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LAS VEGAS נI'm driving down Flamingo Road with $1,500 in my pocket, money that could be spent on something useful.
But no, I'm headed to the Rio hotel to buy my way into a World Series of Poker tournament with 2,700 players from around the globe. My competition will include poker pros Phil "the Unabomber" Laak, Antonio "the Magician" Esfandiari and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. The odds were so bad that I might as well roll my window down and toss my hard-earned money into the blazing desert. Not only did I not have a nickname, I didn't have a chance.
But I'd been playing poker several nights a week for the last year, steadily stockpiling my winnings and wondering if I had what it took to compete against the best.
I had also been wondering why I spent so much time playing cards. Could it be I'm hooked on the adrenaline that flows from competition? In addition to poker, my other hobby is competing in triathlons, and I make a living as a reporter in the highly competitive news business. Or does poker help me escape pain from my personal life, including a failed marriage? When I'm playing, I don't think about anything but my cards, my opponents and how to win their chips.
I'm 43. My mother and closest friends are concerned about me. Even though I win more often than I lose, they see poker as an addictive and potentially damaging hobby. Perhaps my mother remembers the trouble my father used to get into at Artichoke Joe's Casino, a few miles south of San Francisco. He once bet, and lost, his car there.
I discovered gambling at age 13 on a family trip to England, delighting at even small payouts from slot machines at a seaside casino. When I started playing blackjack in Las Vegas at age 19, I memorized charts that told me how to play each hand. Next, I tried craps. I read books, drew a craps table inside a cardboard box and mastered the most profitable bets.
In 2003, I turned to poker, where the odds can be better. The beauty of poker is that if I get a bad hand, I can throw it in the muck, often without losing a penny. When I get a good hand, I can invest in it, judging my hand's strength by the way my opponents respond to my bet.
My night stand is lined with poker books, my DVR filled with coverage of World Series of Poker tournaments. During the last year, I've turned a small profit on the low-stakes tables at the Commerce Casino south of downtown. But those tables were a far cry from the talent I expected to see at the World Series.