On a Saturday afternoon in early April, 47 boys and one girl, most of whom attend the elite Francis Parker High School, filed into the basement of a classmate's Old Town home. The host's mother collected $5 from each for pizza and soda. Bowls of popcorn were already scattered around the room, and a paper sign pointed the way to the bathroom. Each student also paid $20 for a bag of chips--the white were worth 25 cents, the green 50 cents, and the red $1. At 4 PM the poker tournament began.
"We definitely play at least once every weekend," said the host, a Parker sophomore whose mother didn't want him to give his name. "Then if we don't have too much homework and we're just hanging out, we'll play after school one day."
With celebrities calling each other's bluffs on Bravo and ESPN devoting hour spots to the World Series of Poker, it should come as no surprise that lots of students have taken up the game. "I would say that 20 to 25 percent of all the guys [at Parker] play some form of gambling," said a junior at the school. Other Parkerites agreed, saying that some kids shoot dice or deal blackjack but most play poker.
Some of Chicago's other schools--Latin, Walter Payton, Saint Ignatius--also have committed card players, but Parker seems to be the Vegas of high schools. Players organize buy-in games at each other's houses every weekend--usually $10 a person--and often deal rounds in between classes or during free periods. But they get most excited about the large tournaments individual students hold in their homes about once a month, which let them play more opponents for higher stakes.
The 48 players who bought in to the April tournament--six tables of eight players--created a $960 pot that would be divided among the nine top players. The last one standing at the end of three rounds would win $375. It wasn't the biggest tournament ever organized by a Parker student. In January a senior held a 56-person tournament with a $1,120 pot. At the end of the third round a junior walked out with $450. He put most of it in the bank. "I'll probably spend a lot on college or whatever," he said.
The room quieted down as the student dealers passed out the first hands. Chips clicked on the tabletops as kids raised their bets and occasionally burst out with "You've got to be kidding!" Otherwise it was remarkably quiet for a basement full of high schoolers. One kid's homemade shirt read "My Name Is High Roller" on the front and "F*** It, I'm All In" on the back--he hadn't even spelled out the word.
A few of the students had been playing for over a year, but most discovered the game last summer while watching the World Series on ESPN. Like those competitors, the Parker kids play Texas hold 'em. Two cards are dealt to each person to bet on, then three cards--known as the "flop"--are dealt faceup in front of the dealer for everyone to share. The players bet, then a fourth communal card, known as "fourth street" or the "turn card," is added to the flop. The players bet again, then a fifth communal card, "fifth street," or the "river," is dealt faceup. Those who haven't yet folded bet one last time before exposing their cards, and the pot goes to the person with the best hand.
Upstairs the host's parents were heating up pizzas. Like many Parker parents, they not only allow but encourage the games. "It's a great thing," said the host's mother, who didn't want her name used. "Find me a movie and a dinner that lasts eight hours and costs $10. They pay $10 in and that's the max they can lose. And you've got them off the street--there's no drugs, there's no drinking, no sex."
Other parents apparently agree. Children of five members of Parker's board of trustees were in the game, along with two of the board's student members. All said their parents knew where they were.
The host's father said that poker could provide the kids with valuable life skills. He mentioned Blair Hull, who worked as a card counter in Vegas before starting an investment firm and making the millions that funded his Senate campaign. He said he'd told his son's friends they could use what they learned from playing cards: "Look what he did with that knowledge."
Later another Parker father echoed these sentiments and said he'd never worried that his son's poker habit would lead to other forms of gambling. "Anything can be done to excess. Chess too. If you take it too far you can go crazy for it."
"I resisted in the very beginning," the host's mother admitted, but she said that for most of the kids the social interaction was more important than the money. "It's nice to see kids who are not jaded. It's nice to see kids excited about something that isn't something--um, I guess you could say it's breaking the law, but I don't think it is."
A week later Lieutenant Joe Schmitt of the Chicago Police Department's 18th District, which encompasses the neighborhood where the game was held, said, "Sounds like gambling," when he heard the basic details. He explained that poker playing in itself isn't illegal and that there's nothing wrong with kids paying an entry fee to get into a game, but once someone wins money it's gambling. "It's a crime, and if we get information that's credible we are going to act on it." He admitted that people play poker "all over the place," but said it was no less serious than anything else happening in his district. "It doesn't matter to us if it's a felony, a misdemeanor, or an ordinance violation. A crime is a crime, and it's not up to us to decide how important it is."
"I'll make money tonight, one way or another," said a junior from Walter Payton who hadn't signed up early enough to get a seat in the tournament. He claimed he was a better player than at least half the kids in the room. "It's like sex. Everyone thinks they're the best, but most people are really bad at it."
Players got knocked out of the first round quickly, some within 15 minutes. One Parker junior was out in 45. "I had a queen-ten suited," he said, meaning that both his cards had been of the same suit. With luck that could have become a flush, but the flop had given him only a pair of tens. Thinking that was the highest hand, he'd "gone all in," pushing all his chips into the pot. But another player had pocket jacks--a pair of jacks--and the junior lost. He still wanted to play, so he set up a side game with the Payton student and three other kids. Each bought in for $20, and the Parker junior said there was no doubt in his mind that he'd win his money back.
The first round of the tournament ended around 6 PM, and some players headed upstairs to watch TV and play half-court basketball in the backyard. The kids on the organizing committee set up three tables for the second round, while a group of boys sat in the living room discussing why Texas hold 'em was more interesting than five card draw and another group debated whether it would be better to go to Stanford or Dartmouth.
Meanwhile the Parker junior was losing. In the end he lost $45. "You can't win all the time," he said later. "Sometimes the cards just don't come." But he was philosophical. "It wasn't the worst thing in the world, because I got some entertainment value. I was there from three to nine, so it was about seven or eight dollars an hour."
A freshman at Wright College who'd bought in to the same side game ended up even worse off. After losing the $20 he'd paid to buy in to the tournament, he lost $60 in the side game. The next day he said, "Actually I lost 90 altogether. When we left there I went to one of my friend's houses who lives about a block away and I lost 10 more. It was a horrible day."
It hadn't been a horrible day for the Payton student, who won most of what the other two lost--$180, more than all but the top player in the tournament. He said he planned to keep playing poker whenever he could. "I would love to play in the World Series of Poker," he said, though he knew he had to be 21 and pay $10,000 to get in. "I have five more years to learn until I can enter. I don't know if I'll have $10,000 to blow when I'm 21."
By the end of round two, at about 10 PM, the kids had consumed 20 pizzas and 10 cases of soda. Many of the players who'd been knocked out had left; others sat around the abandoned tables playing side games for $5 and $10 each.
Before the start of round three the nine remaining tournament players pushed two tables together, took their places, and stacked their remaining chips. Two players were gone within 15 minutes; a third soon followed.
By 11 PM only three remained. One more fell, taking the third-place prize of $115. He announced, "I might buy a radar detector for my car."
The last hand was a face-off between a Parker senior and a sophomore. The senior anted up $32, the sophomore $16. The host sent two cards sailing across the table to each player. The senior eyed his hand and bet 32. The sophomore met it. The host dealt the flop, and the senior bet another 32. The sophomore met it and raised 50. The senior met it, took a deep breath, and went all in. The dealer threw down the turn card and the river, and the players exposed their hands. The senior had an ace and a jack suited. The sophomore had two pairs. The senior slapped the table as the pot went to his opponent.
"I'll give it back to my mother," the senior joked as he collected his $200 prize for second place.
"You're an idiot," a friend said.
The sophomore said he'd played in two other tournaments but had never come out with so much money. "I'm going to try to do something good with it," he said as he collected his $375. "Save it to get a guitar."
He said his parents weren't too excited about his poker playing. "They know I'm playing, but I'm probably not going to tell them I won, 'cause they'll think I'm an addict. I guess [my mom] thinks that the more I'm winning the more incentive I have to keep playing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.