool things back then. I wrote more than 200 articles. I created, started, and introduced the first tournament “Player of the Year” rankings, still used today. I helped to introduce the first Pot-Limit games in the city, which we ran weekly at Resorts International, and later at the Sands. Execs Tommy Gitto and Tony Marino even came down to visit me in Washington, DC (my home) one time because they were eager to grow the poker market at the Taj Mahal. I turned down a job as a Taj Mahal host that probably would have paid $150K a year (big-time regrets over that misstep), which was good money in the late ’90s. But hey, who wants to work for Donald Trump (who owned the Taj at the time — ooops, make that, the banks owned it). Oh, and anyone who played poker back in the ’90s probably met Trump and talked to him at one point (I counted four personal encounters).
Long before I did other stuff in poker, I was — at heart — just a low to middle-stakes poker player. A grinder. If Marieta went with me on a weekend, we usually drove from WDC, which took about 3.5 hours. The photo here was taken in the late ’90s, from what looks to be the rooftop of Resorts International, owned by Merv Griffin at the time. The highlight of the weekend for us was a show and a great dinner on Saturday nights. We saw Tony Bennett, George Carlin, Tom Jones, Don Rickles, and so many legends I’ve lost count. Good times.
But I think I most enjoyed my camaraderie with friends. Just hanging out. Struggling at times. Discussing poker and talking life. Probably half of my Atlantic City trips were solo. I rode the train from Washington’s Union Station direct to Atlantic City for $42 round trip. I always took the 5:20 straight from the office a(long with commuting then-Sen. Joe Biden, who got off in Wilmington-no, I don’t remember seeing him, but he was often on that train). By 9 pm, could be sitting at the Taj, or the Trop, or Resorts with my first buy-in. $42? Hell, that was two orbits of blinds. Oh, and I could sleep and write my articles on the train — coming and going. If I needed a quick shower, I jumped in the hotel pool. Like I said, good times.
Later, Amtrak stopped their direct WDC-AC train service, so I then had to transfer trains at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to the NJ Transit line. Trust me, you think about your life and its trajectory when you’ve spent dozens of times waiting for a train in Philadelphia at 4 am.
Why? What made me do it? Was it about money? Was it about fun? Was it about action? Was it about friendship? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Since then, 20 years removed, each time I return to Atlantic City, it’s a little less like it was before. The last time I was there, Atlantic City was unrecognizable. What happened to $1.50 jitney rides? The Taj Mahal is gone. The Sands was imploded. The Claridge is no more. The Atlantic City Hilton and Frank Sinatra’s suite has been reduced to dust.
But the memories live on.
mass transit – nice, my friends have to drive from Wyoming hours in snowy mountains to get to a 1 live table game – Denverites have a local bus shuttled that is effective free