In the Hole 

The decline and fall of Montana’s favorite game

A smoky cardroom, the muffled rattle of chips, laughter shot through with ominous glares, the flow of rye whiskey, a sharp word followed by an upturned table and gunshots. Is there anything more indelibly stamped into the mythology of the Wild West than poker?

Of course, like anything that’s been turned into myth, live poker games bear little resemblance to its stylized model. But enough of the intrigue and mystery remain in the real thing to keep live poker on the national stage, where it is experiencing a massive renaissance. While legalized live gaming used to be generally confined to two locales—Las Vegas and Atlantic City—the recent combination of liberalized gambling laws and Indian casinos has resulted in a virtual explosion of gambling nation-wide, and live poker has been a big beneficiary of the boom. In a recent issue, Poker Digest magazine (one of the two national publications—along with Card Player—devoted to any and all things poker-related) lists poker tournaments for 20 different states.

Las Vegas remains the mecca of the poker world, but huge card rooms in L.A., Arizona, Connecticut, Mississippi and even our near-neighbor Washington have spread the gospel of live poker to the masses far and wide. National poker tournaments are on the rise, with the granddaddy of them all, Las Vegas’ World Series of Poker, gaining recognition to the point that the final event has been broadcast by ESPN. This year, the World Series—25 events in all—will carry a total prize pool of over $15 million and the main event, a $10,000 buy-in, five-day Hold-‘Em tournament that runs May 14-18, will award a top prize of over $1.5 million. And to local observers who appreciate poker, it seems only fitting that this days-long marathon of Montana’s favorite game is held at Binion’s Horseshoe, which was founded during Las Vegas’ nascent days by Montana rancher Benny Binion.

But it also only serves to add to the irony, and the bitterness. Because here in Montana, live poker is in precipitous decline. Records from the state’s Gambling Control Division show that the number of live poker table permits in Big Sky Country has shrunk from 274 in 1993 to 199 in 2001, a drop of more than 25 percent. Previous hotbeds of live poker action—like the fabled M&M in Butte and the Heritage Inn in Great Falls—are now silent. In fact, there’s almost no action in those cities at all anymore. Great Falls and Butte, markets that used to hold a number of thriving games, now only have one and none, respectively.

Across the state, players, dealers, cardroom operators and onlookers of all kinds are coming to grips with the fact that Montana’s poker scene has been dealt a terrible hand. But while they are debating who’s to blame for the decline in Montana’s favorite game, there is still a glimmer of hope. The die-hard players in Missoula, at least, aren’t ready to walk away yet.

When to Fold ‘Em

As discussed by members of Montana’s poker fraternity, theories about the cause of live poker’s decline center around three basic issues. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is our state’s putrid economy. Quite simply, the less people have to spend on non-essential goods and services, the less will appear on card tables throughout the state.

“It’s been tougher lately,” says Jason Brown, a local cardroom operator, “and it’s probably not going to get a whole lot better until people start making more money and increase their social incomes.”

A second reason for Montana’s poker decline has a direct link to the growth of poker elsewhere. Before the boom of card games nationwide, the places a card player could go to find a legal game were limited. Since the mid-‘70s, Montana had been a destination place for gamblers from surrounding states and Canada, despite its relatively limited form of live gaming—the maximum pot for a live game here is $300, which severely limits the size of a game. But now, with the proliferation of card tables throughout every region of the country, small-stakes poker like we have here is not even an afterthought. Why would a player come here, where the pots are limited, when states like Washington boast the same games without a limit?

In addition to putting a lid on the pot, the state also places strict curbs on the types of promotions card tables can run. Card table operators will tell you it’s a source of unending frustration for them, but the state vehemently fights centralized, large-scale live gaming.

Rick Ask, who has served as the Operations Bureau Chief of the Gambling Control Division since it was created in 1989, says his office merely enforces the wishes of the legislature that established his office: “The limits established on live gaming are there to keep gambling at the size that the legislature intended,” he says. And those limits exist largely to prevent the involvement in state gaming from big-money, out-of-state operations—read: the Mafia. “Of course, I can’t speak for the people who made the laws, but it’s my understanding that they are trying to keep unsuitable influences out of gambling in Montana,” Ask says. “If the bets and payoffs are higher, it logically follows that the industry would become more attractive to those unsuitable influences.”

A third force, and the one that strikes closest to the bone for live gamers, is the steady increase of video gambling machine use in the state. Statistics from the Gambling Control Division show that video gambling machine permits in the state have skyrocketed from 9,669 in 1989 to 19,575 in 2000, and reported gross income from video gambling machines has grown from $113.4 million in 1990 to a jaw-dropping $270.5 million in 2000. In other words, over the past decade, live poker’s electronic competition has doubled its market share.

“Part of it is those damn machines,” says Jim Elmos, a cardroom operator since 1976, when asked about the decline of live poker. “I think it’s easier to lose money to a machine than to a live player, because you’re not supposed to beat a machine.”

While it would be more than a bit disingenuous for live gamers to fault video gamblers for their habit in general, most poker players express serious reservations about video gambling, both economically and socially. Though a live poker player who consistently beats the game is a statistical oddity, the fact that machines are programmed to ultimately pay out a locked percentage less than they take in makes a career-winning video gambler not only a statistical anomaly but also one who wins based purely on luck. A live poker player, though by no means independent of the graces of good fortune, can only achieve consistent success through the exercise of discipline, a thorough knowledge of relative odds, and a healthy dose of practical psychology. Good poker playing is a craft to be learned, a skill to be honed.

And in live poker, players would argue, at least when you lose money it travels, for the most part, to another player, minus the rake taken by the house, keeping much of the money within the close-knit community of players and not in some soulless cash-sucking machine. Besides, when was the last time you saw an old Hollywood saloon shoot-out with keno machines in the background?

The New Rounders

Despite the allure of big wins at the table, it is that close-knit sense of community that keeps most players coming back to the green felt tables, even when, as is the case with the majority of players, they have lost more on those tables than they have gained. Here in Missoula, like everywhere else in Montana, that community has lost more members than it has gained over the past 10 years. But locally the industry still survives, and at its best moments it actually seems like one of the last strongholds for live games in the state. On any given evening in Missoula, a poker game can be found at one or more of the following four locations: the Oxford, the Silvertip, the Lucky Strike and Stockman’s Bar, where boisterous patrons are still invited to “liquor in the front, poker in the rear.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for the relative strength of Missoula’s live poker scene is the small but noticeable influx of younger players into the mix. Games at places like Stockman’s, which as a college bar naturally attracts a youthful clientele, and the Silvertip feature a significant percentage of players of the peach-fuzz demographic.

One such player is Rob McGillis, a 21-year-old ex-Marine who began playing three years ago at a game in his home town of Hamilton.

“I was shooting a game of pool and kind of watching the poker table,” Rob says, “and Johnny [John Golder, who runs both the Hamilton game and the table at the Silvertip] invited me in, told me that he’d explain the rules. I had a blast that night, and I’ve loved playing ever since.”

McGillis was so taken with poker that he gave up the construction job he had in high school and decided to get his dealer’s license when he finished his military active duty. Now he attends the University of Montana, works three nights a week at the Silvertip, and generally gets the most out of his lifestyle

“It’s perfect for me,” he says. “I’ve got all kinds of free time during the day, and still get a number of nights off. The money is better than construction and the freedom is amazing.”

Golder, himself a relatively young buck at 30, attributes the presence of younger players in part to the movie Rounders. “It’s kind of like what A River Runs Through It did for fly fishing,” he says. “One of my dealers goes by the nickname ‘KGB’ after the John Malkovich character in the movie. He can recite every one of his lines, and the accent is perfect.”

Jason Brown, who runs the game at Stockman’s, also gives a nod to the movie as the impetus for some of his players. “We caught a bit of the Rounders effect here,” he says at the tables tucked into a back corner of the bar. “We have a lot of young players, and we’ve got that back-room-action feel that was featured in the movie.”

Golder got his start in the poker world by watching his dad play. “I’d borrow his car to go out with my friends,” he says, “and then I’d go get him at the cardroom at the end of the night. At some point I just jumped right in and started playing.”

Contrary to the negative stigma often attached to gambling, Golder feels that playing poker has been a positive influence in his life. “Man, I was doing some pretty stupid things before I got involved with poker,” he says. “I was drinking a lot, getting into fights, stuff like that. But I matured in a hurry when I started playing cards. You have to when you’re playing against older, experienced players. I rarely drank—most people don’t when playing—because I knew I needed to stay on top of my game.”

Golder immersed himself in the life of poker, even moving to Las Vegas for a year when he was 21 to play professionally. “I didn’t make a whole lot of money,” he acknowledges, “just enough to pay the bills. But I gained a lot of knowledge about the game and met some great people in the business.”

The 27-year-old Brown—like Golder a gregarious, dynamic man and a fine ambassador of the game—was working at a sporting goods store and teaching tennis in 1993 when he first sat down in Johnny Bessette’s game at Stockman’s

“I lost $20 the first night—pretty much all the money to my name at the time,” he recalls. “But I scraped together a buy-in for the next night and won $70. Johnny B. told me, “That’s more than you made all day at work,’ and I had to laugh. He was right, of course.”

Brown started playing regularly to pay off his car (“about $200 a month”) and jumped at the chance to become a dealer when Bessette offered him a job in ’94. He has managed the game since last spring when Bessette, a beloved figure in the poker community, died in a car accident.

“I guess I’ve always had an affinity for poker,” says Brown. “I ran into a high school friend a while ago, and when I told him what I do he started cracking up. Then he reminded me about the card games we’d play on the school bus, and how I’d have guys writing seven-dollar checks to me.” Asked what it is about poker playing that draws him, Brown says, “It’s hard to put into words. You either like it or you don’t, I guess. Some guys like playing poker, some like wearing women’s underwear. I happen to be one of the former.”

As in any occupation, life in the poker world has its drawbacks. The hours are long and irregular—Missoula is one of two counties in the state where gambling is allowed around the clock, meaning that any given game ends only when the players get too tired, or too broke, to continue—and that can be problematic for life outside the table.

“I spend more time with poker players than I do with my girlfriend,” says Brown, “and I don’t even know the last names of half of them.” But constant contact with players has an upside as well. “Some of the people I dislike the most I’ve met at the card table,” says Brown, “but I’ve also met some of my best friends there.”

Both Golder and Brown point to the social camaraderie of the game as its number one selling point.

“You get so many people from different walks of life around the table,” says Golder, “and you see friendships between people that you know would’ve never happened anywhere else. For most of the players, it’s not about the money, it’s about the atmosphere and the competition.”

Brown adds, “Many of the people in my game play to spend money. They come down to get maximum entertainment for their dollar.”

Of course, any endeavor in gambling carries the inherent risk of potentially addictive behavior, and live poker is no exception. “People spend more money at the table than they should sometimes,” says Golder, “and that’s probably the biggest negative of the job.”

Still, as Brown points out, the competitive nature of live games usually prevents prolonged losing from any one player: “Live games are very social, but no one wants to put on a big party [supply the winning chips for many others] every night—they either tighten up and learn how to play a bit or quit.”

It’s that huge gray area between winning and losing—populated by every emotion from exhilaration to despair—that causes a good poker player to constantly redefine himself as a player and, if he is astute enough to take the lessons home with him, as a person.

Social event that it is, a poker table is still an arena of battle, and as such it is rife with examples of both grace and vindictiveness, of dignity and pettiness, from the winners and the losers alike. Which end of the spectrum a player inhabits is, of course, up to him. One thing is certain: When he leaves that green felt table the lessons a player has learned will have been tempered by the heat of an emotional and psychological fire.

Anybody interested in a glimpse of this world should know that new players at any local cardroom are welcomed and treated patiently. Of course, new players are favored in part because they often lose money, but as the old-timers say, poker lessons don’t come free. However, several of the games offer weekly freeroll tournaments (no cost to enter, and a good crash course for the game), and the Ox features a low-limit game (minimum bet 50 cents, maximum bet $1.25) every Saturday afternoon.

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