By Michael Antonovich

Photos courtesy of Pechanga Casino

At 21, I am just now of legal gambling age. With that being said, I have only thrown my money on the blackjack table on two occasions: once with a friend home from the military and the other during my sleepless pit stop at the Hard Rock while enroute to the World Mini. Both instances ended quickly with unsuccessful results, and as I exited the casinos all I thought was, “Huh. I could have bought another season of ‘Entourage’ with the 20 bucks I lost.”  Learning to count cards, read a deck, or whatever else a “true player” does is very low on my list of aspirations, and after spending a week at a smoky, dreary casino, I was over the idea of stepping foot inside another.

The Jeremy McGrath Poker Tournament drew a mix of serious players, fans, and racers, like PJ Larsen and Kyle Cunningham.

So I was confused when I was assigned by Donn to cover the Jeremy McGrath Poker Tournament, because I know nothing about the complex game. As it turns out, neither does anyone else on the edit staff and because of this I was the chosen one.  According to my best friend back home, who is an recreational player, my “natural bullshitter attitude” would be my strength and per Donn’s advice, I began researching what I would need to know in the heat of the moment via YouTube tutorials and Internet searches. But after staring at the screen while a scrawny guy wearing sunglasses indoors explained terms like “on the river,” my intentions of paying off my one large debt with the $5000 prize quickly dissolved. I knew my money and I would soon part ways yet again.

The event took place in the Pechanga's massive poker room. The room is constantly buzzing with activity.

I showed up to the casino early to shoot photos but the camera on my side attracted the attention of security. Photographing any gambling activity is frowned upon by the gaming commision and with that, my workload for the night was cut in half. With time extra time to kill, I grabbed dinner in the food court before making my way up to the massive poker room on the casino’s second floor. A tutorial was offered for beginners, but my one-on-one lesson was interrupted by a smart mouthed bystander who stated “only a dumbass doesn’t know how to play.” The dealer/tutor had a difficult time explaining the basics of the game and once I realized I was only becoming more confused by his hurried approach, I thanked him and made my way to the bar to unwind with a Coors Light.

Even though it has been years since he last competed professionally, Jeremy McGrath is still very much a fan favorite.

Through a Facebook promotion the casino offered a $500 bonus chip and once I collected it, along with the rest of my $55 buy in, I was set to go. A slew of professional racers, freestyle riders, and industry personnel were scattered at various tables next to ordinary people and diehard players, and this kept it from having a stand off-ish celebrity feel. I quickly found my seat and took inventory of those around the table. There was a large and tattooed man, a woman in her 40’s, a quiet guy that turned out to be a LOORS racer, a spastic talker who repeated the story of his big win, another serious player, myself, and SPY Optic’s Victor Sheldon. “Slasher” and I knew each other through mutual friend Nick Wozniak, and we both realized the game would be different than we expected once it began. Neither knew what each chip was worth, mostly because I had been watching “Steel Roots” while Victor was late to the table, and this would later be our down fall.

Jeremy Stenberg

In no time I had pissed off the majority of the table, namely the dealer, with my inexperience and lack of simple hand signals and my stack of chips was shrinking as a result. She also was not thrilled that I had placed my beer on the tabletop, and corrected me quickly. Though a few were pleasant and helpful, it was obvious I was disrupting the flow of the table. I was forced to fold repeatedly with the lackluster hands I had been dealt, yet this allowed me to observe the game firsthand. The burly dude had quickly amassed a sum of money without saying a word, mostly from the annoying “pro” who went all in rather early. But I still hadn’t learned anything, and at that point didn’t care. The realization that unless I actually started to play, I would move on to the next round by default and a solid two cards in my hand had me pushing every chip into the center of the table. When my opponent, Victor, and I laid our cards next to the dealer, all were confused. It took a moment to figure out who had actually won, and in the end I moved all my chips to my immediate left. I watched a few more hands before I somehow jacked up the table without even playing and was told “You must go!”

I will admit that although unfruitful, the night was fun. The visions I had of Joe Pesci smashing my head with a baseball bat like in “Casino” went away when the security guard offered me passes to the club, and although I was a few bucks lighter it was well worth it. But most importantly I was able to chat with guys I never get the chance to just talk to without having a recorder in hand while McGrath remembered my first name, which was straight bitchin’. But that doesn’t change the fact that I cannot take any game seriously in which a person “holding the nuts” is a winner…