Our location is the Sunset and Vine corridor. We’ve gathered
at a newly converted loft-style apartment complex. The Capitol Records tower pierces
the dusk in the background. With some old-school rap playing on iTunes and the
smell of Red Bull in the air, the distinct sound of clay poker chips being shuffled
on top of some fine red felt can be heard.

It’s McMurphy’s turn to start the betting. “I straddle,” he calls out to the table.

As the dealer, I announce it to the table. “Live straddle! Blind raise!”

McMurphy has raised the blind bets (the forced bets that generate a pre-flop pot in Texas Hold ’Em) before even seeing his hole cards and from the worst position on the table. A live straddle affords the bettor the option to add a second raise prior to the flop, which are the first three community cards dealt face-up in Texas Hold ’Em, thus making it a live bet.

One of the other players, let’s call him Ned (names have been changed to protect the guilty), isn’t impressed.

“Come on, Mac,” he says, “that’s a stupid bet. You know what? [Checks his hole cards.] I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m gonna bust you with this hand. I call.”

I deal the flop. It’s a six of clubs, a two of diamonds and a king of hearts.

“Mac, it’s on you,” I say. “Check or bet?”

“I check,” he says.

“What’s your play, Ned?”

“Let’s make it a hundred,” he says, determined to bust Mac.

“Bet is a hundred to you, Mac. What’s it gonna be?”

“I’m all in,” he says, pushing all his chips into the middle. He’s equally determined to ride it out.

McMurphy’s all-in bet is just over $300. Everyone at the table groans, except Ned, who is deadly silent. He glowers at McMurphy. Looks at the pot, looks at his hand again. Looks at the flop, counts his chips. Measures out how many of his chips he would have left if he made this call and lost this hand. All of this seems to take an enormous amount of time, because I am feeling Ned’s pain. In truth it has probably been about two and a half minutes. I am feeling Ned’s pain because I am almost certain I know what he’s holding: ace/king. One of the best starting hands in Hold ’Em, known as “Big Slick,” because it is as slippery as it is strong. And I am definitely certain I know what McMurphy is holding: deuce/six and with two pair flopped.

“Fuck it,” Ned says. “I call.”

Ned shoves all of his chips into the middle and turns up an ace of clubs and a king of clubs. McMurphy turns up deuce/six off-suit. He’s flopped two pair. Ned has flopped a pair with the best kicker, and if there were any justice in poker, he’d be the winner of this hand. But cards have no conscience. They fall where they may.

The turn is revealed, as is the river (cards four and five of the five community cards the players share in Hold ’Em), and Ned does not better his hand. I push McMurphy his massive pile of chips. Ned mutters some expletives, berates McMurphy for his horrible play and walks out.

Is this Commerce Casino?
The Bicycle Club? Hustler Casino? No. This is
Hollywood No-Limit Hold ’Em. They call me Johnny Shuffles and I’m the dealer to
the stars.

Poker right now is hotter than Botox with Hollywood celebs. In my short term as an underground poker dealer, I’ve dealt to (this is the shameless name-dropping part of the story): Vince Vaughn, Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains’ axman), Cole Hauser, Rory Cochrane (CSI: Miami, Dazed and Confused), Shannon Elizabeth, Macaulay Culkin, Dave Navarro, Gina Gershon, Willie Garson (Sex and the City), Eric Balfour (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Six Feet Under) and Nick Gonzalez (The O.C., Law & Order: SVU), among others. Underground poker games are illegal so I’d like to point out that all of these games are played for “fun chips” and no real monies have been exchanged, to the best of my knowledge.

Regardless if it’s for fun or for real, the game is growing and so are the players’ challenges and skill levels. The hand I dealt above happened about four months ago.

And while calling with a deuce/six, let alone raising with it, is not representative of the kind of skill level that I traditionally find at the games that I deal, McMurphy is a self-proclaimed action junkie. He also knows how to play his opponents and he knows the game. He knows that posting a blind raise will entice players to call him, and he is willing to gamble. He got incredibly lucky on the flop and his reckless play was rewarded with a huge pot. Poker pro Gus Hansen, a current favorite among fans of televised poker and a huge winner on last year’s World Poker Tour, makes these kinds of plays often and also comes out on top. So, is it better to have skill or luck?

Neither McMurphy nor Ned are celebrities, but they round out a table dotted with them. They have told me they are regulars at an epic game that Danny Masterson (That ’70s Show) hosts in which players win and lose thousands. I have yet to be tapped to deal that game. And I’ve heard that Hank Azaria (The Simpsons, Huff) has a similar game in which many, many thousands change hands over the course of a night. But none of these games match the now-legendary game that Tobey Maguire hosted, which boasted a $10,000 buy-in before it was dissolved last year.

The poker sewing circle reports that Tobey now considers himself a professional player first and foremost, and that the acting stuff is just to keep the bill collectors away between games. To hone his chops, Tobey buddied up with professional poker brat Phil Hellmuth for some intense one-on-one lessons and came up with a couple of major wins in tournament play last year that put an extra $100,000 or so in his pocket. My understanding is that Ben Affleck, who also tutored under Hellmuth, feels that he has mastered the game and has since given it up to pursue other hobbies. He won the California State Poker Championship at Commerce Casino last year. With its $10,000 buy-in, the state championship is a world-class event attracting seasoned pros. Ben won $356,000 after beating the field.

Willie Garson is an extremely strong player. His dad was a blackjack professional, so gambling runs in the family. Dave Navarro is becoming a good player. As if being married to Carmen Electra didn’t already make him the luckiest guy in the world, the former Jane’s Addiction guitar player won a Pro-Am Invitational Poker Tournament at the Hard Rock Hotel/Casino in July, besting a lot of poker pros in the process.

Another night, another game. Mac’s got a 5 o’clock shadow going,
even though it’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday. Mac’s just come from Hollywood Park, where
he won $1,600, and he’s trying to run the table one more time. He’s up to his
old tricks, calling another live straddle/blind raise. Luckily, Ned’s not here
to see this. He moved to New York with ?his wife.

Angel, a handsome, young black actor who has yet to “make it” out here, and who supplements his actor’s income by taking several hundred a week off the tourists at Hollywood Park, has had it with Mac’s doings. He just wants to beat this man.

When the option gets back to Mac, he makes it another $35 to go, hoping to drag the pot without even getting to the flop. Mac won’t die easily, though.

“I call,” says Angel.

Everyone else folds, leaving Mac and Angel heads up. Mac is first to act after the flop is dealt: a queen, a ten and a four. No suits in play. It’s a rainbow.

“Sixty-five [dollars],” says Mac.

Angel calls.

Mac is visibly disappointed by Angel’s call. He intended the size of his first bet to send Angel running. I deal the turn — a king of diamonds. The possibility of a straight is now in play and there are two diamonds on the board, which would make a flush draw a possibility.

“You know, Angel,” I say, “I’m not gay or anything, but you’re a damn good-looking man.”

“Thanks, Johnny.” He tosses me a $5 chip.

“Ah . . . A bribe? Bribes are always welcome at this table. I’m sorry, Mac, it’s to you. Check or bet.”

“Sixty-five dollars,” says Mac, still hoping to chase off Angel.

“I’m all in,” Angel fires back.

Angel’s all-in bet is well over $300. Mac looks at his cards, looks at Angel and looks back at the board. He folds. I push Angel the pot and check his hole cards before returning them to the deck. He had absolutely nothing. He just played Mac, bluffed him. Angel winks at me.

“Nice hand,” I say.

Angel tosses me another $5 chip. When the game’s done, he calls Ned in New York to tell him about how he took more than $600 off of McMurphy. Ned is overjoyed to get the call even though it is 8 o’clock in the morning in New York.

That’s what poker will do to you.

LA Weekly