Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Poker and Fire and Water

I'm just back from a weekend in Louisville, where a World Series of Poker circuit event was taking place at Caesar's Indiana, and I went to play in some of the cash games around the tournament.

The drive to and from Kentucky offered a shocking view of the damage done by the recent flooding. Driving along I-64, the various overflowing rivers and lakes would have covered the highway if it were not elevated a few feet on a berm. To the right and left, water covered everything in sight, burying farmland and ranch houses. In many areas, the only thing I could see above the water were trees and the tops of the many oil pumps that dot the landscape of southern Illinois and Indiana. Noting how many were out of action and not moving any oil, I wondered what effect this would have on the price of gas during my trip.

By the time I got to Louisville, it seemed like I'd left the flooding behind, but the water was just working its way downstream.

Unlike most St. Louis casinos, which used to be on riverboats but have now moved to more sturdy foundations, Caesar's is still docked on the banks of the Ohio River, in New Albany, Indiana, where they draw plenty of crowds from casino-free Kentucky. There's open boarding, so you never have to wait to enter, which is why I was surprised on Sunday when I arrived and found some 200 people lined up at the entrance and not moving.

I asked the couple in front of me what was going on, and the husband replied, "they're resetting the boat," in a way that implied I should know what he meant. I didn't. The wife explained that the river was still rising, so the boat was higher, and the ramps from the land-based building to Deck 2 of the boat, where I had entered the two previous days, were being reset so the entrance would be on Deck 1 (of 4). I asked what would happen if the river kept rising. The couple looked at each other and said, matter-of-factly and in unison, "they close the boat and kick everyone off." This apparently happens with some regularity.

Wonderful.

Some 20 minutes later, the reset boat ramps were ready. Once the people already on board were allowed to exit, we were allowed to enter. Since Deck 1 is where the poker room is, I was right where I wanted to be.

With limited entry and exit access, you have to think about these things. Watching the people exiting the boat -- who had been unable to leave for about a half hour -- I remembered an incident from the afternoon before.

I'd been sitting in a no-limit hold'em game for a few hours when the guy next to me leaned over and asked "Do you smell something burning?" Yes, I did. I also noticed some smoke rising to the lights in the ceiling above us. Several other players noticed it, too.

Deep in the heart of a crowded riverboat when a fire broke out, surrounded by several hundred poker players, not to mention the other casino patrons at the slots and table games, all with only one possible exit, didn't seem like a safe place to be. There was a definite sense of unease in the room, with some players taking a few steps towards the door, just in case. But most of us stayed put to see what was going on.

I thought maybe someone had snuck a cigarette in and dropped it into the waste basket. The floor staff checked the two cans nearby, but found nothing. My fellow players and I checked the floor under our table to see if something was smoldering -- as did those at the two or three nearest tables -- but no one found anything.

As the mystery and the burning aroma because more intense, the guy sitting in Seat One at my table suddenly jumped up and yelled. Next thing I knew, several other people were stomping something out on the floor next to him. The excitement lasted mere seconds, and when it was over, Seat One looked down at his right leg to see a four-inch-diameter hole burned in his jeans, right at his calf. Fortunately, his flesh was untouched, but he had no idea how his pants had spontaneously combusted. Since he'd just come back from a meal break, we guessed that someone had thrown a cigarette on the floor outside, but it had somehow stuck to his jeans and glowed there for awhile before becoming hot enough to ignite the denim. The boat's EMTs came over to check things out and see if the player was okay, but he waved them off and said, "Deal the cards."

It was yet another instance where I realized that, no matter how long I play poker and think I've seen everything around the table -- from bad beats to bad players to amazing suck-outs to incredible bluffs to drunken near-fights -- something new will come along to prove me wrong.

As the room returned to normal and breathed a sigh of relief as the game continued, the floor supervisor got on the PA and reminded everyone, "This is supposed to be a smoke-free poker room!"