At the virtual poker table

by Brian Clarey

Dolores has got a flush working, a couple diamonds in her hole cards and I know it as surely as I know my own name. With a couple more diamonds coming up on the flop, I know she’s got a roughly 48 percent chance of hitting it with the next two cards.

Unfortunately for Dolores, I’m sitting on a king, which has paired with the flop. The turn, an eight of spades, pairs the board, giving me two pair against Dolores’ partial flush. I try to push her off the hand by check-raising her, but it’s easier to flop a straight then it is to induce Dolores to fold, as I’ve been learning all night. She smooth calls.

What happens next is a perfect Texas hold ’em moment: Dolores catches her diamond on the river — alas, it is a king, giving me a full house, which beats a flush every day of the week. I bet. She raises. I re-raise. She calls. I win.

Tough break, Dolores. We’re in the Poker Room at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino up in the western North Carolina mountains this Labor Day weekend, me on a press junket and Dolores, apparently, to buck the odds.

We came in through the back way, my wife and I, dropping from the mountaintop down into the tribal lands of the NC Eastern Band of Cherokee, past motels, roadside attractions, gift shops and museums before glimpsing the apex of the new tower at the casino, at 500 rooms doubling the resort’s occupancy rate and giving it an iconic edifice even before it opens this winter.

They’re adding games, made plans for new restaurants and shops, glamorized the look and feel of the place so that even an old casino hound like me feels like he’s in Vegas. They have even begun serving alcohol after a groundbreaking decision last year ended tribal prohibition.

I’m here to preview the new entertainment center, a 3,000-seat arena built as part of the tribe’s $633 million expansion program enacted in 2007. Hank Williams Jr. was here last night. Tonight it’s Lady Antebellum. In a couple weeks it’ll be Crosby, Stills & Nash. Big doings up here in the Smokies at the only honest-to-goodness casino for hundreds of miles.

But I’m also here to scratch an itch. I haven’t sat at a poker table but for maybe three times in the last year — not including online play — and I’m busting at the seams to separate some suckers from their money. Casino General Manager Darold Londo told me months ago that Harrahs accommodates tribal rules prohibiting cards and dice by installing state-of-the-art gaming machines that provide reasonable facsimiles of games like blackjack, craps and, yes, the poker game known as Texas hold ’em for which I have developed a deep and lasting affection.

I wanted to see how gameplay at these digital tables stacked up against the real thing, and I was willing to put my money at risk. So after we left the sold-out Lady Antebellum show in the brand-new arena, my wife and I took a chance.

To play poker at Harrahs Cherokee one must first obtain a rewards card account — by virtue of my past association with Harrahs in New Orleans I was already on the books — and place some cash in an account. Buy-in for no-limit games is $100, and just $30 for limit games. By 9 p.m. I’m at the table, laying siege to Dolores’ retirement savings.

I find that the computerized poker tables present the best of both live and online poker. Like playing on the internet, the screen shows you all the players’ names, how much in their stacks and how much you have on hand yourself. The pot total reads in the upper-right-hand corner. And because there is no shuffling — or math — gameplay goes quickly, allowing for many more hands per hour than with a traditional deck and dealer. You don’t have a stack of chips to massage while you’re playing, but that’s no big deal to me.

And because it’s live, you can see the people you’re playing, watch their facial tics, read them for tells.

I get Dolores’ number fairly quickly: She knows the cadence of the game, understands the hands and what they mean and has deep enough pockets to take some risks. Her problem, as I see it, is that she’s playing Texas hold ’em like it’s video poker, sticking around for too long to try and fill her hands, hanging in with two pair and losing to trips, reloading her chip stack with a hundred every time she gets wiped out. Frankly, I couldn’t ask for a better opponent, and by the time I stand from the table I’ve relieved her of about $150 — a buck and a half in poker parlance — along with about another hundred of money that used to belong to other people.

After the game I feel that same old thrill that comes with winning money, so much more fun than earning it, with taking calculated risks and applying controlled aggression. And at the same time I’m elated that there is a standing poker game in North Carolina — with booze! — just a few hours from my front door.

And as long as they’ve got people there trying to fill their inside straights, I’ll keep coming out.