Sober Sagas | Low Stakes Living and High Stakes Poker

I started sneaking drinks at a very early age. My parents kept a bottle of white wine in the downstairs refrigerator. Livingston Cellars provided my first feeling of ease and comfort, and I soon discovered a couple pulls brought a nice buzz. While other kids my age concerned themselves with popularity or sports, I nestled away to a basement safe haven for a few nips of wine. In 6th grade.

A penchant for synthetic comfort progressed and continued into my early twenties. Time flew by in a whirlwind of booze, drugs, fast money, serious legal problems and death-defying acts of insanity. After leaving college for the second time, a friend introduced me to a world I never imagined.

Introduction to Illegal Gambling

My first underground poker game was held off one of Nashville's main thoroughfares. This poker game sat next to a small Asian restaurant. With a nervous stride and General Tao wafting through the air, I approached the door.

The room was small, personalities were big and stakes were high. That night, I won more money than I made on a 2 week paycheck. I was hooked.

It wasn't long before I developed a reputation for winning. Intelligence lends itself to poker, as players engage in an electric mixture of mental chess and dumb luck. Ralph owned the underground poker room. Ralph wasn't his real name, but for some inexplicable reason, he looked like a Ralph. Heavy-set with a police officer mustache, Ralph offered poker several nights a week with various stakes. Some nights required a $100 minimum buy-in, while other nights required a $500 minimum buy-in. All the regulars seemed to have nicknames except me, but it didn't matter because I was there for one reason - money.

Several months passed and my poker formula worked wonders. At the time, I held a cover job at a high-end fitness club in a posh area of Nashville. Other employees benefited from my illegitimate profession. Since I made more playing poker than I did working for 8 bucks an hour, I paid people to cover my shifts. I’m sure my coworkers wondered where I made the cash. But they never asked, and I never told.

50 or 60 bucks bought me a night away from the club’s front desk. My ego compounded as I flashed rolls of fast cash around town. Shortly after I’d started to subsidize my fellow employees’ wages, I won big. I took home almost $2,000 in one night. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “I had arrived.”

Sometimes, you take the house. And sometimes, the house takes you.

About a week later, while playing small stakes poker, I heard a curious voice say, “Police, search warrant.” I leaned back in my chair to see who was playing such a cruel joke. For a second, I applauded them for going “all out” because they wore the costumes to match. But it wasn’t a prank. The metro Vice Squad paraded through the front door, left curiously unlocked, and immediately ordered us to lay our hands on the poker table.

A little anxious about the press this bust might receive, I asked one of the detectives whether we would make the news. He assured me our poker game was small potatoes – nothing to worry about. I walked away with a misdemeanor gambling citation, the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

At work the next day, I operated with business as usual. My dad worked out at the club that night, having joined at a discount due to my employment. As he burnt calories on the elliptical, an interesting headline came across the 5 o’clock news - High Stakes Poker Bust. My face graced the headline’s caption.

As he walked to the front desk to inquire about my newfound notoriety, I’m sure the workout wasn’t the only thing making him sweat. 

“When were you going to tell me?” He asked.

“Tell you what?” I replied. And strange as this may sound, I honestly didn’t know what to say. For reasons I cannot explain, the poker bust wasn’t registering in my mind. It’s strange how, as my addiction and alcoholism progressed, my mind developed a peculiar tendency to repress undesirables.

“About the poker.” He responded with that tone of disappointment I’d intimately come to know over the past five years of active alcoholism, drug addiction and general shenanigans.

“Oh that…” I begrudgingly acknowledged the bust. Little did I realize, however, that my worst problems were still to come.

I Decide to Test Myself Against the Best Players in the World

Before the real consequences of substance abuse began to arrive, however, my poker prowess won me thousands and thousands of dollars. Inspired by the movie Rounders, I decided to test my skills against the game’s best.

I beat world champions Erik Seidel and Layne Flack. I took money off John D’Agostino and John Juanda. But the true test came when I sat down with Phil Ivey to play very high stakes No Limit Texas Hold’em. An hour or two later, the man widely considered to be the best poker player in the world milked me for $10,000. I was devastated.

As a young alcoholic and drug addict, I had no defense against the bitter wave of disappointment and failure. Darkness descended quickly, and I called a friend for some dangerous narcotics. If he knew what I intended to do with them, I’m sure he wouldn’t have sold the pills to me. With a handful of xanax and a glass of water, I swallowed the lot in my first suicide attempt.

That should have been a bottom. Any rational person would recognize something very wrong. But I wasn’t rational. And that wasn’t my bottom.

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