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House of Cards



In Bach Vu's dream there are hole cards, of course, and like all good players, he's not giving us a peep at those. But of the cards showing, we know this:

Born in Vietnam, but lived in this area since infancy, 31 years old now, but likely to be carded when buying liquor. Father is dead, but son visited his St. Bernard grave to explain things before this tour.

When he's playing cards, Vu always wears a version of a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, slightly askew to the right. From this habit, he's picked up the nickname "B." He likes to complete the outfit with jeans and a cartoonish T-shirt. Today he's wearing one honoring a character named "Flash."

B went to L.W. Higgins High, but had to drop out before graduation to work. Until recently, he worked at Cajun Seafood in Westwego, and he still lives with his momma in Marrero, nine people in one house. He's got a girlfriend, too, but she's not too excited about becoming the bride of a professional poker player. You can guess at the reasons.

He played -- still plays -- penny-ante poker with some neighborhood cronies, but he's been setting aside part of his paycheck for a long while now to compile the nest egg necessary for a run at the pros.

The run began with a leap and a snort. B won more than $79,000 on opening day of the Bayou Poker classic at Harrah's on the foot of Canal Street. Two days later, he forked up a thousand-buck entry for the second round.

"Poker ain't the same as gambling," B has been heard to tell his girlfriend, trying to stress that he's not a gambler, but something much greater. A poker player. Much less chained to the unreliable beck-and-call of fate. A man whose superior skill will free him from the slavery of chance. Be his trump card, so to speak. ...

It all touches on the shifting roles of skill and luck in the dance of poker. Is fate stunningly indifferent or fickle? Does it cruelly favor or mercilessly disdain? A weekend whiz can clean out a poker champion on a night when the cards are running right. On the other hand, your neighbor wouldn't put on the gloves with Mike Tyson; luck doesn't run that deep. Luck is luck. Skill is knowing what to do with it when it visits. ...

A guy named Clark was looking good with a pair of fours in the hole when he moved all-in. B had an ace-six. But the board cards turned up two pair showing. That meant Vu's ace-kicker played as the fifth card with two pair and Clark's four fizzled.

B busted out one guy by catching a case jack and another by filling a heart flush. He was facing the last guy heads-up. The guy decided to raise all-in before the flop with 10-9 suited. B's thumb lifted slowly, first one ace, then another. "I call," he shouted at the top of his diaphragm. B Vu, crawfish-boiler, had added $118,000 to his gain.

Once upon a time not so very long ago, such lucre would have been unlikely around a poker table.

"Poker, especially stud, was dying," said Rick Korte, Harrah's poker manager. "Then along came TV and Texas Hold 'Em, which is twice as fast a game as stud. And you can learn the game cheaply and quickly, playing dime games online. On television, you get to know the characters and see all the rags-to-riches stories. Watching a guy catch a winner on the last card is like hitting a jump shot at the buzzer."

A tip to would-be spectators: On TV, you see only the eventful hands. In real time, real life, you see, too, the numbingly uneventful, which are the majority of hands. "Burn and turn" dealers mechanically shuffle up and deal. The players are largely laconic and measured. Not Bach Vu.

"Not everyone can do the poker face," he'd tell you. "I like to talk to the other players, though not too loud. The other day, I told the guy with most of the chips, 'If it comes down to me and you, I'm going to end up with all those chips.' You can try to bully with the cards or with your mouth. At the time, I didn't have the cards."

On this day, he'll need the cards. Today begins the part of the tournament that takes a $10,000 entry fee. He took the entry out of his winnings, but most of his prize money will go to his family, which took a solid hit from the hurricane.

"My dad came through for me in his own way," he said, pokerfaced.

"They're starting to gather around two dozen tables in Harrah's main poker room, the recognizable stars of the pro tour like Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. And the boom mikes and hand-held cameras that have made them recognizable. The casino has even provided a couple of massage therapists to roam the room in search of aching muscles.

"You can't give the pros too much respect," he announced largely to himself. "You've got to go with your instinct. Don't second-guess yourself."

Vu is at one of two tables being used in a side room. After an hour, he goes all-in, wins a puny pot with no calls. A few hands later, he splits a pot with a guy who matched his ace-king in the hold. "I read you for that," B assured his foe.

There's a break. "I'm holding my own," he decided. "There's still about 95 players left."

Then he's back in Harrah's small room, far from the crawfish pots, Red Sox cap in his customary cock, courting luck as usual and praying for a chance to show his skill. Bach "B" Vu, player of poker.

Shuffle up and deal.

Ronnie Virgets' new book is Lost Bread.

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