Summer break was coming to a close, and like every college kid, my fraternity brothers and I were trying to squeeze every last millisecond of freedom out of the remaining days before returning to a life of skipping class for poolside drinking and slowly watching our GPAs fall as fast as our job prospects were (at this point, Hillary was just dominating in the polls). With rush around the corner and willing to use almost anything as an excuse to roll en mass, we proceeded to pile into trucks and cars and roll down to where dreams are made and crushed into sugary hand grenade-shaped cups: New Orleans.
Arriving downtown around 7:00 p.m., we turned the throttle up to 11 and bounced around the city, starting in our favorite local watering holes before turning to the inevitable Mecca of bad decisions and next day rashes: Bourbon Street. A few of us decided to go try our luck gambling at the Harrah’s casino blocks away. We promised to meet back up in a couple hours with the rest of the crew and rolled out.
Once we arrived, we all split up, each choosing his own poison. I sat at the poker tables and put up a couple hundred and received my chips. Looking around the table, I saw mostly people in town for business and not caring to lose a few hundred dollars, except for three large gentlemen dressed similarly in black, from whom I immediately received “don’t fuck with me” vibes. With hardened, stoic features and the physical size of NFL linemen, they were intimidating to say the least. The game progressed and between my drunken cockiness and my decent ability to play, I quickly was raking in chips and making a play for table chip leader. The current leader was, of course, the stout Italian in all black. After beating his trip 9s with my Jack-high straight, he looked at me and chuckled.
“Well played, kid.”
I looked at the guys on either side of him. “Got lucky, I guess. Beginner’s luck and all. It’s my 21st birthday…” I lied, hoping to downplay his loss.
“Really? Congrats to ya.” The playing continued until he and I had virtually cleared the table of their money. He motioned to his guys and looked at me. “If it’s your 21st, let’s skip the kiddie tables and play some real poker at my brother’s place off Bourbon.”
I froze, confused at the offer. Was I being offered to play in a backroom poker group? If an angel and devil had appeared on either shoulder, the devil would have been telling me to fucking roll with it, and the angel would have been passed out in a sea of bourbon and sevens. Knowing my buddies were all still on Bourbon Street, and realizing that telling a man as large as him no might get my knees capped, I said yes. Fast forward 15 minutes and I’m being led through the dance floor and bar area to a large private back room, where looking around, I saw hundred dollar chips being tossed around for pre flop bets. An open seat was before me at a table that had tens of thousands of dollars up for grabs.
“Want anything, chico? Drink? Cigar?” a curvy young Latina waitress asked me. I was both shitting my pants and having the rumblings of a boner — out of fear or attraction to her, I could not tell.
“Ummm no thanks. I’m good.”
The table play began and I tried to calm my nerves. I did my normal slow play, folding most hands however good they were and watching for tells. Considering the amount of money on the tables, these guys still were dropping obvious hints as to what they were holding. After 45 minutes of watching and waiting, I made my move. A higher two pair here, a winning three-of-a-kind there, and soon I had made my $3,000 more than double. I knew I had two options to how I played: bet safely and be bleed slowly to death, or just own where I was and see how far I could ride this pony of an opportunity. Still drunk, and with a sick desire to choose whichever option makes for a good story, I pressed on.
The next hand, I was dealt pocket Queens. The pre flop bet went normally as before. Roughly $1,000 in the pot. I silently watched as the flop came out Ace, nine, Queen.
“Raise $1,400…” said the skinny bald Italian to my left. A chorus of calls or folds followed until it was to me.
“Call and raise another $3,000.” Murmurs came from around the table.
Silence until the skinny Italian said, “Check out the kahunas on ‘dis guy. You tryna hook me at my own place?” he chuckled. “Call and raise another $1,000.”
I looked into the eyes of the man with whom I had decided to tango with, trying to feel out his edge. The mental chess match was both thrilling and terrifying. Here I was, just a junior in college and not completely sure I’d live to see it, slow betting the owner of the club I sat/very possibly some capo if the stereotype I had held up. I summoned all the confidence in me and declared:
“Call and raise another $2,000.”
I could feel his eyes pierce into my soul as he tried to determine my play. “C’mon, kid. Let’s see what you got. I’ma put you all in.”
At this point, he moved $7,000 into the pot to force me in. Only a couple others called. Eager to either return to my friends or make a big play, I thought to myself, fuck it, I’m not gonna pussy out now.
I pushed my chips to the center. Others called. Between the four of us, $63,000 sat in the center of the table. We flipped our cards. The others had hopes of a straight or a two pair. Skinny Italian threw up pocket Aces. “HA HA HA kid, now we talkin.’” I sat, stomach churning at both the idea of losing the thousands I had already won, and the chance to win tens of thousands more. Every hair stood on my neck, my arms, and my legs. I watched, stoic as a statue as the turn card came. Four, no help. No bets came, everyone checked. I couldn’t breathe. The collar of my shirt felt like it was beginning to strangle me. I had the sudden urge to run to the bathroom until…
The river card. My fourth lovely lady, the Queen of Spades.
“Motha fucka!” shouted Raymond’s brother, a single vein protruding from his thick, dark neck. Raymond laughed as he pointed to me. “This little shit squeezed you out of $10,000, Nicky! Good for you, ya little passerotto!”
I sat frozen. I had just won a $63,000 pot against men who I was pretty sure had killed before. My hands shook as I raked the chips toward me. Knowing that my luck would never last past this point, I motioned over to Ray. “If it’s okay with y’all, I’d like to go back to my friends now. Thanks for the great night.”
After shaking the hands of the men at the table, I was walked out of the club by Ray, bills bulging in the pockets of my khakis. “Damn, kid. Great play in there. I knew bringing ya here was a good idea.” I thanked him again and I turned to leave. His hand grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around.
“Listen, kid, I’m sure you got the vibe from inside of the kind of characters that hang at this place. Now you got a lot of money there. If I were you, to avoid a certain kind of attention, I’d put that towards something that you can pay off and not have anyone look at you funny. That being said, seeing my brother eat shit from a young buck like you was priceless. Take it easy…”
As I walked back to my friends, with my pants very nearly soiled at my last encounter and stunned with what I just did, I knew Ray was right. I sure as shit didn’t want to have to explain to my parents where a new car came from, or have to declare it. When I woke up the next morning, I put my new winnings towards the one place that no one cares where the money comes from and where no one asks questions.
And that is how the mob paid for my junior year of college..
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