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Poker Stories from the Underground

In New York City, the poker scene is dominated by invite-only underground poker games where anything can happen and it pays to be prepared. Unlike in cities like Las Vegas, where anyone can walk into a casino to play cards, games in New York happen in the shadows, in venues that range from sketchy Brooklyn back-alleys to chic Manhattan venues that cater to Wall Street bankers who have money to burn.

We can only imagine everything that goes down at these late-night games. To say the least, there’s definitely some interesting characters around, and when things get heated, they can go from bad to worse in a matter of seconds.

Here’s a little glimpse into the hidden world of underground poker.

Photo: Josh Appel

Safety is the Biggest Concern

With thousands of dollars on the table and the possibility for shady figures to show up at any time, keeping the game safe is the biggest concern. Of course, these games are cash only, so it’s no surprise that gangsters want to rob them and cops want to bust them.

A bouncer stands sentry at the gate, frisking everyone down before they’re allowed inside to check for knives and guns. A couple thugs stand around the poker table, ready to tackle down anyone who gets any funny ideas or who starts throwing punches when they can’t control their temper.

Another major challenge for the organizers of these games is finding a good spot each night. They can’t stay in one place without attracting too much unwanted attention, so they always need to stay on the move. The new venue needs to be safe, but it also needs to be in a nice location if you want to attract the big fish who want to feel like they’re part of something swanky and sexy.

Debt Collecting from the Degenerates

When the sun comes up and the last hand is over, work’s still not done for the organizers. In addition to finding the next location, they need to collect debts from the degenerate gamblers who owe them thousands. Some people, no matter how much they lose, will always want to play more on credit, and the organizers are happy to make them a loan on the right terms.

It’s not quite like in the movies, where they go around cracking people in the mouth or threatening them with ‘swimming with the fishes,’ but they still find ways to get their money back, whether that means taking half now or impounding their furniture or other belongings.

Then there’s the possibility of favors. For instance, a poker game always needs new blood to keep the chips flowing, but finding credible players to join is a big ask. The organizer might then send a degen who owes them money into a rival game to try and recruit others to join their game. The stakes are high though, as if the other organizers catch word of it then it can mean bad news.

Still, a debt always has to get paid, one way or another.


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