published on 07/03/08 at 9:44 am
Big Tony was the local mafia capo in charge of the neighborhood. His distant cousin Carlo Gambino was the “boss of bosses”, running the whole show. And every Saturday Big Tony would pull up at the corner gas station where all the neighborhood kids used to hang out.
His car was a big black sedan and it used to dominate the forecourt when he pulled in to fill up. But the weekly ritual was about far more than just putting gas in the tank. All the local kids would compete for the honor of washing the windows, cleaning the mirrors and pumping the gas. The right to service Big Tony’s car was highly sought after and it wasn’t just for the honor. Uncle Tone would always tip the kid who serviced the car with a 50 dollar bill.
50 bucks back then was a huge amount of money. It was enough to keep you and your friends in smokes and sodas all week as well as buy two new bikes. I watched the carnage that erupted every week and analyzed the situation, determined to secure the prestigious gig for myself. Needless to say, all hell used to break loose every time the black sedan pulled into the gas station and it was clear I needed a defined strategy. I was always big for my age, but I couldn’t match up to the dirty dozen who formed a scrimmage around the car every week.
I did what any good businessman would do and formed a partnership to take on the operation. I enlisted the help of Joey and Mikey and offered to cut them in for 10% of the action in return for their muscle alongside mine.
The following Saturday we put our plan into action, working together to secure the coveted gig for ourselves. We were bloodied and bruised, but we were still standing when the sedan pulled up and the honor was ours. Shortly afterwards, so was the 50 bucks. Despite the physical pain we were in, nothing could detract from the pride we felt in achieving our goal that day. We had set out sights on something, planned how to achieve and made it ours. It was a great feeling.
There was no doubt the other kids looked at us differently after that day. We repeated the feat for three weeks in a row and went for the record. No one had ever held that corner for four straight weeks and we managed to make history in our neighborhood. We were standing proudly waiting as the sedan
pulled in as usual. But that fourth time was to be no ordinary day. It was the catalyst for my career in gaming.
After we washed the windows and cleaned the mirrors, the window rolled slowly down. The man in the back seat beckoned me over. He was a big guy. Even sitting in the back of a sedan, he towered over us. Immaculately sculpted black hair sat atop an imposing round face, itself the pinnacle of a well built meaty frame. He had a very strong physical presence. Everyone looks old when you’re that age, but looking back I guess he can’t have been more than 35, judging by his unlined face. He was, however, an utterly stupefying presence.
“What’s your name, kid?” he drawled.
“I’m Johnny,” I stuttered nervously in reply, “and these are my friends…”
I was cut off before I could finish my sentence.
“I didn’t ask you about your friends, kid. I asked who you were.”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry,” I apologized, rooted to the spot in sheer horror.
“You’ve got some set of balls kid – this is your fourth week here,” the man continued.
“Yes sir,” I agreed tentatively.
“I’m impressed,” said the man. “Listen, take this note and go give it to Vinny at the Barber Shop. He might have some use for you.”
He passed me a note with the usual 50 bucks, rolled the window back up and the car sped off. I stood there trying to compose myself.
I decided to wait until the next day to find out just what Vinny might have in store for me. And, so at midday, I wandered into a busy barber shop, realizing I probably hadn’t picked the best time to call. But I made my way through the customers and staff to find Vinny.
I didn’t need to say a word in introduction – my black eye and bruised face told him who I was.
“So you’re the kid they told me about,” he said. Vinny was older than Tony and, if anything, was even larger and taller, towering over me. And he wasn’t impressed. “You’re late.”
I stood there in confused silence, awaiting my instructions. He told me to come back in a couple of hours to pick up a package and take it to another address down the street. That I duly did, and I was paid $20 for my troubles. It was to become my regular job.
To make a long story short, Vinny’s was one of the places that took bets on the daily numbers – our version of the State Lottery, in which everyone participated. The package I took contained everyone’s bets. I would drop it off to the “boys” who processed all the information and prepared to pay off on the winners.
And that was my introduction to organized gambling – my way into New York’s complex underworld of illegal bookmakers and card rooms. I didn’t realize it then, but I had taken my first steps into a world that would provide for me and my family for years to come. That first job was just the tip of the iceberg. I soon got to be on a first name basis with the local bookies as I helped them in their daily work – taking bets for them and delivering loans to their regular customers.
Over the next five years, I started to grow along with this thriving industry, taking on more and more jobs. By that time, my friends and I were running our own hustles, mimicking what we learned from the bookies to take some small bets and offer loans on a smaller scale.
Of course all this activity was illegal, but there wasn’t a cop within 50 miles who would have lifted a finger to stop it. It was what kept things going in the neighborhood. Things were different then.
It was that introductory note from Uncle Tony that completely changed my life, and those of my friends. Looking back now, I can see that only one other guy from our group of six friends made it beyond his 21st birthday – actions we took as kids turned out to have far-reaching long-term consequences.
For example, I remember two brothers from just outside our neighborhood that always used to come over and join the fight to service Tony’s car. One of them got pretty badly beaten up that first day and ended up in hospital. We didn’t see him again for about six months, but by the time he resurfaced it emerged that he’d used his time recovering to hit the books and discovered he liked it. He studied hard from then on and ended up graduating from med school and becoming a doctor. If the fight had gone the other way, he could have ended up in a coffin before he left his teens like so many of my friends did.
It’s amazing to think one little event triggers so many different paths for people. And looking back, that’s the event I can figure out to be the cause of my deep involvement with this game of ours, the thing that caused me to take my poker seriously enough to make a living from it.
It wasn’t the card game in the hospital, it wasn’t growing up in a block suffocated by poker on every corner, and it wasn’t the fact that most everyone in the neighborhood was a demented gambler. If you think about it, that background could have just as easily turned me the other way. If you grow up in a drug infested neighborhood it’s just as likely to turn you away from drugs and make you disgusted by them.
But it was that day and the note from Big Tony that opened the doors of serious poker to me. A kid my age wouldn’t even be allowed into the building when a high-stakes game was going on, partly for his own protection but basically because no one wants to hear a kid whining when they’re concentrating on their game. But as soon as you start working for the bookies and loan sharks, well, you’ve got a front seat pass to all the gaming activity.
By running numbers here and there, doing favors for this guy, working for this bookie, taking something to that address, you’re seeing how the operation works and getting to know where all the card rooms and illegal casinos are. Far from you trying to work an invite, you’re being called down there. If this was the movie business, we were the production assistants. We did all the running to make everything work and in return we got to learn the poker and gambling business from the bottom up.
And that’s exactly what we did. We learned how the bookies operated. I was always fascinated with how disciplined their operations were. A Certified Public Accountant would be impressed with their book keeping methods and discipline. Contrary to popular belief, bookies rarely participate on the action. Their job is to balance their books by taking an even number of bets of both side of a game and shipping off the difference to Vegas or to whoever else wanted to take overage. A good sum of their profits didn’t just come from the vig on the bets, it also came from the vig on the loans if you failed to pay off your losing bets in time.
So if you placed a $1,000 dollar losing bet, they have you into them for $1,100 with the vig on the bet. Then you also owe the vig on that debt, ramping it up to $1,200. If you can’t pay it, it soon goes up to $1,300 as the average vig goes up by a couple of points a week. It was the loan sharking that made them the vast majority of their money.
And of course, we were able to see where the bookies were making their money and how they were doing it. At the same time we had money in our pockets. Even from the age of eleven, I was pretty much self-sufficient in terms of income. Now when other kids needed money, we were able to lend them ten bucks, 20, 50, even $100. A hundred dollars was half a week’s salary in the mid-seventies. If you spot someone a hundred, it’s going to take them a month or two to pay it back and you can triple up your investment pretty quickly by just putting some money out to work. If you start doing that in your early teens, you’re earning a good living at little risk, on top of the money you’re making for running the numbers.
Money was always pretty tight at home, so having a source of income came in handy. My father was virtually permanently away, so he wasn’t aware of what was going on, while my mother was sheltered with her family as a support group, so I was pretty much free to do as I pleased.
Naval captains traditionally worked six months of the year in two or three month intervals while being paid for 12, but my father was one of those driven individuals who liked to work all year round. He would come back from four months at sea, be home for a week and then be back off to sea again in a different vessel for another four or five months.
Back in Athens, there was one time when I was around seven and went down to the docks with my mother to meet my Father after he returned from yet another voyage. The ship just docked at pier and I ran up to give my father a hug. Well, I hugged three different captains before I got the right one. Mainly because I couldn’t remember exactly what he looked like. I think I must have upset three housewives that day as they saw a strange kid run up and call their husband daddy! I recognized the uniform and the rank but beyond that, in the captain’s apparel, they all looked the same through my young eyes. They all had black wavy hair and a mustache.
He continued to work like that once we moved to America. While he was away his son carved out his own living in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, at school I still hardly needed to open a book to keep up. I entered my teens untroubled by any specific ambition. On the one hand I knew I had no desire to join the military, as my father suggested, or to become a doctor, as my mother wanted. But by the same token, it had never occurred to me that lending money or playing poker may actually be a career choice. They were just the things one did to get by and make money because they were the best options available to us.
Poker was just something we did. Playing poker was as much part of our daily routine as eating – not playing would have seemed about as sensible as skipping meals. No one aspired to making poker their job, I think the college kids who see poker as a career and end in itself nowadays are misguided. Poker is so much more. One would have to truly embrace this game of ours to understand that statement.
As the stakes went up, we started to make money from poker. That was certainly one of its attractions, because there were few other ways for us to make money in the neighborhood. We couldn’t wash cars – hardly anyone had cars in the city. Delivering papers wouldn’t work – most people couldn’t read English. You couldn’t work around the house – no one could afford to pay kids to do that. You could deliver groceries, but two stores meant that provided four jobs. What were the other 300 kids going to do?
Poker was many things to us. It was entertainment, but it was also a source of income and an employment opportunity. It was a pastime, in the literal sense: it made the days go by. It kept us out of trouble. Last, but not least, it was a source of bonding and camaraderie. There’s something about sitting round with your buddies, shooting your mouth and laughing your tail off while playing cards. If you covered our eyes during those friendly games, I bet we couldn’t tell you who were up or down, we could have just told you we were having a good time.
It was a slightly different matter in the card rooms, of course. As we entered our mid-teens and continued to work for the bookies, we were able to start playing in the underground games, beginning at the smallest stakes and working our way up.
These underground card rooms were aptly named on two fronts. Of course they were illicit, but they were also pitch black and windowless rooms hidden behind or below restaurants and bars only open to those known and who were invited.
It took time to adjust my game to the new surroundings. The caliber of player was much higher than I was used to and the first three months was pretty much a succession of one ass beating followed by another. But gradually I learned more and more of the techniques and strategies needed to be successful and started, after that initial period, to turn in more winning sessions than losing ones.
We played thousands of hands and all manner of games, depending on the personal taste of the various hosts. I became adept at all manner of variants of stud and draw. The more complicated the game, the more your mind is forced to work and the more I felt at home – that’s why I still prefer Omaha to Hold’em today.
One of the most important lessons I learned was discipline. Every time you got a beating at a higher level and your bankroll took a hit, you had to really struggle to earn it back. If you stepped down a level, the game would be looser and that would really increase your risk as you struggled to win your
That’s when your other sources of income became important. Because of course, there’s only so many ways to you can increase your bankroll: win the money, make the money, or steal the money. he latter wasn’t really an option!
Of course, you could try to borrow money, but I never do that, even now. I had seen from an early age what happens to people who borrow money, so I never did. Many years later I didn’t even want to get a mortgage from the bank when I purchased my first home. If it hadn’t been for the tax break
that was associated with a residential mortgage, I would have tried to avoid that too.
Working with bookmakers and loan sharks at such a tender age leaves you with a vivid impression of the bottom of the barrel. I saw people getting their legs broken, losing cars, homes and getting shaken down. You sit there as a young kid wondering how people do this to themselves and how they find themselves in that situation. It turns you off from ever wanting to do the same.
I was part of a generation that grew up knowing you didn’t spend what you didn’t have. I can’t even remember how old I was before I got a credit card and even then it was only the fact that you needed one to book airline tickets and rent a car that made me do it. Eventually I realized that the credit card firms are no different than the loan sharks down the street, giving you enough rope to hang yourself. Like the loan sharks, they start you off small and then give you more and more money until they’ve given you enough credit to own you.
So discipline became important because you couldn’t afford to lose money put into the pot when you were behind – it was too hard to make money to risk it like that. At the same time, you couldn’t afford to be playing at a level where you were playing with scared money. One of the best ways of ensuring you weren’t on scared money was to know you had other sources of income besides poker.
Obviously you had to think carefully about your bankroll for the level of game you wanted to play. A lot of players now will say you should never have more than 5 – 10% of your money at risk, and by at risk I mean used as a buy in, not as a bet. As you need 100 big blinds for a buy in that means to sit down with $500 at a $5-$10 limit table you need a bankroll of $10k.
My mentality back then was rather different – I think it’s all about finding a level you can play at comfortably. I tried never to play with more than 10 – 20% of my bankroll at risk. That meant I would sit down with $500 knowing it was a fifth of my bankroll and that I had another buy in of the same
amount ready if necessary.
Of course, again the percentage of your bankroll you are comfortable putting at risk is a function of what that bankroll is intended for. If you have another source of income, like when I was older and used to tend bar, then you know you can build it back up quicker.
At that time in my life, I was financially holistic in my approach. Poker was a part of my life and it represented one source of income. If needed be, you could always work to hustle up some action on the street to replenish your bankroll. That’s what all the pros have had to do at some point or another. Anyone who has spent any time in poker circles has heard the stories. Even the likes of Howard Lederer and Scotty Nguyen have shared their experiences and misfortunes with the public. How may poker players have slept on park benches or have washed dishes because they have gone broke? Any pro today that’s honest will have a similar story to tell of how beats depleted his bankroll when he was starting out. There’s not one of us out there who hasn’t done other things because we went broke. If you didn’t wait tables, you cooked. If you didn’t tend bar, you were the bouncer or the DJ. If you didn’t work in the automotive industry, you worked in construction. And there was no shame in it. Simply pursuing our conviction to return to the game.
During this initial period I experienced the biggest fluctuations of my career. Of course I was younger and spending more loosely and that was part of the reason why. I was capable of blowing several hundred dollars on a night out with my friends at a time when that was a sizable chunk of my bankroll.
If you follow a night like that with catching a bad beat towards the end of a game that sends you down a couple of hundred bucks more, you’re one more bad beat away from going broke at that point. But during my teens my money was strictly for entertainment. I didn’t have any financial burdens other than self imposed ones. It was my money to piss away and do as I pleased with. I was never a greedy individual. For example, if my mother sent me to the market to pick up six things for her, I would never take the money from her but do it out of my own pocket as a small contribution to the house.
As we continued to learn our lessons in the card rooms, the stakes we were comfortable at increased. After a couple of years of paying our dues, my friends and I were able to consider ourselves seasoned veterans. Those initial three, four months of losses were followed by two years in which I made money while fine-tuning and honing my game.
Over those two years, I slowly eradicated mistakes from my game and became a steady consistent player. I caught the occasional bad beat, of course, but my own play grew better and better. By the end of that period, I would guess bad beats were outnumbering my errors by about 8 – 1. By the time I reached my late teens, my game had matured and developed to a level where I could be competitive at any level. Even though some improvement and maturity would surely follow, there was not that much variation from my game then or for quite some time thereafter.
At the same time, I learned how to conduct myself in these card rooms, how to behave respectfully at the table and away from it. I learned how to make sure I got invited back and I learned the importance of not becoming a nuisance in order to insure I was welcome to return. As the majority of the places we played at were illegal, none of us had a “right” to be there. We were invited guests. As we relied on these establishments for a substantial portion of our income, good conduct was crucial. You took good care of the door and waitresses and ever better care of the dealers. You made sure people had a good word to say about you and would welcome you back as you were planning to leave there with more money then you came. Those lessons proved extremely valuable when I needed to rely on poker for my family’s financial wellbeing later on.
All that time at the poker table gave me a maturity of approach. I was a student of the game and I took it seriously. I was never an action junkie – I didn’t play poker to get my action fix through gambling and I never have. I learned to appreciate the game for what it is and to keep the action junkies out of it, or at least on the other side of the table. Again, nowadays I see a lot of people who think they can make a quick buck out of poker and who are using it for action.
They remind me of investors on Wall Street – they don’t understand a business but they are excited about making money out of it, even though they aren’t quite sure how it really works. A lot of players today are basically speculating on a venture. To someone who has schooled themselves in the underground card rooms, poker is not a venture; it’s as much part of their life as walking on two legs.
By this point in our Poker development we were seasoned veterans. In fact, it was becoming difficult to get a steady game in the old neighborhood anymore and we had to consider traveling beyond our boundaries. At this time once again, my personal circumstances were about to change again as the family relocated to the suburbs. This news could not have come at a better time. We had always heard about the rich kids out there and the regular house games. Poker was alive and well in the ‘burbs and we were about to get our fair share of the pie. This time, my poker skills and ability were what enabled me to thrive in a new environment as I put the lessons of the city to good use.
John “The Greek” Leontakianakos is a professional poker player with 27 years of experience. He runs his own website called JohnTheGreekPoker.Related posts: