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Baptism by Texas Hold 'em

Joshua Paul

Johnny Marinacci and Mike Scelza in Whitehall, New York City.

Matt McCue learns the art of playing poker from Johnny Marinacci and Mike Scelza, two of New York’s veteran card sharks.


Photos by Joshua Paul.

Of the four talents men are born with—an institutional knowledge of sports, beer, cars and poker—I managed to slip out of the womb without any grasp of the latter. Admitting such never fails to draw a confused stare. “How did this happen?” people wonder. It goes back to my grandmother who won $600 at the poker tables 40 years ago in Las Vegas and used her spoils to buy my grandfather a 22-gauge Browning hunting rifle for his birthday. She never played again, figuring that she’d stop while she was ahead. And what went for my grandmother went for the next generations of our family: no gambling. 

After being left out of too many poker nights in my 30 years, however, I decided to finally learn the game (my wife’s sharp card skills also might have been a contributing factor). To teach me, I enlisted professional instructors Johnny Marinacci and Mike Scelza. Over the past 15 years, they’ve served as gaming consultants on Rounders, The Sopranos, Lucky You and Michael Clayton. I figured if they were good enough for Matt Damon, Edward Norton and Robert Duvall, they were too good for me. Still, Johnny took my call and listened to my predicament. “So you don’t know how to play poker?” he asked in his thick Brooklyn brogue. “Don’t be embarrassed. We’ve taught a lot of women.”

       
         

We met at Whitehall, a gin bar in New York’s West Village, and took a wraparound leather booth under the hot glow of a low-hanging industrial light. Johnny and Mike have been friends for 37 years and often finish each other’s sentences. Both grew up in the metropolitan area, Mike in north New Jersey and Johnny in east Brooklyn. They met in 1976 at a Jewish temple on West 31st Street. Neither was there for services. They partook in “Las Vegas Days,” or weekday gambling in the synagogue. “We had Lebanese, Muslims, everyone,” Mike recalls. “Johnny and I didn’t take each other’s money and helped each other during hands.” 

Eventually, they opened their own gambling parlor on the Upper East Side, and two unknown screenwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, became patrons. One day Koppelman asked them to review his Rounders script and they obliged. The movie premiered in 1998 and ignited a countrywide poker craze. Suddenly, everyone from Wall Street executives to Hollywood bigwigs began contacting Mike and Johnny for private tutorials. 

Sitting between these two, I felt on edge. They could sense my anxiety. “Bobby Duvall had never played cards,” Johnny assured me. “He was really intimidated.” 

“He hadn’t even played Go Fish with his grandma,” continued Mike. “Good guy though.” 

Duvall? He of the 10-mile stare? At least I understood how to score hands. 

They baptized me with Texas hold ’em, a five-card game featuring such fun terms as the “flop,” “river” and “burn and turn.” As Mike shuffled the deck in his meaty paws, Johnny summarized his playing philosophy. “We’re not talking about brain surgery,” he said. “It’s either you’re in, you’re out or you raise.”

“And it’s not how many hands you win, it’s how many hands you don’t lose,” emphasized Mike. I nodded. It seemed easy enough. I then lost the first five rounds, either by abruptly folding or assuming my high original hand was strong enough to last the duration of the game. I kept my chips in front of me to always see them, as Mike recommended, but it was no use. The pile kept shrinking. “You have to learn to not fall in love with hands,” advised Johnny. “There is a new hand every minute.” 

During the sixth round, Mike bowed out early. Johnny guessed that I had a weak hand and raised me eight chips (none held any value other than pride). I matched him and called. I only had two 9’s, but it still beat his pair of 3’s. When I collected my due, I tried to keep from beaming and acting like this happened all the time. 

After an hour, I was hooked. I liked the fast pace, the quick thinking and the camaraderie at the table. As much as I appreciated the lesson, though, I wanted to take these guys for all they had in our final game. When I saw my cards—a king and queen—I knew I had the makings of a monster hand. Mike flipped over the three flop cards, and I spotted a matching king alongside a jack. Bingo. 

“All in,” declared Mike. I exhaled, as if I really had to think hard about it, and pushed forward my entire stack of chips. Johnny followed suit. At the big reveal, Mike had nothing. Before I could victoriously throw my king on the table, Johnny triumphantly flopped the set with three Jacks. “I thought I had it!” I cried. I had come so far in the past 60 minutes, but, clearly, there was some vital secret I still hadn’t discovered. “What did I do wrong?” I asked. Johnny shrugged. “Good hand,” he said. “Sometimes you lose.” // 

To schedule a poker lesson with Mike and Johnny, go to hollywoodpokerpros.com.


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