Every day, it went something like this.
Guy: “What’s the buy in?”
Me: “20 bucks.”
Guy: “What do I get if I win?”
Me: “Nothing. This is Texas. Gambling is illegal.”
Guy: “Yeah but, I mean, like drink tickets? Or a lap dance? Don’t I get something if I win?”
Guy: “….OK. How about if I get pocket queens, you show me some tits?”
This was what we called “roping them in.” A little eye-batting, the chance for some potential nudity riding on a good hand—whatever it took to get them to sit down at the table. Because once they sat down, odds were they wouldn’t leave me for the rest of the night. They’d keep digging into those pockets, ripe with folded rolls of bills, paying me a hundred, sometimes two, hour after hour and beer after beer. Paying me over and over the same price as a lap dance just to deal the cards, gambling only in their minds, criminal only because they were paying so much money and couldn’t ever win a damn thing. The certainty was just shy of mathematical, a hair short of comical: get them to play one game and it would be two, then 10, then suddenly it would be last call and they’d still be there, jockeying with the other players for the best hand, the most chips, the biggest dick at the table.
And sometimes they’d just be sitting there trying to get that lucky pair of queens. It wasn’t because I had a particularly amazing rack — in fact, compared to the impressive sets that orbited the club like helium-filled homing beacons, my scrawny physique could have been filed under “lacking” — but because my shirt was still on, my breasts remained a mystery, as did the color of my bra and the size and shape of my nipples. My tits were Sphinxes, white whales, the other shooters on the grassy knoll. After a while my clothed figure garnered more shameless ogling than the girls’ bare, bouncing breasts on stage.
This, of course, didn’t make me the most popular person working at Perfect 10, or Sugar’s, or The Yellow Rose — Austin’s titty-bar trifecta — but I had ways to make the dancers warm up to me. One went something like this.
Guy: “I got ‘em! Pocket queens baby. Now let’s see some tits.”
Me: “You got it. Maxine! Over here honey. Here’s 10 bucks. Please show this guy your tits.”
This made me incredibly popular not only with Maxine, who just made half the cost of a lap dance in about two seconds, but also with the guy, who is by now roaring with laughter, choking on his dregs of Coors. This was the key, the real secret to making the real money: keep your clothes on, make them love you. Funny and mysterious and a poker dealer? This guy would be back, and he would bring all the boys from the construction site in with him. That’s his $200, multiplied by five or six of his friends next week. Bingo.
I was in my junior year at the University of Texas when I saw the ad for a poker dealer gig at a local men’s club. Well, “local” is pushing it. Perfect 10 was actually about 30 miles north of Austin, in a town called Round Rock, situated in a dry, shadeless field right off the interstate.
The day of my job interview I drove into the parking lot, and then drove right back out. The scene: a windowless, rambling one-story building plastered with sun-bleached posters of semi-nude models; a zombie-like legion of half-dressed, half-asleep girls pulling carry-on size suitcases across a half-empty parking lot; a big, menacing bouncer sharing what may or may not have been a cigarette with the valet guy, squinting at me suspiciously in the afternoon sunlight. It was like a redneck oil painting.
At the time, I was between restaurant jobs and looking for a change to something that didn’t consist of running condiments and Coke refills and apologizing to strangers over wilted lettuce. I had just completed a semester abroad in Australia, where I learned to surf, eat shellfish and sleep with someone I had just met at a bar, so I was trying really hard to continue my “adventurous phase.” Also I was just fundamentally afraid of strip clubs and wanted to overcome that fear. I had never even set foot in one. The very limited information I had about such places was culled from an upper-middle class, Southern Baptist upbringing, which was that only unfortunate, sick souls found themselves on the beer and baby oil-soaked floors of a “hall of sin.”
So I turned around. I got out of my car with my head held high and walked right up to the door man and stated my business: job interview, poker dealer, Ira asked me to come. He got on his Walkie Talkie, then pulled open the Jurassic Park-sized door and shooed me inside.
The daytime manager, a reptilian bruiser in a three-piece pinstripe suit, led me through the sparsely populated club to the poker table, set up behind a curtain to the left of the stage. The space doubled as the dancer on-deck area (which proved to be a source of entertainment in itself, as players would ogle the girls as they stretched, adjusted, plucked at stray pubes, etc.)
There was Ira (pronounced “Ear-ah”), hands hovering above the green felt, solemnly shuffling and dealing out a deck. Ira was a tall, slender brunette from Russia who had come to the states only a few years before to get married and chase the Niagara-like flow of the American dollar. When she came to Austin by way of Houston, divorced and waiting tables at Perfect 10, Bryan intercepted her. At the time Bryan was a manager at Perfect 10, and he had had one of those light-bulb moments that made him an overnight entrepreneur: He went out to Sports Authority and bought three regulation-size poker tables, then turned around and rented out eight-foot squares of space in Austin’s most popular strip clubs. These little annexes were his property, and Ira became his designated landlady.
If players bought me drinks, I could drink them. Players could never win anything: not a dollar, not a dance, nothing.
“I take 60 percent of the take, you get 40,” was Ira’s opening line to me. She continued to shuffle the cards deftly as she spoke, outlining the very limited rules. I didn’t work for the club. I worked for her. I could come in when I wanted and leave when I wanted, but the longer I stayed the more money I would make. If players bought me drinks, I could drink them, but since I would be playing poker as well as dealing it would serve me well to keep my head on straight. Oh, and players could never win anything: not a dollar, not a dance, nothing.
So, here’s how it worked. Gambling in Texas, even today, is illegal/unconstitutional. But there are ways to play and keep your nose clean. One is to play a private game at a residence, but even these are raided often for something as simple as getting pizza and beer money from players (private games are legal as long as there is no rake or house advantage). Public games are riskier to execute. Put simply, a game is legal only if it’s either free to play or no prize is awarded. It’s like managing risk with a see-saw: one side has to be at zero to allow the other to have value.
Many restaurants and clubs will hold tournaments that are free to enter and will give away cash or other prizes, just to get people in the door and drinking their craft beers and eating their deep-fried app platters. At the clubs where I worked, we did the opposite: we charged players to play and awarded them nothing. Because of the Texas penal code, even handing out a free drink for a good hand would have been illegal, so at the end of every game the winner (the guy with all the chips) pushed his stack to me, and the game reset with another round of $20 buy-ins.
It’s basically the equivalent of giving your grandma 20 bucks to play gin rummy with her collection of stray sweater buttons. Except more swearing and more booze. (Possibly. I don’t know your life.)
As you can imagine, this only worked because of the atmosphere of the men’s club.
It’s dark. The music is so loud, almost physical, most likely Hoobastank’s “The Reason” or some version of “American Woman,” or perhaps T-Pain’s apropos classic “I’m in Love with a Stripper.” You’ve already been served a few lap dances from your regular girls, as well as a generous amount of your regular Jim Beam-and-Bud combinations, but you still have plenty of cash, fresh from the ATM, left in your Levi’s. And then, on the big screen above the bar, the MMA fight ends and cable sports starts airing some five-year-old Sox game. Great.
Outside, out there in the Real World, whatever gnawing hassles and problems you struggle with in your Real Life await you. They’re just sitting out there like a noxious cloud, cramping up the space in your Jeep Cherokee. Meanwhile, out of the corner of your eye, I appear. I smile, wave you over. I’m nice to you. I’ve got cards in front of me, stacks of chips. I explain ever-so-kindly how the game I am serving you is really an alternate form of club entertainment, or, as Ira put it, “Playtainment.” I say how you’re destined to have a good time, indeed, the best time, right here at this table with me. You sit down in a nice plush high-back chair. I notice your Bud is low and immediately signal a waitress. That’s when you take out that roll of bills clogging your pocket and hand them over to me, effortlessly, gratefully.
It became vitally important that I manage to keep things interesting as players were bleeding bills. Luckily, men — contrary to women’s self-help books and classic Western flicks — are good talkers. My regulars were guys who already haunted the clubs for their own reasons, reasons which inevitably they would discuss with me frankly as I dealt the cards.
Guy: See that girl over there?
Me: The one with her tits in that old guy’s face?
Guy: Yeah. God I’m so fucking in love with her.
I was like a Sam Malone, or Moe Szyslak, except instead of pushing the last legal drug I was giving them the chance to play a toothless card game in exchange for their money. Some guys wanted to talk about the problems with their wives at home (invariably “She doesn’t understand me,” or “She got fat,” or a combination of the two), while others brought their wives with them to the club, explaining in detail how these weekly dates fit into their routine of kink. There were also the tough guys, like Roger the Greek hitman, with his pachyderm arms and waterlogged face, who would buy me only shots of Patron Coffee and talk cheerily about the sound of breaking kneecaps (“A pop and a crunch, like a bag of potato chips”) and how if I ever needed someone gone (“Shitty boyfriend, shitty ex-boyfriend”), he was a phone call away.
Not all my players were pleasant. Drug use was prevalent but never condoned, so when a smarmy guy in a linen power suit brazenly poured himself a massive line of coke one night, right there on the felt in front of five or six speechless good ‘ol boys, I apologized to him for the “mess” and said, “Here, let me get that,” and wiped the blow off the table and onto the floor. This was the kind of authority I enjoyed throwing around, backed by my own A-team of poker players who enjoyed an opportunity to physically escort out some asshole who breaks the rules.
Then there were the ones who just really wanted to take me out for some good barbecue, or thought if I just saw their cottage on Lake Travis I’d be hooked. Sometimes guys would buy me lap dances as tips, which would cheer up even the Budweiser Crier, whose tear-stained coasters he would always hand me at the end of the night, his phone number scrawled sloppily across the back.
I eventually agreed to go out with one guy I met at Perfect 10, an OK-looking construction worker in his mid-30s. On our first and only date, he asked that I meet him at his place, and when I walked in his mother was there (issue no. 1) and she was flat ironing his hair for him (issue nos. 2-10), so that didn’t work out. Mostly I came to realize that the players were good for some cash, a couple drinks and some crude humor, but going with any of them to a second location was a mistake.
The dancers would also hang out at my table. Mostly they would pull up a chair before a shift, pounding vodka Red Bulls in order to “nut up” for their performance. I could bro down best with the B-squad girls, the ones with cesarean scars and adult acne who worked the slower Monday and Tuesday shifts. But my favorite was Miranda, who was wry and street-smart and had this whole Lucille Ball thing going: a beehive of red hair, bright red lipstick, frilly black and white polka dot dress, elbow-length black gloves. During the day Miranda was a clown at children’s parties, and she wore the same gloves to make balloon animals for kids as she did to impassively fondle some guy’s semi during a backroom lap dance. I was also fond of a Hispanic girl named Holly, who would be about to go on stage and then hand me a beat-up Bic, asking me to help her burn the fabric fuzzes off the back of her thong because “the dryer always fucks my shit up.”
This delighted the players at the table to no end.
Some weeks I was making a couple grand and spending it the way you can imagine a formerly poor 21-year-old student would. I took friends from school into the clubs on my nights off and bought champagne and lap dances for all. My twin sister and I spent our weekends in South Padre, where I would buy Chopin that we would mix with Red Bull and cigars we wouldn’t smoke and drop $500 for a room at the Omni.
I bought and shared powders and pills and ounces of weed, which got me invited to way more parties than I ever thought possible. One night, high for the first time on Molly, I took two strippers home with me, both my age, who purred intoxicatingly into my ears as we drove to my apartment. What followed was an obscenely amateur and sloppy sexual encounter where we took turns trying to ignite one another’s clitorises while taking massive swigs from a jug of Carlo Rossi. The awkwardness spilled over into the next morning, as, faced with two pairs of black Aldo pumps identical in size, I argued with one of them resentfully about who had the more scratched-up pair (it was me, but I made her leave with them. Because how dare she question me in my own house?)
So, yeah, money at that age made me mean, reckless, and sort of Lohan-level gross. Which may have been why, when I landed an internship in Manhattan the summer before my senior year, I was secretly thankful for the break, feeling a little burnt out on what my friends called my “Scarface Period.” At Perfect 10 there was a full week of tearful goodbyes and round after round of Jameson. I promised my regulars I would see them when I resumed classes in the fall. Then I packed my bags and flew to JFK.
I got a basement apartment in Queens and quickly found a gig on Craigslist working a weekly Hold ‘Em game at a high-rise in the Upper East Side, a gentlemen’s game for pharmaceutical CEOs and professional yachtsmen with a $50,000 buy-in. Unfortunately instead of dealing I was the glorified Snapple-and-steak girl, serving non-alcoholic beverages from the fridge and making last-call runs for porterhouses and creamed spinach at Smith & Wollensky while a shrewd, dubious-looking ex-Vegas dealer got to handle the cards. Still, I raked in a few hundred a night, and the view from the penthouse wasn’t bad.
Sadly, when I got back to Austin near the end of August 2006 things at my table were never the same. A solemn, Lurch-like grad student from Texas State had taken my place, a “humorless mouth-breather” as I came to understand it, and he weeded out a lot of the regulars who found solace in private (and online) Hold ‘Em games.
The bubble burst. I imagine this is something like what the folks at Lehman Brothers went through circa 2008.
I moved in with friends to save money, renting out the dining room in an old house behind The Poodle Dog Lounge but still struggled to pay my meager bills. I spent hours each night studying at the table instead of dealing — studying! — and slowly came to understand that I wasn’t actually magnetically polarized enough to suck in a brand new batch of players. The spell had been broken. The bubble burst. I imagine this is something like what the folks at Lehman Brothers went through circa 2008.
I ended up finishing school as a bartender, slinging drinks downtown at Light Bar and down south at Sherlock’s. I figured that Hold ‘Em might have been a flash-in-the-pan trend, at least in the way we were offering it. But it turns out you can still get your cards dealt to you every night at Perfect 10. And Sugar’s? Bryan is now a manager there, hosting its free-play poker tournaments on Sundays, with a $150 first prize.
Just a few months ago the first-ever legal poker room opened in Austin, taking advantage of the so-called “country club loop-hole.” The Texas Card House is run by Sam Von Kennel, a former House of Representatives employee who learned a lot about the state’s gambling gray areas working for the Licensing and Administrative Committee. He realized he could charge memberships to his poker establishment, à la private country clubs, and keep all the gambling money on the tables, making his social club entirely legal. Von Kennel says business is booming, and maybe one day there will be a successful chain of his card houses scattered across the Texas plains.
Still, it’s doubtful you’ll get to see some tits for a pair of queens.
Lauren Kent is a writer and producer in Los Angeles.
This article was published originally January 25, 2016.