Casino Royale 

Meet the highest roller of the lowest-stakes game. His name is Bond ... James Bond.

When James Bond enters the Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, he scans the pit's packed poker tables and his face lights up. His thin black mustache curls upward above a foxlike grin. His jet-black hair is perfectly combed to a fluff on top and slicked back on the sides. His gold chains dangle down to his midsection atop his silky clothes.

The three rings on his left hand glisten as he walks. Starting from the pinky and moving toward the middle finger, an amethyst, diamond, and synthetic ruby all compete for attention with his silver-faced watch.

Bond hooks his designer sunglasses to the lapel of his shirt and calls out to the woman at the coat check. "How you doing today, honey?"

"Doing just fine, Mr. Bond," she says. "Just fine."

"Oh, good," he replies.

Then Bond calls out to a dealer: "Louie! Where's the ladies tonight?"

"My house, Mr. Bond!"

"Well, save one for me."

Louie laughs and moves on. Bond then passes a female dealer on her break and reaches out for her hand. "Hell-lo, beautiful," he says.

"Hello, Mr. Bond," she says.

Bond is still barely inside the card club. He nods to a floor manager at a podium, who writes his name onto a list of new players waiting for an open seat. Unlike most customers, Bond does not formally check in at the Oaks. When a manager sees the card room's well-known customer with the spy's name, he knows it usually means Texas Hold 'Em.

"I also put you down for stud," the manager says. "Just in case."

"Nah," Bond replies. "Not tonight. Hold 'Em is good." He takes a spot along a wooden railing that overlooks the poker table he'll most likely be seated at in thirty minutes. He's been coming to the Oaks for four years and knows his opponents well. There's Mike, an obsessive bluffer whom Bond loves to play against; Mike never has much of a hand. There's Joe, an old-timer wearing a Boston Red Sox cap who has been frequenting the Oaks for fifty years. There's Ty, one of Bond's main nemeses, a "rock" who plays so tightly that he rarely bets; but when he does, he usually has "the nuts" -- the best hand on the table.

"I don't like the way he plays," Bond says, peering over the railing. "Me, I like to rumble. I like to get everyone raising, having fun, throwing chips in the pot -- in other words, gambling. ... I'm not saying he's not a good player; he is. I'm just saying I like to have a good time, have some fun in there, mix it up."

Inside the Oaks, James Bond is an absolute celebrity, and not just for his flamboyant style and friendly treatment of the staff. Players at the card club choose what kind of stakes they'll play for. The highest rollers hit the $30-$60 table, where $30 is the minimum bet and $60 is the maximum. Of course, Hold 'Em has several rounds of betting -- and sometimes raising and reraising -- so the pots on that table can equal a mortgage payment in an instant. Most players, consequently, prefer the pace of a $6-$12 game, or even the $3-$6 table.

And then, there's the $1-$2 table, the lowest-stakes game in the house. At this table, the skill of play does not match the kind you'll find worshipped on ESPN. Players are usually too new to make wise choices, or too old (and thus budget-conscious) to make bold ones. The wagers are so measly it's often difficult to raise anyone out of his or her hand. In fact, so many players ride their hands all the way to the finish line that the game is nicknamed "No Fold 'Em Hold 'Em."

Bond, for all his big-time aura, prefers "the drunks and the rookies" of the $1-$2 table. He is more than happy to liberate them from their chips. To further mess with the psyche of his opponents, Bond likes to buy in for as much as $500 at a time. At fifty cents a chip, Bond stacks his money in chest-high columns, constructing a red and yellow fortress atop the green felt in front of him. At a table where men in dirty jeans sometimes approach with nothing more than a crumpled $10 bill and a prayer, Bond's fortress is designed to invite envy.

"It's my style of play," he said as he leaned on the railing and prepared to buy in. "I know some guys don't like it. One guy was teasing me the other night, saying, 'Why you buy all those chips for this table, why you buy all those chips?' I say, 'It's not your game, man, this is my game, this is how I play. So don't worry about it.'"

Bond smiled again. "It's to intimidate them, to show them I've got the power. If they want to take this away from me, I say go for it. But it'll take an Act of Congress."

It might take an act of God to take the poker chips away from all Bond's fellow bettors. As the country goes bonkers for Texas Hold 'Em -- 1.8 million players are wagering $200 million online every day, according to -- real card clubs are filling up with eager newcomers. Oaks owner John Tibbetts credits the four-year-old poker boom for a "significant rise" in his business. And as these new players ease themselves into the game, many turn naturally to the low-stakes tables.

"A $1-$2 is a comfortable transition from your home to the card room," Tibbetts says. "If you're not really sure where you fit in, or you're intimidated by the level of play at the other tables, you can sit in on a one-two until you're ready to graduate to the next level."

Tibbetts' club is the only one in the Bay Area, possibly the only one in the state, that offers a $1-$2 table. The economic returns make no sense to many club owners. The house rake on each pot is only two bucks. A $3-$6 game, by comparison, pulls three bucks out of every hand, and there's no shortage of customers.

But in the strange-but-true calculus of gambling, the $1-$2 table also makes no sense for players, according to Lee Jones, author of Winning Low Limit Hold 'Em. In fact, Jones was astonished to learn that such tables still existed. He notes that the house rake on a $1-$2 table is disproportionately large compared to what's being bet; even the best players struggle to break even over the course of an hour. According to poker gurus, a good player hopes to win two to three pots in an hour. But over time, as the smart player folds the majority of his hands waiting for a strong one -- the boring part they don't show you on those televised poker tournaments -- the pot he finally wins is minuscule compared to what he's already bet.

"If you could see the house dealer reaching into the pot and grabbing chips out every time," Jones says, "you'd realize everyone's stacks are dwindling, and it's just a matter of time before they're all down to the felt."


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