The superpancho

Our lungs had not yet been fully coated with the smoke of 500 chain smoking, leather-faced Argentinian gamblers. The middle aged women looked like their makeovers came courtesy of Rawlings after the catchers mitts had been made for the year. The men all looked like aged Nazis, despite the fact they’d been born long after Hitler had put one in his noodle. We five travelers had been in a cigarette’s uterus for the better part of eight or nine hours. It was dinner time when we breached the womb into the fresh air of a Mar del Plata night.

We sucked it in. None of us were sick yet. None of us had casino cough or even developed much in the way of a bad mood. It was our first opportunity to eat dinner as a group and we actually had 80 minutes to do it. It was an exciting development in an otherwise unexciting and uncomfortable day.

Argentinians eat late. I knew this going in. I also knew they so badly overcook their beef, it’s almost a shame they breed some of the best cattle on the planet. By the end of the trip Change100 had figured out that the only way to get a properly cooked steak was to beg, “Muy, muy rojo.” I ended up liking the idea so much, I decided I’m going to open my own Argentinian steakhouse with the following temperatures.

Well done = Not-so rojo
Medium = So-so rojo (you must move your hand in the so-so motion when you order)
Rare = So, so rojo

But on this particular night, a 7:30 dinnertime was way too early to get into any of the decent places along the main drag in Mar del Plata. Because we were in a hurry, we settled on a little corner cafe that served more as a bakery than a diner. We crowded five people around a small table. Pauly came up with a game that let us bet on the placemat pictures. When we finally got the menus, they were entirely in Spanish.

We’re pretty decent travelers, especially in Spanish-speaking countries. My photographer and friend Joe Giron is basically fluent and pretty much saves my ass everywhere we go. Change lives in southern California and speaks enough Español to cover me if Joe isn’t around. Pauly, Gene, and I know just enough to get ourselves in trouble.

When the menus came out in all Spanish, we didn’t blink. After a couple of meals in Spanish-speaking countries, it’s pretty easy to order a decent meal. Pauly and Gene ordered the hamburguesa. Joe and Change ordered the pollo completa. I stared at the menu.


That was my way of asking Joe or Change if they knew what it was. They shrugged. It wasn’t a term they’d heard before.

The superpancho, like most everything else, was cheap. It was offered in a couple of different ways. The most exciting was con queso.

“I don’t know what it is,” I declared, “but I’m ordering it. I’m a gambler. I’ll eat it!”

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was going to be food, and that was all that mattered. When I was a kid, I used to eat at this Mexican joint where they served something called a “Sancho.” It was a very fresh, lettuce-heavy burrito that I remember fondly.

Now, did I think the superpancho was going to be a Sancho? No. It seemed a virtual certainty that it wouldn’t be. And really, it didn’t matter to me. It was exciting, almost dirty. I was sitting at the end of our table, looking at myself in a column mirror, and saying, “You’re just ordering food. It doesn’t matter what the food is. You’re throwing open your robe, exposing yourself to a whole country, and laying yourself bare on their dinner table. Bring me the superpancho and do it with all speed, man!”

The anticipation was fantastic. After all, this wasn’t just a pancho. It was a super pancho. And not only that, it was a superpancho con queso. I was hungry. I had visions this mammoth pancho dripping with gooey cheese. My friends with their boring chicken and sandwiches and hamburgers were going to be jealous. They were going to envy my gambler’s spirit. It would shake them from the comfortable confines of their rote menu ordering and launch them on a new life of carefree travel eating.

The waiter knew I was getting off on the wait. He could see me sitting forward in my seat and clutching my silverware. He brought the chicken and burgers first.

“And the superpancho?” I asked. “The superpancho?”

Si, si” he said, as if to say, “Keep your shorts on pal. I got your superpancho right here.”

And then he came around the corner, the plate in hand.

“The plate doesn’t look very big,” I thought. “Must be some sort of delicacy!”

The waiter sat the plate down in front of me with flair. And there it sat…the superpancho.

Argentina is a wonderful country. The smoky casino and overcooked steaks aside, the Argentinian people are very nice. The young women are gorgeous, the men are friendly, and the local beer, Quilmes, ain’t bad either. Some things do get lost in the translation. Across the street from our hotel was a place called “Friends” that was said to be either a brothel or hair salon (the former being more likely based on the signage). Regardless of whether they were offering hair cuts or just trim, they were advertising pato-girls.

“Pato means duck,” Joe observed as we walked by one night.

“Duck girls?” I asked. I frankly wouldn’t want a duck girl cutting my hair or fiddling with my naughty bits. In Argentina, you may not always get what you expect. You could go in looking for web-footed girls and end up getting herpes.

I’d gone for the superpancho and it now sat right in front of me in all its glory. All eight inches of it. On a stale bun. With a piece of cheese half-melted on top of it.

My dinner, the hot dog.

Wanna see a picture? Pauly has one here.

Grandpa was a gambler

Grandpa lived in a house that smelled like pipe smoke and old books. His wife, a one-eyed lady named Ruby, sat forever in the corner of the couch, reading and marking out the author’s dirty words.

I thought I knew a lot about the couple. I knew Grandpa had a Navy tattoo and had been a small-church minister. I knew Grandma and Grandpa had been married on Halloween and once had hosted a radio variety show. Frankly, I thought I knew everything.

I did not.

Grandpa died last Wednesday at the age of 89. He went much in the same way Grandma Ruby had. He’d fallen, broken his hip, had surgery, and never recovered from the trauma that surgeries cause old folks. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Mississippi at a debutante wedding. Instead, I flew through Chicago and down to southwest Missouri to say goodbye to a man I was sure I knew in full.


I thought I knew myself. Before I reached Vegas this summer, I knew I was a card player and considered myself a good one. I was sure of my discipline. I had little doubt in my resolve and knew that I was in control of myself and my faculties most of the time. My ability to control my emotions–or the willingness to purposefully let loose of that control–has always been among the traits of which I am most proud.

I enjoyed all of this with the belief that all of the qualities were self-cultivated. While I hold undeniable love, affection, and pride for my family, I was sure that my personality was one I created for myself. My life-perspective, my ability to see things in a rational and purposeful way, they were all mine.

Sometime in mid-July, though, a small amount of doubt began to creep in. Something wasn’t quite right. I remember sitting with a friend one night and saying, “Six months ago, I was sure of who I was. Now, I have no idea.”

There may have been an unintended amount of hyperbole in my statement, but the simple fact was this: I was lost in Las Vegas. Even worse, I was lost in my own head.


Mom was making coffee while I tapped away on my laptop’s keyboard.

“You should take a look at those photo albums on the floor,” she said.

While I am a sentimental guy, I had made a personal vow to not get sappy while on the road home to Grandpa’s funeral. I was there for one reason: to support my dad while he said goodbye to his father. As such, I had little desire to take a five-album walk down memory lane.

I’ve seen all those pictures before, I thought and continued to peck away at busy work until it was time to go to what was sure to be an uncomfortable open-casket visitation.

After a few minutes, I could see my mom watching me and I felt like I should at least make an effort to look like looking at several hundred pictures was something I really wanted to do.

Five minutes later, I was alone in a world of black and white history that I never knew.


Grandpa’s jaw was stronger than I ever could’ve imagined it could be. As he stood beside a beautiful and buxom woman that would someday be my grandma, Grandpa looked like movie star from 1940. His hair was slicked back. He was a young and tough kid raised in the dirt farms around Garza County, Texas. He was to be the eventual father of nine children, one who would die before he saw five years old, and eight more that would outlive their father.

On the face of one picture, a shirtless John Willis painted commercial signs in the hot Texas sun. Written on the back of the picture in pencil were the words, “A way to make ends meet.”

I had always thought of Grandpa as a man who had fought in World War II and gone on to live a life of a minister. As it turned out, both of those pursuits took up less than ten total years of his life. He’d been a sign painter, a father, a radio man, a bowler, a lover of beagles, and, at his retirement, a guy who worked at a paper cup manufacturing company.

The pictures told a lot of stories, but none really meshed with what I thought I knew about the man. Much like I believed for 32 years of my life that my father was born in El Paso (I learned two days ago that Dad was actually born in Houston), I also believed my grandfather had been on a Navy ship around Iwo Jima. Lately, I had come to doubt that story and wondered whether my grandpa had done any more than swab the deck of a navy ship in an American harbor.

As it turned out, there hadn’t been an Iwo Jima for Grandpa, but he had seen Asiatic action in WWII. And the story of how he ended up there is the one that has me thinking this morning.


The black and white photo didn’t show much. A lamp lay broken on the floor. The rest of the room was a mess. Unlike most of the photos that showed Grandma looking like a 1940s magazine advertising model, this one was out of place. Written on the back of the photo were the words, “The work of an intruder.”

Grandma was living alone in New Orleans. She had some money in her purse and a kid to take care of. Once the intruder left, she only had the child. Her family packed her up and moved her back to Texas. Left unanswered in the picture–and in any stories told to me before this weekend–was the location of my grandpa. As my dad would say while we sweated in a 2006 Missouri heatwave, “He was a good father who did the best he knew how.”

It seemed everyone believed that. But, if so, who leaves his wife in the ramshackle confines of one of America’s roughest cities to be looted and violated in the middle of the night?


The early 1940s were a time of war. It was a time when a man could simultaneously be patriotic and earn enough money to feed his wife and child. Grandpa, like his brother-in-law Grady, enlisted in the military. The black and white photos of the two young men arm-in-arm would make them look like recruitment posterboys. The photos would not show Grady’s death at St. Lo, France or the bullet hole through his dog tags.

As Grady made his way toward France’s northern shore, Grandpa made his way toward the Navy. He ended up in a shipyard in New Orleans. Combat was certainly a possibility, but, perhaps not a big one. As Grady would die, the simple hope of three generations not yet born would’ve kept Grandpa on American shores. If Grandpa had run over a dune and into a bullet on D-Day, I would not be here. While that may be no huge tragedy, my son would not be here. That would be depriving the world of something perfect.

I’ve long known a mischievous grin on Grandpa’s face, but it never really made sense to me until my dad ended up telling me the story while my grandpa laid in a casket a few feet away. As it turned out, it was a story that could be my own. The following is not word for word or, perhaps, even all that true. It’s how I imagined it as my family recounted the legend. As someone said later in the weekend, “I have full confidence that every story Grandpa ever told at least had its genesis in truth.”


Can you hear that sound? It doesn’t belong on a ship or barracks, at least as far as the man with the stripes on his arm was concerned.

It was a few whispers, a few louder voices, then a tell-tale clicking. One man shouted, a few groaned. Then it all fell silent as The Man walked in.

Kneeling down on the floor were six men. They surrounded a few small piles of cash and two ivory dice.

Maybe they called it craps. Maybe they called it dice. The Man called it forbidden. In wartime, several indiscretions may have been permitted. Among Granpda and his friends, though, there were two forbidden pleasures. They must not fight. They must not gamble.

Grandpa did both.

As the piles of cash found their way to pockets, there were warnings given and promises made. Never again, The Man said. Never again, the men promised.

The next night they did it again. The Man gave another warning and the men offered more empty promises.

The warning eventually seemed just as empty. The Pacific was a world away and the war would certainly be over soon. And, really, would The Man send them away–send them to war–over a few silly games of dice?

Six months later, Grandpa was in the boiler room of the USS Adair as it set out from San Diego and to the waters around a land called Japan.


A farm field in southwest Missouri is the last place anyone wants to be in August. It was nearly 100 degrees by 11am and the 40 people standing along the fence were sweating faster than they could dry their faces. It had been more than 60 years since Grandpa’s ship had navigated the waters around Okinawa and made it back to American shores. It was a mission for which he would receive several medals, among them, ironically, one for good conduct.

I stood in a ten-year-old suit and stared at the flag-draped casket. In the distance, three uniformed men stood with guns at parade rest.

My sister-in-law nudged me.

“Look at the butterflies.”

I turned to my right and looked at the 20 acres of purple-flowered weeds on the other side of the fence. I was still struck by the odd placement of the cemetery, but now I was transfixed. Like ten thousand tiny flags, a swarm of butterflies danced and weaved over the purple blossoms. There was nothing particularly poetic about it. It was simply a 20-acre scene of beauty that could not have been created by anything other than the God my grandpa loved. It was haphazard, hard-working nature. There was just enough randomness to make it exciting. There was just enough control to make it beautiful.

The uniformed men leveled their guns and fired in unison. The mourners jumped at each shot, then bowed their heads as one of the men played Taps through the humid air. The men then marched in line to the casket. They folded and presented the American flag to my father.

Grandpa may not have been one of the men to raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but he was an American war hero all the same, at least in the eyes of the people who loved him.

More than that though, I remembered my dad’s words: “He was a good father who did the best he knew how.”

It was not an epitaph worthy of a headstone, but it was my Grandpa’s life.


When people die, their life–no matter how mundane–often takes on legendary status. The stories become bigger than the actual man was in his breathing years. For Grandpa, though, his stories, his tall tales, and his pictures were not larger than life. They were life. From painting signs as “a way to make ends meet,” to falling victim to his own mischievousness, to making it back home to love his wife and raise eight children to adulthood, Grandpa lived a regular life of a man who made ends meet until he died at age 89.

I wrote all of this in a South Carolina coffee shop while waiting for my dog to get out of surgery. In about 15 minutes, I’m going to pick her up and take her home to my son. My dog surviving the surgery and my ability to take her home to someone who will love her unconditionally is the reason I woke up this morning.

I am a gambler. I know that now. And regardless of whether the story of my grandpa getting sent to war over a game of craps is true, it’s helping me understand myself. I am a man of mischief that I control less than I thought I could. I am rational, but I am not perfect. Youth, or a mind still set in youth, can be a dangerous thing. Still, it gives us–no, it gives me–time to figure everything out.

When Dad told me Grandpa was a gambler, I only responded, “That makes a lot of sense.”

What I meant was, “I understand.”

I understand that life is like the field surrounding my grandpa’s grave.

There is just enough randomness to make it exciting. There is just enough control to make it beautiful.

Originally appeared at Rapid Eye Reality

The Last Poker Game

Every word of this is true.

The parabolas north and south met in the middle over Greenville, South Carolina. One began over the northern states and drooped down across the Mason Dixon line. The other crept up from the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the television sound muted it was clear the weatherman was telling us to expect something akin to apocalypse. Then he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “But hey, whatta I know, right?”

As the bread and milk aisles filled up in the grocery store, scientists from around the world prepared to release their report on global warming. The predictions told us that billions of people would suffer from water shortages while my son is still alive. Chaos and disaster, man-made but wrought by nature, they will say.

The smiling man in the expensive suit says my town will freeze over before Thursday. The wild-haired scientists say my world will fall into global warming chaos shortly after I die.

I’m going to go to a poker game.


My head was numb and it took me three trips to the car and back into the house to get everything I needed to take with me. The air was frigid–cold enough to keep the drinks in the garage icy and cold enough to remind me that I’d forgotten my jacket. I didn’t go back, instead choosing to shiver my way down the dark highway, hitting every red light as I sped–late–toward the underground room.

The room had been rolling for three hours and I didn’t expect to find a seat when I was buzzed in. The parking lot was full and the room was loud. I was surprised to find the two-seat at the second table open. I slid my money to the dealer and pushed myself down on an uncomfortable chair.

The atmosphere was unremarkable at first. Even when I called a short-stack’s all-in and hit runner-runner to bust his made under-boat, I found no pleasure in it. My opponent, however, looked pained, as if the small amount of money he lost would somehow change his future.

Future, I thought. Which future is that?


The door at this game is held tight behind a deadbolt. The windows are covered in black plastic and the parking lot is dark. It’s both a bunker and a shelter. It protects the players from eyes that shouldn’t see and it is a place to hide from the other world–the world where real jobs, real families, and real friends reside. Someone has to recognize your face to let you in. When you go out, the door locks behind you.

Though the room was big, it suddenly seemed full.

A cheer erupted from the table closest to the door and somebody yelled, “Jackpot!” The man in the one-seat held a suited 6-9 and made his ten-high straight flush to win the high-hand jackpot. The man who runs the game announced how much the one-seat had won. Everyone applauded and cursed their bad luck.


I was getting no action. I was bored. Something in my head pushed $25 into the pot, an open-raise in a straddled pot with the hammer (7-2), both cards red. The flop came 77Q. We went check, check. The turn was an ace. My opponent led, I raised. He called. The river was a seven. My opponent put out a blocking bet, I raised anyway, he called reluctantly. I didn’t wait for him to table his hand. I turned over the hammer, shrugged as if to say, “Whatta I know, right?” and silently stacked my chips in concert with the table’s tribal chant of “Ham-mer, ha-mer, ham-mer!”

By the time I left the room, I forgot this even happened.


The Jester spoke through a mouth of rocks. Though always talking, he might as well have been speaking in tongues, a devotee of August Busch and whatever other assorted manufactured pharmaceuticals he’d found that day.

Though it was below freezing outside, he wore flip-flops, baggy shorts, a wrinkled shirt, and an ear-flapped hunter’s cap. He danced with the music, played air guitar with ping-pong paddles, and spoke in his own language–one I’ve come to call Boomhauer.

I could not understand a word he said. Even if he was standing five feet away and speaking slowly, he was as incomprehensible in speech as the action at the table was in terms of real poker. But every once in a while, he would get up from the table, go over to the side of the room, and start playing guitar. His voice was strong and, suddenly, like Mel Tillis’ transformation from stuttering doofus to country crooner, The Jester was an artist, a bard, a minstrel.


Out of the more than 30 people playing and milling around the room, only one of them was a woman. Blonde-haired and beautiful, her innocent face belied her body’s frame. Every male eye followed the cocktail waitress as she moved from player to player, checking on drinks, and giving the players whatever they needed to ply their spirits.

Whether it was the woman in the green tank top, the game of poker itself, or the bunker mentality, the lady’s movements seemed to be the only thing binding the players to their seats. Would but that she could stay, the eight-way pots in hands that have been raised and re-raised to 20 times the big blind might just stay in a locale we could call sane and real.

She sat down quietly next to the game’s owner. Though she’d been working her ass off for the past eight hours, her face still looked clean and serene, if only a little troubled. It was as if she knew what would happen if she left, but she knew she had to go.

She tapped her watch and said just barely loud enough for me to hear it, “Looks like it’s about that time.”


Tuesday had turned into Wednesday. There are those who believe the sun and moon were created on Wednesday. Mickey Mouse told us, “Wednesday is Anything Can Happen Day.” To me, it still felt like Tuesday.

My table was the boring one, the one where the jackpots weren’t getting hit, the one where the inability to combat the turn and river made all post-flop play tiresome.

The Jester’s table was different. There was life, hope, and laughter. The jackpot had given the table a different spirit. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw nearly everybody at The Jester’s table stand up at once. Not involved in a hand, I stood and went to take a look.

The chips in the middle of the table sat in piles of green and red, an extraordinarily big pot that made up much of the wealth at the table. The flop was all middle cards with two clubs. Two players were already all-in and Mr. Jackpot was thinking. Finally, he called, making the single pot bigger than his jackpot winnings for the night.

He tabled 56 of clubs, for an open-ended straight draw and low club draw. One opponent turned over pocket kings. The Jester did not reveal his cards but I saw them as he peeled them up. He held A7 of clubs for the nut flush draw.

The drama was over quickly. A red four on the turn and no club on the river pushed the entire pot to Mr. Jackpot and his straight.

That did it. Like the breaking of the seventh seal, like Richie Valens’ plane going down, like that late night phone call to tell you somebody is dead, a line had been crossed. Nothing would be the same, even if we couldn’t immediately figure out the difference.

Although there were thousands upon thousands of dollars on the table, nothing seemed to matter much to the players anymore. Raises of any size were called in seven or eight spots. Pot-sized bets were called with abandon. Chips moved back and forth, formed into huge towers, and destroyed just as fast. Sodom, Gomorrah, and Skull Island had nothing on the chaos inside that little room.


“Who has a dick so short they can’t hit the fucking toilet?”

The scream came across the room, a crude but seemingly appropriate reprimand to whoever pissed all over the ladies room floor. I’m not sure why we’d all been using the ladies room, but we had, and it was a mess. The floor was a puddle and littered with paper towels. A sign hung above the open tank: “Please don’t put paper towels in the toliet (sic). Thanks, The Management.”

While somewhat interested in identifying the offender, I was more caught up watching the beginning of a discussion between Mr. Jackpot and The Jester. Though they were being quiet, I could tell by the looks on their faces, the closeness of their chests, and the rapid movements of their hands, something wasn’t right.

I looked back to see my first ace-paint in an hour. Because I’ve been made to understand ace-jack is gold, I raised the straddle to $20. The player to my left min-raised. The player in the ten-seat who had proven himself willing to play any two cards to a re-raise, called. I knew I was behind but, hoping in one hand and puking in the other, tossed out my call.

That’s when the screaming started.

Half the room followed the yelling and ran for the front door.

“Should we pause the action?” asked the re-raiser. I agreed we should but said I wasn’t moving from my seat. One thing I like about this particular room is that the dealers are top notch. They are always calm, smart, and on top of things. I’m never worried about the game going astray. The dealer this night was no different. He paused the action but kept his seat to keep an eye on the money and cards.

It was apparent that the discussion between Mr. Jackpot and The Jester had devolved into something that threatened violence. I didn’t go watch. This would be the third time I’ve been witness to violence or near-violence in a poker room and I know the number one rule: Protect your chips.

Like most disputes, this one was finished almost as soon as it started. Mr. Jackpot, still steaming, walked back into the poker area. The Jester was apparently gone. And, frankly, that had me worried.

When the ten-seat made two little pair to beat my top pair, I didn’t even care. I don’t like people leaving an underground game angry, The Jester had apparently done so, and I said as much to the people around me.

“All it takes is one phone call,” I said, assuming everyone knew what I meant.

I’m not sure anybody heard me, because, again, something in the room had shifted. The testosterone-level was at its peak. In what is often a reserved poker room, players were battling in any way they could. Men with crazed looks and maniacal screams were clashing in a wild dance of doubles ping-pong, slashing the air with their paddles, dancing with each point, cursing at each loss. At some point, a free-weight bench had been put on the other side of the room and grown men were betting on how many times they could bench press 150 pounds. Now no longer in use as a poker table, the empty felt behind us became an arm-wrestling mat and players were testing their strength with the right and left arms.

“I can lift that weight with my dick!” came a scream from across the room.

People had formed a seated gallery around the ping-pong table and were keeping score for the insanity. The Rolling Stones pounded through the speakers, booze was pooling on the floor, beer cans and empty plastic shot glasses littered the carpet.

Every ounce of instinct told me to leave. Poker is a beautifully structured game, but there was nothing in the foundation of this room that made me feel calm. It was a wave of adrenalized war that bore no resemblance to anything I’d seen. The poker game had degenerated into something ugly, full of animosity, resignation, and acquiescence. Now, having witnessed the good fortune of others who acted the same, no one would fold. Every pot, no matter how high it was raised, was a family endeavor. Players were purposefully ignoring rules of poker etiquette. They willfully mis-called their hands. They slow-rolled their winners, malice in their eyes with every flip of the cards. Players would verbally agree to check it down against an all-in opponent. By definition, poker is not a friendly game. This one, however, was mean.

I kept telling myself I should leave. Still, I couldn’t stand. Though I was having no fun, I felt like I was bearing witness to something resembling the last poker game on Earth. This must be what it will be like, I thought. When the bombs are dropping or the disease is spreading, this is how people will play cards. They will throw chips at each other with abandon, fight for no reason, and parcel out their worldly hatred on whoever is closest to them.

Curses and cheers were louder than the music. Money, chips, buy-ins, set-ups, and tips went back and forth with scowls and sighs. There were those fighting against the end and those driving the bus toward oblivion.

And then a voice. An impossible to understand voice.

The Jester was back.

He sat in the ping pong gallery and put his fingers on the guitar strings. And then everything that came out of his mouth was clear, perfect, and beautiful.

He sang Amazing Grace.


When I walked back to my car at 3:30am, the amount of money in my pocket didn’t matter. How I played didn’t matter. The fact that I was going to be tired in the morning didn’t matter. Those are always the things I think about when I leave a game. This night, I only noticed the cold.

My jacket, still at home, would have done little to shield me from the frigid air. In my car, I turned the radio to the first station I could find and pulled out of the dark parking lot. In my mind I’ve built poker up to be a personal test of discipline, will, and intelligence. I knew from the past seven hours that I had exhibited none of those traits.

The roads were deserted. I wondered as I drove through green light after green light. If in fact that had been the last poker game, why any of it would have mattered? There are two kinds of poker players. There are those who play for the money and there are those who play to feel what it’s like to crush the other guy.

If it were the last game on Earth, the money wouldn’t matter. And that made me wonder if there is some spiritual or atavistic need in man to win in the end. Do we believe, even if we don’t consciously recognize it, that we will be rewarded on the other side if we can prove our worth, prove our ability to come out a winner?

Because that’s the thing. In the end, we can’t take the money with us. And if the sky is falling, why do we even bother to play?


After four consecutive green lights, I finally saw a red one in front of me. I moved my foot to the brake, but before I could press down, the light changed to a flashing yellow. Confused, I looked to the left and realized I was passing by a train crossing. The tracks ran parallel to my highway so I didn’t have to stop. I continued to drive toward home. When I looked back up, I saw the light of the freight train coming down the tracks in my direction. I could only think, “How appropriate.”

The horn wailed with the hard rock on the radio and I went home wondering when I would sit down at a poker table again.

Originally appeared at Up For Poker.

Life through a lens

Though Brad was trained to work on the business end of a camera lens, he rather enjoys his time behind the camera. Though he still considers himself an amateur photographer, Willis takes great pains to rise above point-and-shoot status. You can check out a small sampling of his hobby-work below by clicking on any of the thumbnails. While not a pro shooter, Willis can hold his own in the field and is always ready to travel with a camera on his back.




Walking in Deauville

I smelled salt in the air and thought for a moment. Sure, the English Channel is made up of saltwater, but I never really thought of it like that. Waves crashed on the beach an eighth of a mile from where I stood and I found myself alone on the street. It was nearing five in the morning and the streets of Deauville, France were empty.

This was a summer town, I knew. It had to be, what with its boardwalk and harbor full of expensive sailboats. It was the kind of place Hollywood stars came to get away from everything.

Deauville is quite away from anything. It’s a two-hour train ride north from Paris. When a traveler finally reaches St. Lazare Station, he’s almost happy to pay to go to the restroom. The Charles De Gaulle airport had been harrowing enough. My plane had tried to touch down on the runway, but at the last second pulled violently skyward. I watched the ground slip away again like we might be taking off and flying back to Atlanta. Instead, the pilot came on the intercom and said had we landed we would’ve crashed into another plane.

“It happens sometimes,” he said.

Once we found a runway that wasn’t full of lost planes, I made what seemed to be much-too-quick trip though passport control. Given, I’d sneaked into a line meant specifically for Swedes, but the guy at the counter seemed to pay curious little attention to my passport, immigration slip, or baggage. Once through the line, I changed some dollars for euros and started looking for the train station. I would’ve made it there much quicker but a bomb scare had shut down the walkway leading to the trains.

I sat and bobbed my head to the music on my iPod, a Valentines gift from my wife. I watched a happy French policeman hit on two American girls who had climbed atop their luggage to wait out the security sweep. Suddenly, a crossing guard-style whistle blew and I figured it to be the all-clear signal. What made it all the more odd was that the happy, horny French policeman shoved his fingers in his ears like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Half a second later an explosion rattled off the marble floors.

So, this is what the French mean by bomb scare. They bring in a bomb and they scare you with it. As the bomb squad and girls with M-16s wrapped up their gear, I wandered by the remains of the suspicous package. It looked like someone had unrolled a case of toilet paper on the floor and burned half of it.

Now, it’s almost a week later and I’m back in this infernal place. I got here early because I’m excited to go home. What I’ve found is a Delta/Air France terminal with metal seats, no hot food restaurants,and some of the ugliest people I’ve seen since I’ve been in this country. Right now, the Asian girl across from me is gnawing on a cold sandwich and trying to keep her fat legs pressed together so I don’t look up her skirt.

Indeed, I hate this airport more than just about any I’ve seen. And somehow, I’ve found that I like France quite a bit. I didn’t spend 15 euro for Wi-Fi access to ramble on about this place where fat girls eat cold sandwiches and wear those fur-topped boots that seem to be coming back into style.

I came here to talk about Deauville. Actually, not Deauville as much as that morning in Deauville.

I walked out of the casino because the security staff had locked the door between the gaming area and my hotel room. I wasn’t overly eager to get back to the room. Most of the TV channels were in French and I’d had a few beers and felt like going out, but knew I had a long day ahead of me. It was nearing sun-up. I knew when I got back to my room I’d find the wallpaper that was same pattern as the bed comforter that was the same pattern as the high-backed chairs. It was a little spooky. A lot like the bidet in the bathroom that I never found the courage to use.

Still, the room had heated towel racks and the promise of two chocolate-covered almonds on my pillow when I arrived. I’d have a king-sized bed and motorized window shutter to block out the sun. Of course, I didn’t know that when I got back to the room I’d be faced with the only grumpy Frenchman I’d confront all week. He would answer the room service phone and when I asked for au jambon, he would say, “No jambon, only club sandwich.” I would say, “That’s fine.” And he would hang up on me. I would eventually lay in bed for thirty minutes figuring the odds on whether the club sandwich would actually come or the room service guy took my “fine” as some sort of latin-root word for “nevermind.” The sandwich would never come and I would get less sleep and less nutrition as a result.

Funny thing about the club sandwiches in Europe. If you order a traditional club sandwich, it comes with egg on it. In Denmark, it was a fried egg. In France it was hard-boiled. I didn’t know the Old World had such a great tradition in eggs, but I’m never one to shirk the community standard. And because I rarely found time to eat at reasonable hours, I ate more club sandwiches than I care to admit. Frankly, I don’t want to see eggs again for some time.

But, that would all happen after I took my little walk.

After all this build-up, you might think something interesting happened on the five minute walk around the Hotel Normandy. You might presume some great sea creature crawled out of the English Channel, crept along the boardwalk, worked its way through the fog and tried to gobble me up on the little fairy tale streets. Of course, you’d be wrong.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all.

I stepped off the sidewalk and a wind hit me with the force of a Midwestern spring and the cold of many winters I know personally. It smelled like a thunderstorm, but I knew different. There would be no lightning in this storm. It was a windstorm with much bark but no tree.

I rounded the corner and the wind caught my lapels, turning them up like I might if I were playing James Dean or Count Dracula. The force whipped around me, pushing me down the street, shaking the street lamps and howling like the train that brought me there in the fist place. Up and down the street, most of the little shops were closed up for the winter. The places that didn’t shut down for the season were closed up too, waiting until the next day to charge a willing buyer $30 for a beer. I was alone and so far from home it didn’t even feel real anymore.

When I started on this journey, my cousin told me to keep track of all the moments in which I asked myself, “How in the hell did I get here?”

This was one of those moments.

It would not be the only one. I would feel the same way again when I walked out the next morning–buzzing on celebratory champagne and the wild, sex-soaked discotheque that I visited–and saw snow sliding out of the sky where the wind had been the night before. I would feel the same way when people went out of their way to tell me they think my work is “simply brilliant.” I would feel the same way when I found myself in poker games with some of Europe’s most well-known pros, playing silly games for low stakes and keeping the poker room open later than it wanted to be. I’d feel the same way when I found myself on the train back to Paris with four guys (one of whom had won about $50,000 the day before in a poker tournament) playing Chinese Poker for a euro a point. I didn’t play that one. I just sat back and tried to learn the game by watching. Learning was hard, though, for that earlier snow had painted the French countryside in white and it was impossible to ignore for very long.

No, that first moment is the one I’ll likely remember. Alone on a Deauville street, beaten by the wind, hands stuffed in my pockets, shirt collars turned up. It was about as alone as a guy can be. It’s the first time being alone ever really felt interesting.

Of course, the moment waned shortly after I pushed through the revolving door of the 100 year-old hotel and the old black gentleman said, “Bon soir.” By the time the room service operator was hanging up on me, I’d forgotten about how nice it felt to be walking down that street.

The wind wouldn’t die down for some time and I fell asleep later to the sound of it pushing against my old, wooden windows.

Originally appeared at Rapid Eye Reality

Blogs by Brad Willis

Brad Willis began blogging in 2001 at Rapid Eye Reality. At first a vanity blog and online journal, it became Willis’ home away from home. Then a television news journalist, Willis adopted his online pseudonym “Otis” while working on Rapid Eye Reality.

Two years later, Willis expanded his personal blogging efforts to Up For Poker where he chronicled his exploits in the casino and underground poker worlds.

After working anonymously in the blogging world for several years, Willis received an offer to step out of the shadows in 2005. He founded one of the first professional online poker blogs, the PokerStars Blog. Under Willis’ guidance, the PokerStars Blog branched out to more than ten different languages and covered live events all over the world.

Willis continues to write for all of the blogs. He is constantly looking for new technologies and blogging mediums.

Photo Paradise Island, Bahamas 2007 — Eric Harkins/IMPDI

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer and blogger based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis is an award-winning broadcast journalist with a background in political and crime reporting. He has worked as a professional blogger since 2005. In that time, he built a world-wide network of blogs and bloggers to cover the burgeoning world of tournament poker.