I recently took a trip to Dallas to support my friend Alex “Assassinato” Fitzgerald in his latest rap battle. My initial plan was to attend the Heartland Poker Tour stop in Vickburg, MS and then drive the Nitmobile over to Dallas. After deciding to skip the HPT, I opted to fly to Dallas instead.
My new plan was to rent a car and use it as a hotel for a few days like the card carrying bum that I am. Luckily for me, there was a small SUV available for the economy size price I’d paid. I grabbed it before the three large women in line behind me, who scolded me for taking it when I was rolling solo. Sorry Charlie’s Angels, but you snooze, you lose. That night, I slept for free in a Walmart parking lot thanks to my rental that I called the Nitmobile Part Deux.
The next day, I got in touch with Alex and he invited me over to the place where he was staying. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that it was a house and not a hotel. Alex lives in Costa Rica. How does he have a house in Dallas? Turns out, he was staying with his friend Mario Silvestri.
Mario is a member of the famed poker crew The Ship It Holla Ballas which also consisted of guys like Tom Dwan and Phil Galfond. They were a group of very young internet players who took the poker world by storm in the beginning of the Moneymaker era. They were well known for their high stakes play and extravagant purchases. When I came on to the scene back in 2013, I remember describing myself as the Anti-Ship It Holla Balla on the Thinking Poker Podcast. Funny that I ended up in one of their homes just 2 years later.
Mario and I clicked right away. Alex told him about my Twitch stream and he offered me a ton of great advice on it. The three of us hung out all night and talked about poker, life, and hip hop. Afterwards, I was prepared to head home to the back seat of the rental, but Mario offered me a couch to crash on. These late night conversations and this type of hospitality to strangers is such an under represented aspect of poker culture, and honestly, it is one of the most appealing to me. Moments like these make me think about Sheldon Adelson and laugh. He has no idea who we are.
The next day was go time for Alex. He is a world renowned poker coach primarily, but battle rapping is something he does for sport. Today would be his third rap battle and he was excited for it. Mario and Alex along with his wife and sister drove to the battle and I followed behind in the SUV. The venue was a boxing ring in the middle of a ghetto. This neighborhood was similar to the type of place I am from. I’ve always wanted to open something like this gym to keep the neighborhood kids back home out of trouble. It was pretty cool to see it in reality.
We watched an amateur boxing match and then it was time for Alex’s battle. He and his opponent Canon got into the ring backed up by their supporters. I stood behind Alex the whole time and offered up a few “LFGs” as loudly as my raspy voice could, which was not much to be fair. In my opinion, Alex won the first round and Canon won the second.
In the third, Canon started with one of the calmest battle rap verses of all time. There weren’t many insults hurled at Alex, just general statements about American and Mexican race relations. He even asked the crowd to be quiet and listen instead of cheering. I wondered, “What is he doing? This sounds like a poem.” I even decided to mock him afterwards by snapping my fingers in faux appreciation. In my mind, he’d just thrown the match and I waited in anticipation for Alex to knock that underhand pitch he threw out the park.
Then I waited…and waited some more. Crap! Alex forgot the opening line to his third round. I felt so bad for my brother. All I could do was stand with him in silence which is what you most need when you or trying to remember something. That said, it was cool to see his opponent encourage him by saying things like “you got this man” and giving him as much time as he needed. Eventually, he remembered his lines and finished the battle, but I think he lost the round by default.
Afterwards, Alex and Canon discussed the battle. Turns out, Canon’s third actually was a poem he’d written years ago. The two continued to encourage and thank each other as we watched the remaining battles. In the last battle of the night, one of the rappers passed out in the middle of his verse. Luckily, Alex’s wife is a doctor and knew what to do. Even his opponent, who was only minutes ago yelling harsh threats at him, stayed by his side to make sure he was ok. Everything turned out fine.
Battle rap reminds me a lot of poker in that way. In game, we go for each other’s necks, but afterwards we generally look out for one another. Whether it’s a Costa Rican woman trying to revive a black man she’d never met in a Dallas ghetto or a Ship It Holla Balla offering up a couch he paid for with high stakes winnings to a homeless small stakes life nit, both hip hop and poker have a way of bringing the best out of good people.
That said, they also bring the worst out of bad people. It’s just a matter of perspective. You get to choose what you pay attention to. It’s not fair to say hip hop sucks without considering the best it has to offer and it’s not fair to say poker should be outlawed without considering the incredible friendships it has spawned.