Every January, I meet my father in Biloxi, Mississippi, to play poker at Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. He drives down from Birmingham, Alabama. I fly in from up north.
At the airport, I hail a cab. I haven’t driven a car in decades. When I tell the cabbie this, he asks, “Are you dysplectic?” I assume this is a little-known medical combo of reading road signs backward and having seizures. I say, “No, I live in Manhattan.”
He says, “You don’t sound like it.”
“I grew up in Alabama,” I say. “I cling to my accent like mayonnaise to white bread.”
At my request, the cabbie avoids the highway and takes the ten-mile stretch of road along the beach to the Beau. The ride takes longer, but I want it to take longer. I want to savor the coastline, the oyster shacks on stilts, the sculpture of a pig on what looks to be a hearse outside Slap Ya Momma’s Barbecue, and one-two-three Waffle Houses that all came back strong after Katrina swept them out.
I want to see the souvenir shops. The one we pass on the left has a giant gator mouth around the door. The one on the right, a shark’s mouth. Both stores are as big as Krogers. I love roaming the aisles stocked with sand dollar Christmas ornaments, kites and wind chimes, seashells with googly eyes and joke T-shirts. My favorite reads: WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN CHEESES!
The Beau looms in the distance. The glass top floor shimmers gold in the sun. At thirty-two stories, it’s the tallest building in Biloxi, and Papa told me once that you can judge a town by its tallest building. What the Beau tells Biloxi is: The world is full of second chances; you can still strike it rich.
Not all casinos are created equal. In Vegas, I’ve walked into some that haven’t been remodeled since Elvis expired, and I’ve walked right out because I couldn’t see through the cigarette smoke and despair. The Beau reopened after
a rebuild a year after Katrina, and among Biloxi’s casinos, she’s a beauty. The lobby is brightly lit and full of flowers. It’s seventy-two degrees and humidity free. My hair will never look so good. I hand over my credit card and get my key.
“You must be from New York City,” a lady in a mesh bikini says to me in the elevator.
“How did you know?” I ask. I think, Because I’m so chic?
“Because you are as white as my teeth.”
She’s right—I don’t tan. I never set foot on the beach. I get a Gulf-view room instead, admire the surf, and agree with the English translation of the resort’s name—“beautiful shoreline.” Then I head to the second-floor ballrooms, where the annual Million Dollar Heater poker tournament takes place. Papa greets me with a bear hug, and we are assigned to different poker tables. The energy of the coming war is electric. But when I take my seat, I’m as comfortable as if I’m sitting on a front porch.
Chips ruffle like crickets. The air smells like mint dip and cologne. Nearly all the players are men and, with rare exception, mind their manners. They share pictures of their kids and dogs on iPhones, or forearm tattoos. Their cadences are warm.
One says, “Ma’am, you don’t play like you look.”
“How do I look?”
“You look like a librarian, but you play like a beast.”
Beast is a compliment I prefer over pretty or nice. To be a good poker player, you have to be a bully. At the Beau, I’m encouraged to be my true self.
One man says to a new player, “Beware the librarian.” Another adds, “She’ll take you to school!”
In Atlantic City, I’m tagged with the generic and sexist “sweetheart” or “doll.” But these Beau men are the creative descendants of Pat Conroy and Tennessee Williams. Here, I’m the Giggling Assassin. The Velvet Terrorist. But what I really am, like nowhere else, when I’m elbow-deep in chips and squeezed between Texas Hold’em players in SEC championship T-shirts, is a daddy’s girl. As I’m putting another player to the test, I’ll sense Papa standing behind me, as proud as he was when he watched me play baseball when I was ten years old, the only girl in Little League because he agreed to coach. My father, the feminist, also taught me to play poker. His rule for both games: Don’t let the boys scare you.
But just because I’m brave doesn’t mean I won’t lose. My pocket aces get cracked. My straight loses to a river flush. I bluff and get called. I’m knocked out, but not for good.
I split a steak with my father, pay my hotel bill, and fly home. Yet I always come back. Because the Beau is my beacon. I burn to play in its light.