The first time I walked into a poker room, I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “I’m home.”

Before this moment, I was the only person in my group to quote Rounders, watch an incessant amount of the World Series of Poker on TV while dreaming about someday playing in Bobby’s Room wearing a gold bracelet, the only one having a talent crush on Daniel Negreanu. An intimacy happens for me when I play poker no matter where I’m playing, whether it is Hawaiian Gardens or the Orleans, a feeling that I’ve found one of my tribes.

Christina WSOP

The riffing of chips, players complaining to each other that they’re stuck $80 for that session, the guy eating a foot-long tuna sandwich at the table while in a hand while I’m wondering why it smells like corned beef, someone bringing me a coffee that will be the best coffee at that moment in my life. I could walk into a poker room from California to Reno, and some version of these archetypes will be there. We spend hours with strangers, yet they’re familiar before we even walk in the room.

I live on an island at the moment, so no one understands this particular language if I try and speak poker. If I were a kitesurfer, regular surfer, into SUP, or hiking, I could have conversations for days. And when you find one that speaks “poker” on Maui, you grab each other like a life preserver, feeling like you met a soulmate in the ABC store over Vanilla Macadamia Nut coffee, one that knows who Phil Ivey is.

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Our families are usually outside this intimacy, not understanding why we want to play for hours, how poker is different from playing online casino games at sites like SimbaGames.co.uk, or why saying “I’m going to play poker” might mean hours away from my phone. I’m lucky that my mother understands; she was the one to teach me poker when I was young. The rest of my family, however, just doesn’t get it. They will like anything I post on Facebook; I could post a picture of a leaf, a tree, or a squirrel, and they’d enthusiastically like it or comment. I post a picture of me at the World Series of Poker – the best job I’ve ever had – and it’s total radio silence. It’s as if they don’t quite know what to make of it, as in when I try and explain what a half kill versus kill pot is.

Christina Hellmuth Esfandiari

Yes, when I step into that room and sit down at the felt I want to win your money and you want to win mine. I’m not going to be best friends with everyone at my table, and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been asked if I’m a teacher or nurse. Chips will stick together, and sometimes I feel like Seinfeld at the table trying to draw everyone out of their shell. But there’s a commonality, a community of people that just “get” that part of you in that room. You don’t even have to explain it to them; it’s a quiet and unspoken understanding.

I have other tribes in my life that have nothing to do with poker; most of us do. However, I know the next time I walk in a poker room, I’ll be surrounded by people that have the same love for a game that I do, and will never be alone in that room even if I’m alone. I think I already smell corned beef…

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