by John Mather
It’s only 7:30 p.m. and the players at the Toronto Rounders poker game are getting antsy.
Five of them are sitting at the table and Yaseen, the organizer, is politely asking them to wait for three more.
“Why don’t we just start now?” one asks. He identifies himself as a business student at the University of Toronto.
Across the table, a first-year Ryerson business student sizes up the competition. “So, how often do you guys play poker?”
The answers are muffled, but it doesn’t matter; you couldn’t trust them anyway. These students are putting cash on the line in no-limit Texas hold ’em. They prefer to be shrouded in mystery.
Three more players trickle in. They give Yaseen their money and sit down to their chips.
It is a minimum $60 buy-in. Yaseen, who started as a poker dealer when he was 18, keeps the maximum at $200 to prevent bullying and excessive losses.
The 22-year-old runs Toronto Rounders, an illegal student-based poker group, out of his spacious condo near Ryerson campus. The group meets four days a week, attracting students from across Toronto.
Yaseen, a former U of T and George Brown student himself, hopes his new condo’s proximity to Ryerson will draw more players.
Taking up to $4 of each pot as a rake, Yaseen collects upwards of $320 a night. During the day, he works at a fine-dining restaurant in Toronto’s financial district. He hopes to attend the University of New York’s film school next year.
The game itself is fast paced. Andrew, the dealer, doesn’t say a word. Dealing is Andrew’s part-time job while in high school.
“It’s easier than work,” one shark says, explaining why people such as Andrew gamble.
“It’s not like it’s high stakes. I wouldn’t want to run high stakes,” Yaseen says, when asked if he is encouraging unethical behaviour. “This is $60 or $100. And for the kids who are playing here, that’s not really a big deal.”
The players dodge questions about where they work. Some get their money from family, some from jobs, others from their student loans.
The money adds up, but Yaseen has never had any trouble. He limits his games to friends and students, and buzzes all players into his building.
Poker games can be a target for thieves because of the cash present. Yaseen remembers hearing about one game in Richmond Hill being robbed.
“The guys who were there would have had to had $20-30 thousand on them, and they got hit three weeks ago.”
His goal is to keep games simple, safe and friendly for the players and himself. At this point in his life, he couldn’t imagine a better job than hosting the tournaments — legal or not.
“I don’t even call it gambling because I think poker is pretty much like looking at stocks. You know, educated investing.”
But not everyone who plays poker is in it for the investment.
“When we played on our own, we were able to have fun without money,” said Arvin Thé, president of the Ryerson Poker Society, which he started with six friends. “There are a lot more people than you think that enjoy playing just for fun.”
The Poker Society facilates free recreationinal weekly Texas hold’ em poker games. They also host a $1,500 tournament once a semester, courtesy of Scorepoker.ca.
ScorePoker is a non-gambling website run by The Score sports network.
Thé hopes the chance of winning money without betting will keep players away from using the club as practice for high stakes games.
“We don’t want people to go out to the casinos, thinking they know how to play and then lose their money.”
The Ryerson Recreation and Athletics Centre introduced poker as part of its intramural programming this fall.
Randy Pipher, the RAC’s intramural and camp co-ordinator, said the intramural does not promote gambling among its 15 members, but stresses cards as a recreational activity for students.
“It’s a social affair, and that’s what we’re trying to get here.”
Meanwhile in Yaseen’s condo, hours pass. Some chip stacks tumble while others grow. Either way, Yaseen says Toronto Rounders is not all about winning and losing, despite the hundreds of dollars up for grabs each night to any lucky “educated investor.” It is also about students getting together and having a good time.
“We’re not here just to make money.”