Posted on May 9, 2015 by Angelo Munafo
The extracurricular scene at the University of Pennsylvania is very diverse, to say the least. We’re all familiar with the multitude of dance, a cappella, theater, comedy, cultural, and business groups that call this campus home. We’re also very familiar with the abundance of fraternities and sororities that claim a quarter of the freshmen class as recruits every year. One social venue you might not be aware of is Penn’s “underground” poker club. This small group convenes in the basement of Harrison high-rise once every week to whip out the cards, chips, and (yes) cash for a taste of some good old-fashioned gambling fun.
The first thing I noticed about the scene was the sound. Letting my mind zone out, I was quickly overwhelmed by a sea of clacking poker chips. Players incessantly fiddle with the pieces in their fingers, dropping them like a slinky within their hands and restacking them on the table over and over again. Whether this funny habit be a nervous release or some expression of anxiety over impending results, it is definitely the mark of a group of amateurs, and one group member whispered to me that no professionals “fool around” with their chips like that. The second thing I noticed were the quirks of individual participants; one guy had his lucky Yankees hat, another his lucky pack of Five gum, others had their traditional Dr. Pepper or Brisk Tea, and yet another guy sauntered in with a massive Chipotle burrito (replete with a full bottle of Tabasco). I also learned that some players are known to always pop in headphones, using music to block out extraneous stimuli and silently focus on their own game.
Though playing for real money, the atmosphere in the basement room is surprisingly casual, and the game evokes a sense of camaraderie among a group that clearly knows each other on a personal level beyond the poker table. For starters, this coalition of passionate card players makes due with their surroundings by playing on the felt surface of pool tables instead of proper poker tables. Players toss cards and chips into the center of the table with impressive precision, as turns shift around the horn at a remarkable pace. As a non-poker player, it was nearly impossible to decipher what was going on given the lack of verbal signals. Though varying in skill levels, everyone at the table at least had the rules and flow of the game down pat. Players trickle in at their own pace, and the game expanded from five to ten players over the course of my time observing. At a certain point, leaders decided to split the group into two tables to maximize the number of hands everyone would get to play. Players often make non-descript jokes about the cards they have, occasionally sharing their hand with neighbors in hopes of a reciprocal gesture. This sense of good will is evident in the “semi-professionals” who join the undergraduate game less for piece of the action than for a relaxing break from the high stakes games they play at local casinos and poker houses.
Upon entering the room, an older African American gentleman grandly announced “look who’s here!” while throwing a handful of hundred dollar bills into the air. This mysterious “regular” began recounting his prior night’s game, in which he feared a poker buddy of his would get shot for flaunting thousands of dollars in cash in front of a rough North Philly crowd; as it turns out, that infamous friend showed up at our game later in the night. With years more experience and even a World Series of Poker stint under his belt, this enigmatic yet gregarious figure certainly exuded a degree of confidence and “swagger.” The students looked up to him with deference, his mere presence commanding the room’s attention. However, his aura is not to be mistaken for arrogance or condescension. To the contrary, I watched firsthand as this older player took a couple undergraduates under his wing, offering them strategic tips to improve their game. My friend, who frequents the Penn Poker Club and helped me discover this hidden gem, informed me that such tutelage is characteristic of this high-rolling, rumored-to-be grad student.
All in all, my visit to poker night was full of interesting developments. Certain members of the club seemed particularly uneasy having a camera in the room. The group expressed a desire to remain anonymous, reflecting the semi-illegal status of their game and a concern that future games could be shut down if the right University authorities caught word of it. Despite the negative connotation that gambling begets, in reality, their activity is totally harmless and should be embraced rather than shunned. Let’s just say that there are many things going on under Penn’s nose that are a thousand times worse, so it would be a real shame if the powers that be chose to single out this cunning group of “young hustlers.” I completely understand the wish to have their individual identities remain anonymous, as I myself hope that this healthy, self-run competition remains a vibrant part of extracurricular life on Penn’s campus. An interesting niche, indeed, the student poker crowd comes from all walks of life—young athletes, “techies,” engineers, geologists, and entrepreneurs were among the represented parties on this particular Thursday. Intelligence was a common denominator. I feel privileged to have gotten the chance to watch this fascinatingly bizarre dynamic unfold.
Photography and Text by Angelo Munafo, Copyright 2015
About the Author: Angelo Munafo is freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2018.