04/19/2006 12:00AM

On the freeway or at the table, the action's fast


If you're ever stuck in Queens on a Tuesday night and looking for a game, just hop on the Van Wyck as if you were going to Aqueduct, but get off at Hillside, make a right at Metropolitan, and you're there. Watch the traffic. Drivers on the Van Wyck are like poker players who draw to inside straights.

There will be a guy and a peephole - just like in the movies. Tell the guy that Guyanese Terry sent you, and you will be in action. Tuesday night is $30-$60 hi-lo split night, so it's really not a lot of action, but a game is a game so you might as well pull up a chair.

I ended up at this game on a recent Tuesday night as favor to Wayne the Brew because I owed Wayne money. Wayne was there because Guyanese Terry - from Guyana with a background in cricket - is the ringer pitcher on Wayne's softball team, and Terry won't play unless Wayne brings a fish to his game. Remember, this is a hi-lo game with a limit, so it's not really poker. It's more a combination of bingo, the lottery, and canasta, and pretty much anybody qualifies as a fish in any one of those categories.

The rest of the gang sitting around the table was the same crew that sat around the table at the joint on 72nd Street before it was raided and closed, and before that they sat at the now-famous Mayfair Club before the place was raided and closed. Now they have to drag themselves halfway out to Kennedy Airport for a game.

While the poker world is a very close-knit community, where everybody has known everybody for years, there is hardly ever a formal introduction so nobody ever knows anybody else's last name. Instead, you end up with a moniker equal to your most obvious trait. Wayne the Brew is a drunk. Phil, who wears a yarmulke, is Phil the Rabbi. Joe Bagels sells bagels. Gary the Dentist . . . well, he isn't a heart surgeon. You get the idea.

The game as a whole makes for a very nice environment. There is always plenty to eat and drink, served by friendly young ladies who always have a smile. The flat-panel plasma TV's are always showing the game. There's a smoking lounge for those who indulge, and they even have an in-house masseuse. Everything, of course, is compliments of the house. In addition to hi-lo night, Tuesdays is lasagna night. But get there early, John the Painter doesn't eat at home and comes with a very healthy appetite.

They even give you a stack of chips on the "sheet." No cash, settle at the end of the night - and they take checks!

Unfortunately, the only thing missing is a real poker game. Sure it's a nice, happy place, but the game is still hi-lo limit - and playing hi-lo limit for any extended period of time is a sure-fire invitation to the funny farm.

First of all, as a limit game, nobody folds - ever! A sledgehammer to the forehead will still induce a call. Couple that with the split-pot aspect, with the weaker players always believing they have an out, and there are always at least three players in until the end. So no matter how tight or solid that you play, a minimum of two players are drawing against you on the river - and one of them always gets there to win half the pot.

So even when you win, you lose. With three players in until the end with $100 each invested, the pot's $300. When $150 goes to the high hand and $150 goes to the low, the odds are 1-2, and taking odds of 1-2 on a 1-2 shot is no way to gamble. You can't win when the odds are even, you can only lose. Toss in the house rake of $16 an hour to play (the lasagna really isn't free), and you are bound to go broke.

In this particular game, they collect the rake every half hour and change dealers. This affords the players a two-minute break, as well as a free Yiddish lesson from Phil the Rabbi while the next dealer shuffles a new deck and collects the $8 from each player.

"Eight dollars, schmeight dollars," yells Phil. "Stop being a putz, and deal the far kakte cards already."

In theory, however, for a player of skill, hi-lo split is one the most profitable forms of poker. There are a strict set of rules that, when adhered to, makes the game a near-stealing proposition. Things like: Always play for low and try to catch a high. Never play through a brick (a face card). Have the nuts or be drawing to the nuts. And never, ever draw for half the pot.

These are very simple rules. Abide by them to make a profit. But not making a right-hand turn from the left-hand lane on the Van Wyck is also a very simple rule, and people don't always pay attention to that one either.

Kurt Paseka, a former turf writer, is a regular at New York City tracks and has cashed in the main event at the World Series of Poker.