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Monday, April 04, 2016

Poker Stories: Steamed Meat

In my occasional series of poker stories, here's a piece I wrote on September 21, 2004...

Just back from a quick vacation in Vegas with a few stories that aren't going to stay there.

My brother-in-law, Stuart, and I were there for our annual poker-and-football weekend, in which we played in several no-limit Texas Hold'em tournaments, including one at the Golden Nugget.

It was a beautiful day, so before entering the tournament, Stuart and I went for a walk down Freemont Street, the pedestrian plaza that connects most of the major downtown casinos. The whole aura there is a throwback to a time before Steve Wynn turned the Vegas strip into an experience beyond simple dice, cards, and slot machines. The difference between these places and the giant resort hotel-casinos is like night and day. Inside, all the games and slot machines work the same way, but on the outside, where the strip is all glitz, downtown is all plain, all the time. I have no idea how some of these places make enough money to cover their nut. There must be a steady stream of people going for the cheap rooms and food, somehow allowing the places to stay in business every month, but I don't see why.

The sign for one such place, a motel, caught my eye from a half-block away. The first two lines read: "Chief Hotel Court" and "Vacancy." But it was the third line that made me do a double take. There, in neon tubing, was the two-word phrase, "Steamed Meat."

Unsure if this were some local delicacy or a coy marketing slogan approved by some psycho focus group, I nudged Stuart and asked him, "Does that sign say Steamed Meat?" He glanced over and confirmed that it did, at least from this distance. We walked closer to verify this odd sight, debating what Steamed Meat could mean. Perhaps it was an old-school buffet specialty, or perhaps connected in some weird way to the city's ever-present strip club and sex industry.

When we reached the base of the sign, we realized that the neon tubing had been done badly, and the first letter of the second word wasn't M, it was H. So, the phrase spelled out before us wasn't "Steamed Meat," it was "Steamed Heat."

Mystery solved. Or not. Now our discussion turned to wondering what kind of selling point that could be for a motel in the middle of the desert. Stuart wondered in which decade those two words on a motel sign would help bring in customers. It seemed incredibly old-fashioned, as if the sign should continue with other bygone come-ons: "Color TV!" "Phone in room!" "Bedsheets washed monthly!"

We didn't have time to investigate any further, because we had tournament seats awaiting us at the Golden Nugget, a downtown landmark whose customer base has been reinvigorated by overflow from the World Series of Poker and by the recent Fox primetime reality show, "Casino." It may not have gotten great ratings (in fact, executive producer Mark Burnett said it was among the worst things he'd ever done), but business was up.

During the tournament, Sammy Farha -- second to Chris Moneymaker in the 2003 World Series of Poker -- came into the room, not to play in our smalltime tourney, but to talk to the manager about getting a high-limit game going against another player. Once setup, they sat down at opposite ends of the table and bought in for what looked like $500,000 each and proceeded to play $2,000/$4,000 limit hold'em.

Someone at my tournament table asked casually what I thought was going on. I replied "It's Monday, a workday for Sammy. He's on the job and making money." That's why these guys are called poker pros. It's their profession, and high stakes are as standard for them as ill-advised marriages are for Britney Spears.

I didn't recognize the other guy, but someone in the room said he had a reputation as a fairly good hold'em player. Unfortunately, Sammy was better. It didn't take long for his stack to begin growing.

Meanwhile, mine was shrinking. After a couple of hours, I had only played a few hands and won a couple, but the blinds were getting too large for me to survive much longer. When I finally looked down at ace-ten on the button with an unraised pot, I pushed it all in, only to run into the small blind, whose ace-queen held up and took me down.

Stuart got better cards and played them better than I did. After winning a satellite to earn a seat at the big Sunday night game at the Mirage (but not ending up in the money), he went on to finish fourth in the tournament at the Golden Nugget, long after I'd gone out. He ended up with a nice chunk of prize money.

Me, I didn't even get a plate of Steamed Meat.

For more of my poker stories, click here.