When We’re Not Hustling is an interview series by Jessie Sage that features sex workers talking about what they do when they’re not working.
In this new Peepshow interview series, I talk to sex workers about what they do when they aren’t hustling. In this first iteration, award-winning cam model and clip producer Melody Kush tells me about her love of… POKER!
So, how did you get into poker playing? Did your parents play when you were growing up?
My parents come from farm families but they both went to university and they ended up moving to British Columbia [where I grew up], and my mom got a job at Harley Davidson as an accountant and my dad was a big biker dude. So, I grew up in this family of bikers and gamblers.
My dad used to have friends over every second weekend to gamble at his house. We used to listen to the radio blasting in the backyard. My hustle started back then: I used to make money by going to get beers for my dad’s friends or requesting songs for them on the radio.
Eventually my dad said, “Why don’t you play against my buddy?” We played a game of cribbage, and I won! It gave me a taste for winning and playing cards. I was 8 years old, and it made me want to learn more.
Two weekends later I was back at my dad’s house playing cribbage again. The highest hand you can get in cribbage is 29, and it is a very specific combination of Jacks and 5s. I got a 28 hand, which basically means one of my cards was off by one suit. I remember my dad losing his freaking mind, it was incredible! I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
How did you start playing poker as an adult?
In the mid 2000s I started hanging out with a group of friends who were really into poker. I would play tournaments with these friends. We started with one live game a week, then two, and then three. Eventually I was playing 5 nights a week.
I used to clean up! The most I made in home games in one week was $800. It wasn’t always like that, though. That was a high week. But being immersed in this whole poker world I got to learn a lot just by watching the good people play. I would also watch poker on TV, I ate it up.
When I moved to Montreal, I lost all my poker friends. I picked up online play and started playing on Poker Stars. I don’t play huge tournaments online, but I do play micro-stakes online. I have had the same rotating balance for a long time because I keep winning my money back.
When I play in real life with friends, it has to be for money, and it has to be worth it.
Do you have any superstitions or routines related to how you play?
If I am playing like crap, if I lose a game, I will put on Elton John. When I listen to Elton John, and I immediately start playing better. This hasn’t happened once or twice, but dozens of times.
I also can’t drink when I play but I have to smoke a joint. Smoking pot is just part of my play. Maybe it relaxes me, maybe it is just a bar thing.
How are women treated within these poker circles?
In more recent years, more women have been emerging, but if they are doing well it is always the big story. But there are more and more women playing, and some that are extremely good.
When I play online on Poker Stars, though, I portray myself as a man. Or rather, I don’t clearly portray myself as a woman. People would take me less seriously online if they knew I was a woman.
What do you like about playing poker?
I like the strategy and the rush. Anytime I have a good hand my heart starts beating. I am competitive by nature. I love trying to figure out new strategies. The best thing is putting it all out on the line and knowing you have the best hand. That rush is totally worth it. And, you know, winning money is always interesting.
Do you play with your partner?
Actually, my partner is really good! He is competitive as well, he’s a gamer. When we play together we usually get first and second place. My love of poker actually led us to our engagement.
Before I got into sex work, going to Las Vegas was an absolute dream of mine. I wanted to play poker in Vegas. One year, my partner had a business trip down there. It was just after Valentine’s Day and we decided we would celebrate Valentine’s Day in Vegas.
When we get down there I open the door to our room and there are heart-shaped roses on the bed, chocolate covered strawberries, champagne, a dozen roses by the window. Then he dropped down on one knee and proposed. Of course, I said yes! He wanted to propose in Vegas because he knew how much going to Vegas meant to me.
I had a lot of time to myself that week because he was there on business. But there I was, at this point: I’m in Vegas, I just got engaged, I had a big fat ring (falling off my finger because it was a bit big) that was full of little diamonds and I think, “I’m going to go play some poker!”
I went to the tournament wearing a blue wig and these big fat sunglasses; I looked like a teenager from hell. The tournament is a bunch of dudes. I sat down at the table and everyone looked at me like, “Who the fuck is this girl?”
But in the first round of hands I played really well, I was cleaning up! My heart was jumping out of my chest. I was so happy, I was on a cloud. I only made it a little bit more than halfway through the tournament so I didn’t win any money that day, but that experience felt like something I had been waiting for my whole life.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).