back to the Black Table
  When in Vegas, people like me steer clear of even the low-limit blackjack tables. We screw up everyone else's cards. We hit when we should stay. We stay when we should hit. Chastened, we slink off to the blinking miles of uncharitable nickel slots, helplessly frittering away hard-earned coins and shooting pleading looks at waitresses who won't sink so low as to waste a free drink on us bottom-feeders.

I'd be happy to never lay foot in a casino again, but apparently,


the rest of America disagrees. Thanks to the loosening of gaming laws throughout the country, you can't toss a quarter bucket without hitting a casino these days; stop by the local gas station in my hometown of Canton, S.D., population 3,110, and you'll even find one in the dingy back room. Casino revenues rose about 2% to $27 billion in 2003, according to the American Gaming Association.

More attention grabbing than that number, of course, has been the blossoming fascination with the granddaddy of all card games: poker.

Between 2002 and 2003, poker revenue in Nevada shot up 18%, from $57.5 million to $68 million, according to the AGA. Poker,


once the game for cigar-chomping fatties, has gotten sexy again, as Heather Graham's knowing, come-hither grin in the ads for Celebrity Poker Showdown attest.

What could make a game like this even hotter? Nudity. California writer John Vorhaus already has five fortuitously-timed poker books under his belt, and come Christmas, you'll be able to purchase his sixth: Strip Poker, the Game That's Fun to Lose. The Black Table nagged Vorhaus to share with us his thoughts about poker fever.

BT: Please describe the perfect outfit to wear when preparing for a game of strip poker.

JV: You want every "reveal" to show your imagination and your class. You might be wearing a tuxedo on the top layer but Donald Duck Underoos down below. Just show that you didn't dress by accident. Additionally, you don't want to be one of these nerds who wears every article of clothing you can think of, just to give yourself some sort of imagined advantage. If you're that uptight, you shouldn't be playing in the first place.

BT: What counts as "clothes" in strip poker? Earrings? Pasties? Are socks one item or two?

JV: Anything you'd wear to a meeting or on a date count as clothes. Gratuitous add-ons, like a thousand bracelets up and down your arm, don't count. Anyway, piling on the clothes just defeats the purpose of the game. If that's the way you feel, go play bridge.

BT: Who should one invite for a game of strip poker, ideally? Who would you, with a shudder, make sure to leave off the invite list?

JV: Strip poker is for couples, primarily, a fun and sexy game that leads to, well, that other fun and sexy game. If you're going to play in groups, you want to be either drunk or liberal-minded or both. The perfect opponents for strip poker are good-looking people who don't mind showing it. I wouldn't invite Rush Limbaugh.

BT: What's the ideal drink to serve during a round of strip poker?

JV: Ever had absinthe? It defines the English slang term for drunk, "legless."

BT: Please offer some etiquette tips for players new to strip poker.

JV: If you fart, blame the dog.

BT: How do tells in strip poker differ from tells at a table where everyone is clothed?

JV: Well, you can tell who needs Enzyte and who does not.

BT: Is there any poker slang that sounds especially naughty when used during a game of strip poker?

JV: All-in. The nuts. Top pair. Big slick. Pretty much anything sounds dirty if you're in the right frame of mind. "I was holding a monster in my hand but she flopped a wide open draw, spiked her one-outer, and I was flushed."

BT: According to, well, you, CNN called you "the sage of poker of our time." Is a book about strip poker, which includes the phrase "the awful sucking sound of flesh on vinyl," going to damage your reputation as a "sage"?

JV: Nah. There's no such thing as bad publicity. Besides, my fans know me to be a frivolous guy. My mother, on the other hand, will be shocked and horrified, but she's not all that keen on the whole poker thing in the first place. She thought I was going to be a nun.

BT: What's behind the national obsession with poker? We've got the World Series of Poker, Celebrity Poker Showdown, poker memoirs like Poker Nation by Andy Bellin and a new poker drama on ESPN called "Tilt." I'm probably leaving a bunch out, too. Is it just a passing fad?

JV: Two engines have driven the recent poker revolution, and both are technologically based. Televised poker turned from boring to spellbinding with the advent of the lipstick cam. Once viewers could see the players' hole cards, they became voyeurs of disaster: "I know that guy's got the nuts -- will the other guy figure it out, or crash and burn?" Poker on TV is so compelling that I call it "poker porn," because it makes you want to do nothing so much as... go play poker. Thanks to that other tech innovation, Internet poker, you may now do so anywhere, anytime.

The popularity will eventually fade somewhat as television inevitably turns its eye elsewhere, but things will never go back to the way they were. To take the World Series of Poker as a benchmark, this year it will be at least 10 times bigger than it was 5 years ago. Should poker lose half its current popularity, it'll still be five times more popular than before the boom. Short answer: The game is here to stay.

"Tilt" sucks, by the way, and every real poker player thinks so. The game is not about cheating. It's about out-thinking your enemy. That's why everybody loves it. You don't need brawn, only brains, to excel.

BT: The New York Times has a new gambling beat writer. What are some stories you'd like to see covered?

JV: Stories about me, of course. In fact, I should be writing the column. Beyond that, anything that distinguishes poker from gambling will be both helpful and truthful. Good times.

BT: Wait, poker isn't gambling?

JV: Poker is "betting with the best of it." Flipping a coin is gambling because you can't control the outcome or the payout. But if I can get you to pay me $1.10 every time it lands heads and I pay you on $.90 when it's tails, then that's poker. Poker is about knowing when you're getting a better return on your investment than the odds dictate and/or persuading your foe to take the worst of it.

BT: You've written five books about poker and the next is coming out this Christmas. What makes you the poker expert, and has your expertise translated into a huge boon to your bank account?

JV: I occupy a unique position in the world of poker press. Most poker books are written by players who write. As a writer who plays, I bring a more articulate (and user friendly) voice to my work. I think what "makes me an expert" is that I'm not an expert, just a very common player with a very common love for the game and, if anything, an uncommon ability to articulate what everyone else is thinking. But shoot, that's what a writer does.

My expertise -- as a writer, not a player -- has been a fairly nice boon to my bank account. To twist the cliche, "a rising tide has lifted my boat."

BT: What, writing all those books about poker has not made you a great poker player? How would your readers, who spend their hard-earned dollars to learn from you, feel about this?

JV: Those who can't do, teach, sugar. Everybody knows that. Seriously, I rate myself as better than 95% of all poker players, but honestly believe that nobody but the top 5% can actually make a living at the game. Also, it's like anything else: The thing you do best of all must be the absolute focus of your attention and passion. For me, that's writing, not poker, so I expect to be a consistent winner always, but a world-beater never. Honesty is a poker player's greatest asset. I have my fair share.

BT: If Chris Moneymaker and Annie Duke had babies, what kind of poker players would they be? Would this child have a definitive "tell"?

JV: Well, they'd be fearless, that's for sure. They'd know the odds inside and out. They'd have steely dispositions and, if they inherit Annie's looks and not Chris's, they'd be knockouts.

BT: Besides writing about poker, you also have done film and TV sitcom writing and are the author of The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even If You're Not. Does being funny in some way help you be a better poker player -- or more importantly, a better strip poker player?

JV: Being funny helps me be a better poker player because it puts my opponents in a good mood and makes them not mind losing money. A sense of humor is crucial in strip poker because, well, have you seen what most people look like naked?


Erin Schulte is a freelance writer in New York. She writes for a paycheck and would like the money delivered in small, unmarked bills by tomorrow morning or else she's going to club *another* old lady to death. Just do it, okay? She's not fucking around.