Editor’s Note: I originally wrote this story in 1996 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our once-a-month poker game, which I’ve been attending for more than half my life. It’s been continuously updated over the years. It’s also been rejected by some of the finest magazines in the country, including Playboy and the New Yorker.

 

Shown here are some of the characters I describe in the story that follows. These guys constitute the Southwestern Connecticut Poker Association (SWCPA). This picture was taken in February 2006 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of our game. Although all of the gentlemen shown here are currently alive, most are not exactly in what you would call the “flower of their youth,” so it’s doubtful they’ll all be ambulatory for too much longer.


Shut Up and Deal

It is not true that life is one damn thing after another —
it’s one damn thing over and over.

                                         — Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

When the first stained and dog-eared card hit the unwashed Formica of my kitchen table, none of us knew we were committing to a relationship that would last longer than some of our marriages. We were just five guys getting together on a Thursday night to play a little poker. No one would have guessed we’d still be at it more than 30 years later.

That first game was played in my first bachelor apartment — a seedy place without a shower curtain, a dishwasher or a vacuum cleaner. None of us had a good job or much money. The stakes were low, and the level of play was even lower. But we were glad to have a table to sit around, and my kitchen stocked cheaper beer than any of the local bars.

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. Halfway through the night, someone fired up a chunk of hashish, and the game immediately began to degenerate. Dealers couldn’t remember what games they’d called, no one was sure what was wild and we all forgot if straights beat flushes. After a game that ended with no one able to claim the pot, we gave up on gambling and took turns at the air hockey table, which was my only decent piece of furniture. Once we’d made enough noise to get the neighbors pounding on the walls, we gave up on sports as well and settled for finishing up all the beer and drugs we had left.

Nowadays, of course, such behavior would be socially, if not politically incorrect, but you have to remember that, in 1976 — the tail end of the 60s — we felt no urge to “just say no” to much of anything. Those long-haired guys with their scruffy clothes and no responsibilities would have felt little in common with the balding, paunchy and respectable group of middle-aged semi-Republicans they would eventually become. With middle age upon us, we say “no” to all kinds of things, from beer and salty pretzels to tobacco, red meat and hot peppers ... but not on poker night.

Decades at the Table

Of the five original players, four are still charter members. Jeff, whose blood pressure could blow out a steel-belted radial, still spends one Friday night a month smoking cigars, eating potato chips and complaining about games with too many wild cards. Despite career changes, getting rich, getting married, getting divorced and moving to a horse farm, Dave held the distinction of going 16 straight years without missing a single game. Fred’s attendance became spotty in the late 70s and early 80s, but, after all, he did get married once and divorced twice during that stretch. The final member of the original five went him one better — he’s had two weddings and two divorces. Although he left the group when he moved out to the tip of Long Island, he still asks if the game goes on.

At first, the game sputtered, coming and going sporadically as the months passed. There were times when it nearly died out altogether, but then someone would volunteer to host, and we’d start it up again. Over the years, Bob, Mark, Ken and Paul have joined the group as permanent members, but early on, players came and went so quickly that some have become shadowy, almost legendary figures in the annals of the game.

There was the printer who came twice, never won a single hand and lost every nickel he brought both times. Surprisingly, he never complained. Not surprisingly, he didn’t show up a third time. On nights when I’m losing really badly, I miss him.

Another of the early participants called games so complicated it took longer to explain them than to play them. He lost his money every bit as fast as the printer, but failed to take defeat as philosophically. After dropping his entire stake within the first two hours, he left in a huff. He was a rather surly fellow, and most of us were relieved he never came back, although I suspect all poker players have a warm spot for a guy who never wins.

For nearly a year, Fred brought his wife’s brother to the game, but their relationship soured when he found out Fred was playing “hide-the-salami” with every woman in Fairfield and Westchester County capable of pronouncing the word “yes.” The brother-in-law was a big, scary-looking guy who could have ripped out Fred’s lungs and scrotum without breaking a sweat. Fred stopped inviting him to the game about the same time as his wife invited him to move out of his house. Left penniless by her lawyers, Fred moved in with me for nearly a year. He shared the living room for a time with my roommate’s dog, who had a bladder the size of a raisin and often mistook Fred’s sleeping bag for a tree. Despite such hardships, he usually managed to scrape together enough money for poker.

For several years, Bob’s roommate was a regular, but his commitment to the game was always shaky. He sometimes showed up late after a date had ended early, or left the table early for a late-night liaison. A player who puts women so far ahead of gambling that he can’t devote one night a month to unalloyed male bonding is not a guy you can count on. (In his defense, however, it should be noted that he once showed up on his motorcycle in the dead of winter carrying nothing but his 50-dollar stake and the empty flask of vodka he’d polished off on the ride over.) He quit the game about the same time as he went on the wagon. I think his AA group may have convinced him that our group was a bad influence on him — they were probably right.

And then there was Bill, a character who brought a special talent to the table. He could turn a profit making change from the pot, he anted only when he felt like it and he could look like he was betting even when the chips never left his fingers. He played for several years and never seemed to lose any money, even on nights when he couldn’t win a hand. When we were made aware just how dishonest he was, Jeff proposed we each select one of Bill’s fingers and break it, while the more spineless of us suggested we just stop telling him when the games were being held. The invertebrates eventually won out.

I once made the mistake of bringing a “real poker player,” to the game. He was appalled by our lack of protocol. Clearly this was not the serious gambling to which he was accustomed. Not with games like Woolworth’s (fives and tens wild) or Indian Head Poker (also known as Headsies), where the cards are placed one at time on your forehead so you can see everyone’s hand but your own ... not when you can pick out the king of diamonds by the shape of the salsa stain on its reverse side ... not when a card being dealt is accidentally flipped over, and the recipient can opt to keep it or take another ... and certainly not when a player holding six cards in a game of Five-Card Draw can have the dealer pull one out of his hand at random and throw it on the discard pile.

After a couple hours, my guest must have felt he was playing Old Maid in some lower circle of gambler’s hell. His distaste for our game was exacerbated by having to sit next to Bill all night and watch him steal the rest of us blind. Although he never came back, fingering the cheat was his contribution to the lore of the game.

Discovering there’d been a thief in our midst threw a pall over the group for months. The specter of someone stealing from his buddies in a friendly game made us all a little cynical. It was like being told your mother had once checked into a motel with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. We became paranoid about the pot and suspicious of one another, jumping all over anyone who forgot to ante. It took at least a year for this malaise to pass. When Ken took Bill’s place at the table, he became the “cop” who looked after the pot. And, eventually, the rest of us began to trust each other again.

These days, the only guy we don’t entirely trust is Fred. During both of his marriages, he would occasionally cancel out at the last minute when “something better came up.” Now we sometimes speculate where he might be when he misses a game or is more than a half hour late. After all, we’re all in one place, and our wives are at home. Fred knows where we all live and what time we’ll be returning ... and we all know Fred. While we’re innocently playing a few hands of Seven-Card Stud or Screw Your Neighbor, it’s not hard to imagine him going from house to house with his own variations. Luckily, he’s getting older now, and things seem to “come up” more rarely for him now than they used to, so we can all rest a little easier.

Law and Order

While a “real gambler” might see our game as far too informal, another of our guests took exactly the opposite view. Spaulding was a free-spirited photographer, who reminded me of the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. His first night in the game, he had to be constantly reminded that we were there to play cards. More than one of his games commenced with the cheerful admonition to “shut up and deal.” Spaulding also spent less time shuffling than he did rolling joints. By nine o’clock, there were more of them circling the table than there were people to pass them.

The last time any drugs had appeared at a game had been a year or two earlier when someone had brought an especially potent batch of sensimilla to Mark’s house. Mark was new to the group at the time and obviously horrified that illegal activities were taking place right in his own home. Some of us began behaving the same way we had at the inaugural game, and, as far as Mark was concerned, we might just as well have been tying off our arms and shooting up heroin in his living room. When Bob spaced out in mid-deal, a single card waving slowly in his hand like a diving board, Mark looked fearfully around the table at his guests as if they’d suddenly turned into the Manson Family.

Since that time, the unofficial rules have dictated that no one imbibe anything strong enough to incapacitate the game, and few drugs at all have been used since the middle of the Reagan Administration. The fear of drunk driving citations has cut down on our boozing as well, although car pooling helps in this area, and the host is unofficially looked to as the “designated drunk,” since he’s already home.

Over the years, the official game rules have evolved to the point where they might seem overly structured to an outsider. For example, we always end the evening by having the deal go once around the table at a specified time. When Spaulding naively asked why we couldn’t play past this point if we felt like it, we reacted like the College of Cardinals being offered glow-in-the-dark condoms. No one could explain why this couldn’t happen, except to say that “we don’t do that.” (Although his question was certainly a legitimate one, when Spaulding brought his high-strung little dog to the next game, we decided we’d had enough and didn’t ask him back.)

The fact that our game is to serious gambling what donkey basketball is to the NBA hasn’t stopped us from developing an extensive set of rules. To settle disputes, we’ve drawn up “The Bylaws,” which include the rules of etiquette, hosting rotation, players’ phone numbers and the finer points of some of the more arcane games, such as what’s wild when a queen is turned up last in a game of Follow the Queen.

Revisions to The Bylaws are proposed, debated and voted on at the “business meeting,” which is held at the start of each game. (The rules of the meeting are themselves codified in The Bylaws.) Obscure points of order are wrangled over the way that medieval monks once questioned how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. As fundamentalists have established doctrine in the light of biblical inerrancy, so too have we canonized chapter and verse of these scriptures.

Like strict constructionist jurists, we’ve debated a game’s conformity with the “original intent” of The Bylaws as if we were the Supreme Court deciding constitutionality. When Spaulding was informed that the deal could not go twice around the table at the end of the night, we couldn’t bring ourselves to tell him it was because Rule #10, proposed and ratified in 1984, specifically proscribes such behavior.

Us and Them

We didn’t tell him because he wouldn’t have understood. Over the years, an insularity has developed that makes any newcomer to the table an outsider. As the rules have become etched in stone, so too has the group itself solidified. New players tend to interfere with the smooth flow of the game, because they lack a grasp of its idiosyncrasies, which are second nature to the rest of us. And if Fred is there, things are bogged down enough already, since he’s been playing like a new guy since the Carter administration. (No brain surgeon, Fred plays like a man with a lobotomy — glaciers move faster than he figures out what’s in his hand.)

New players also tend to cramp the veterans’ styles. When I first brought Paul to the game, we all felt a little uncomfortable about their normal childish behavior. It was like having a friend over to meet your family and being afraid that weird Uncle Ernie might come out of the basement wearing a cocktail dress and a string of pearls. (For some reason, people always assume that everyone else is more normal than they are, when, in fact, all families have crazy relatives hidden away somewhere.)

Paul is an easygoing guy who was eventually accepted, and now no one is inhibited by his presence. (It also helps that he continues to empty out his wallet with such aplomb.) After a rousing endorsement — “Let’s keep him; he never wins” — Paul was first made an alternate, then later became a regular.

We first needed an alternate because Mark was missing so many games with a dizzying array of minor ailments. He was the first of our group to enter middle age, having crossed that threshold in his late 20s. Besides allergies to everything from wool to watercress, he has the digestive tract of a 10-month-old baby: anything spicier than cream of wheat gives him heartburn, and a dash of paprika would probably land him in the emergency room. He once rashly ate a small bowl of poker game chili, then spent the rest of the night yelling “deal me out” from the bathroom.

As an alternate, Paul’s job was to fill in when Mark drank more than half a beer after work or put too much cinnamon in his tapioca. He also came when Fred didn’t quite make it to the game. Nowadays, he may also be responsible for lying about Fred’s whereabouts if his live-in girlfriend should call to check on him. Perhaps this will be clarified when Revision Y of The Bylaws is issued.

A few years back, I went to someone else’s game, and suddenly I was the outsider. I could feel them checking out my reaction to their behavior, and I found it strange that I could inhibit an entire group. What was most striking about that group was how similar it was to ours. It was as if we’d all been sloppily cloned and moved to a new location. They had a “cop” who watched over the money and a “grouch” who complained about everybody else. They even had a guy who needed everything explained to him incessantly, and, just as with our “dummy,” I was suspicious that he might be smarter than he appeared, although only a little.

Their rules, which they followed as zealously as we do ours, seemed strangely inconsistent. While dealing, I was castigated for briefly allowing the deck to go out of sight below the level of the table. This struck me as rather picayune, considering we played several hands with only 51 cards, because the nine of diamonds was lying face up and unnoticed on the floor. There also seemed to be some strict and esoteric law about the number of raises allowed, but it was nearly impossible to enforce, since no one in the game made even the slightest attempt to bet in turn.

At one point, the host’s girlfriend wandered through. In another setting, she would have had a lot going for her — good looking, scantily clad and pleasantly drunk — yet no one paid much attention to her. And her boyfriend made her feel about as welcome as Yasser Arafat at a bris. In general, no one seems to know the proper etiquette for dealing with a woman while sitting behind a pile of poker chips: most guys suppress a belch, smile and hope she’ll just go away.

Of course, women seem to enjoy being in the same house as a poker game as little as the men enjoy having them there. For the most part, wives exist as distant figures moving somewhere on the periphery, and most of them treat the table as if it were the center of a toxic waste spill anyway. A wife’s contribution to the game is to help with or criticize the food beforehand, leave the area during and help clean up afterward ... and good luck with that last task.

One major difference between my regular game and the one I visited was the menu. Their idea of dinner was a big bowl of generic potato chips and a partially resealed bag of soggy pretzels left over from their previous get-together. In this regard, their game must have been at a somewhat earlier stage of its evolution.

At our very first game, drug use induced an uncontrollable attack of “the munchies.” Being young and irresponsible, we’d made no provisions for this eventuality, and my refrigerator was chronically short on solid food anyway. Luckily, my girlfriend at the time had had the foresight to buy several pounds of roast beef and put together a platter of sandwiches. When we stumbled on them behind the beer cans in the refrigerator, we wolfed them down as if it were our first encounter with food.

(This sort of thoughtfulness — coupled with the way she looked in a tight dress — helped convince me I might want to marry her, which I did the following year. Nevertheless, I still don’t want her around when I’m hosting a game. On poker night, her butt, like any other woman’s, looks best when it’s on its way out the door.)

As the game has developed, it has become the host’s responsibility to supply a tasty and non-nutritious meal. Poker food consists of something from each of the five basic food groups: grease, salt, chemical preservatives, artificial color and animal by-products. The standard fare is a large kettle of boiled hot dogs and a big pot of chili. In the competition for the most inedible chili, Ken has a recipe that includes pinto beans, cumin and a dash of hydrochloric acid. Mark, who’s never learned to use his stove, serves a variant of this specialty that comes from a can, but of course, he’s unable to eat any of it.

Dave will occasionally get adventurous and try lasagna or chicken enchiladas. There have even been murmurings about a nice broccoli quiche with a tossed salad, but no one has shown the bad taste to actually follow through on such an unmanly threat. Meanwhile, Fred has learned to make a venison stew that’s out of this world. It may be just my imagination, but I think we bet more aggressively after sucking up a few bowls of deer meat. It’s as if we all want to play like lumberjacks. Of course, none of us has ever even met a lumberjack.

Early on, Fred once attempted to pass off a single pizza snack tray as dinner for seven hungry guys. It took us less than 30 seconds to polish off the two dozen minuscule appetizers. When the realization sank in that this really was all we were going to get, we descended on his kitchen like locusts, eating everything that wasn’t nailed down or frozen. (Luckily for his freezer, this was prior to the advent of the microwave.) The last item on the menu was the lunch box Fred’s stepson expected to take with him to summer camp the next day. The low point of poker meal history was surely reached with the combination of Twinkies, beer, and peanut butter and jelly. A poker game is no place for children or their lunches.

All in the Family

In many ways, our group is like a semi-adult, all-male family that only gets together on holidays. Although some of us are old friends, many of us have never even seen each other outside the game. I once met Mark at his place of employment. Even after he said my name, I barely recognized him, dressed as he was in his gray financial planner’s suit. And I don’t think I’d know Ken at all unless he was sitting across a table from me in a baseball cap, chomping on a smelly cigar and stepping all over my bluffs.

We’re the sort of low-class family that checks its dignity at the door and feels good about it. The gluttony, the insults, the drunken pleas of “Jack me!” for a one-eyed wild card, the cigar smoking and the belching (or worse) would be out of place anywhere else, but then the game itself is a slice of life unlike the rest of our lives — it’s more like the silly way children act with their siblings.

At the same time, this group is artificial in a way a family never could be. You can’t pick your family, but we have, over the years, chosen this group. One prospective member joined the game for more than a year and even hosted once or twice. He stopped coming when Bob, who’d brought him in the first place, decided he didn’t really like him well enough to see him so often. A vote was taken, and the new guy’s own sponsor had him bounced.

It’s taken a long time, and many players have come and gone, but we’ve finally managed to assemble a group in which everyone in the game seems to like everyone else, even those they’ve never seen away from the table. Jeff is the only exception: he hates all of us, including me, and I’m his brother. It was Jeff who seconded Paul’s nomination for membership with the affirmation, “I guess he’s no worse than the rest of the assholes you’ve brought.”

Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I like my own poker family better than any of the others I’ve visited. I once played at a clambake with a group of guys who seemed to have known each other forever. If they had a set of Bylaws, it was a very short document. The only games allowed were Five-Card Draw, Five-Card Stud and Seven-Card Stud. Although I didn’t have the nerve to say so, this seemed about as exciting as using the missionary position for the rest of my life. Clearly, there would be no Indian Head Poker played in this setting. And when I asked about wild cards, they looked at me as if I’d suggested Chutes and Ladders.

Looking back, I see that group as somehow stunted in its makeup. Not only was there little variety in the games they played, there was even less variation among the participants. Not only was everyone a “cop,” but they all seemed to be the sort of surly fascists who were anxious to jump down your throat for any breach of protocol. As much as I like my brother Jeff, I hope I never again find myself sitting around a table with six of him.

In their game, if the dealer accidentally flipped a card over, a misdeal was declared, and the dealer had to match the pot, while everyone else grumbled and rolled their eyes in disgust. I was so afraid of making a mistake that, each time I dealt, it felt like a major ordeal. I can’t really enjoy playing a game that’s so much like a job ... but to each his own. I suppose they would have looked at our group as a bunch of junk-game playin’, cheap-cigar smokin’, sloppy-ass dealin’, limp-wrist bettin’ fairies.

It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose ...

More than one NBA basketball player has said that you can tell a great deal about a man by how he is on the court, because the way you play says a lot about the way you are. Applied to poker players, it is, like most clichés, both fact and fiction.

Dave is a stuffy, predictable fellow who plays exactly as one would expect him to. He bluffs only in the odd-numbered months, and, if he loses big, he can be counted on not to try it again until Patrick Buchanan leads the Gay Pride Parade.

Jeff takes pride in being a purist, as well as a grouch. He plays with a no-nonsense style and complains about everything, from the way other people bet to the freshness of the Cheese Doodles. He claims to hate gimmicky games, but after a night of losing his shirt, he might surprise everyone with a desperate call of Day Baseball, Low Spade Splits the Pot.

Mark is a laconic, passive sort who has never driven a car faster than 40 miles an hour. He’ll sit back and quietly see the bets of two more macho players who are loudly raising each other back and forth. When the duel is over, he’ll often blithely lay down some great cards and walk away with the pot.

Bob is a sharp, entrepreneurial type who loses with an artistry that defies logic. If someone has kings and sevens, somehow he’ll manage to slide under with kings and sixes. With Bob, no hand is good enough to absolutely guarantee a win. Despite being highly competitive, Bob seems to take an almost perverse delight in finding new ways to lose with great cards. Years of being burned have bred in him a dismayed resignation.

While Bob loses with élan and panache, Paul loses drearily and consistently, showing neither style in defeat nor dismay at his fate. He rarely gets good cards and seldom stays in a hand long enough to amass anything worth betting on anyway. Outside the game he’s free with his money — the kind of guy who likes to pick up the tab in bars — but once he gets to the table, the smallest raise can have him running for the exits.

Even more incongruous is the swashbuckling style of Ken, a conservative, middle-class accountant and father of two, who’ll bet the farm on nothing and once dipped into the mortgage money to hold a hand with a 10 as his high card. Because Ken has more cojones than the rest of us put together, he totally dominated the game of Guts, one of our more adventurous and expensive choices. That came to an end when dealers began adding extra rules (“anti-Ken countermeasures”) to level the playing field, much as the NBA once widened the three-second lane to keep Wilt Chamberlain from scoring too easily.

But the most improbable of all is Fred. There is something almost mystical about the way he continues to win, year after year, when he seems to have only the vaguest idea of what’s going on around him.

There must be a thousand Freds in a thousand games like ours on any Friday night. The literature on the subject — from The Odd Couple to Gerald Green’s wonderful short story, “The Bremen Six” — makes it seem that there are primeval archetypes for the configuration of poker groups. Just as gravity governs the formation of solar systems, some immutable laws of physics must pull such groups together. We are inexorably drawn to a place where we can relieve our friends of small amounts of money and then rub their noses in it. No one is hurt too badly, and everyone eventually gets his turn to inflict a little bit of pain on his buddies.

The motivation to win is less fiscal than it is sadistic. A popular query to direct at a player who’s gone 0 for his first 15 or 20 games is, “Take a hand yet?” In some places, that might get you a set of knuckles upside your ear, but we prefer the more civilized, “No, I haven’t, but I did take your wife, doggie style, this afternoon.”

Even on a losing night, you can always take pleasure from the fact that, while you’re home in bed, your host will still be scraping dried chili off his carpet and trying to get the festering poker odor out of his living room before his wife gets a whiff of it. (Depending on a room’s size and ventilation, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a fortnight.) The sadism that permeates the game would be far less enjoyable with a bunch of strangers, because there aren’t the years of grudges to avenge, and because it’s always more fun to hurt the ones you love.

Over the years, we’ve weathered divorces, separations, job losses, the passage of kidney stones and the deaths of family members, but they’ve intruded only minimally on the game. One of the poker table’s great attractions is that it can be a safe haven where you leave the rest of your life behind. If you need sympathy, go to a therapist, a priest or a bartender. It’s unwise to expect kind words from someone who’s spent years listening to you gloat about how much money you’ve taken from him. And, if you whine about your problems long enough, expect to be told to “just shut up and deal.”

When Ken was laid off from his job right after taking on a large mortgage, the players were sympathetic ... for a while. But by 9:00 p.m., Ken was up a big pile, and Jeff was compassionate enough to point out that he was betting like a jerk, particularly for a guy with a wife, two kids and no job. When I lost my job, I was not surprised to find a definite lack of sympathy on the part of my comrades. Ken was quick to point out that the “sweetest cash” to take from someone is his severance pay, and Mark added that, in a few short months, my unemployment checks were going to be even sweeter.

Of course, poker is more than just fun and cruelty. There’s a commitment involved as well. During those times when it seemed the game might go by the wayside, I think we held it together because it’s now something we’ve come to value. As with any family, every once in a while you have to work a little to maintain the relationship.

Just getting to and from the games these days requires an extra effort. At first, we all lived within a few miles of one another, but these days we’re in seven different towns, spread out over two states. Driving 40 miles in the middle of the night after three or four hot dogs, a couple bowls of chili and several quarts of beer is not quite the perfect end to an evening.

At least we no longer play on Thursdays. In our youth, we scheduled the games to avoid interfering with our more exciting Friday night activities. Now that we’ve fully crossed over into middle age, the game is one of our more exciting Friday night activities. Besides, after years of going to work one Friday a month half asleep or hung over, we decided it would be a wise career move for all of us if we switched the game to Fridays.

Another wise move was never playing at Paul’s house. Since joining the game, he offered to host several times. Unfortunately, he lived in Bridgeport, the murder capital of Connecticut, and none of us white-bread suburban guys, including Paul, was anxious to go there. While the image of Bat Masterson dramatically placing a six-shooter on the table in a Wild West poker game is a romantic one, the same cannot be said for the sound of assault rifle fire coming from the liquor store down the street. I don’t feel safe in Bridgeport in broad daylight in a tank, so the thought of driving through it at 1:00 a.m. was a bit more than I could handle.

In contrast, Dave lived for a time on an unlit country lane nearly an hour from civilization (i.e., my house). One Friday night as we pulled out of his driveway, we all made the mistake of getting behind Mark. No one could pass him on the narrow, winding road, and God himself could not have made Mark go faster than 20 miles an hour. I was directly behind him for miles, where I could watch his brake lights come on each time an oncoming car approached or the road curved more than 10 degrees: He works that brake pedal like Buddy Rich on his bass drum.

Before long, a line of cars had piled up, forming a snaking chain of headlights that stretched out behind us over the horizon. The last car in that crawling convoy must have wondered if he’d somehow gotten caught behind a night-school bus. At that late hour, there were probably just a handful of cars on the road, but nearly all of them were stuck behind Mark. Of course, there were no cars in front of him – anyone lucky enough to have started out ahead of him was already home in bed. By the time I got out from behind him, roosters were crowing in the distance, and I doubt that Mark could have gotten home much before Sunday.

Fortunately, there are compensations for such travails. I’ve known Dave since we were both 14 years old, and there are few people I like better or respect more. Nonetheless, for a time in the early ’80s, our relationship hit a point at which we were something less than just acquaintances. Virtually the only time we ran into each other was at the monthly gathering. It was a bit uncomfortable, but the game always had to go on. I suspect we would have lost touch entirely if poker had not afforded us the opportunity to become friends again. That alone makes up for all those nights of four-card flushes and straights that never quite filled.

You Bet Your Life

Despite the game’s faltering and inauspicious beginnings, it’s now woven or, to use a more manly metaphor, welded firmly into the fabric of our lives. Like Seinfeld reruns or dinner at a favorite restaurant, it’s become a constant. Players have come when they were too sick to eat or go to work, and I once played with laryngitis so severe I was unable to speak. We’ve played in snow and ice storms and on nights so hot the cold cuts were sweating. We’ve gambled on birthdays, anniversaries and Good Fridays, and we once scheduled a game for the morning after New Year’s Eve, sporting hangovers requiring a neurosurgeon.

It should come as no surprise that, once established, such groups would persist. It’s certainly better than joining some fancy health club: There are no dues to pay, no one expects you to do any exercising and absolutely nothing that takes place during the course of the evening is likely to be good for you. And, if the game is established firmly enough, it can turn into a lifetime membership.

Of course, even a lifetime membership will come to an end eventually. No new blood has been added to the group in years, none of us is getting any younger and the game itself is not doing a whole lot to increase our collective life spans. You can expect to smoke and drink too much and eat a bucket full of junk food specially selected to raise your blood pressure and your cholesterol, as well as give you gas. At the same time, you’ll be breathing air so befouled as to be unfit for human consumption. (Returning to the table from the bathroom in Mark’s first condo was like flying into Los Angeles during a temperature inversion. The cigar smoke was so thick that I could have used fog lamps on my shoes to find my seat.)

As we’ve grown older, the game is coming full circle to that same state of diminished mental capacity we exhibited at our initial gathering. As we all become more and more like Fred, play will slow to a crawl,  and we’ll all have to turn up our hearing aids to find out what game we’re playing. Jeff will be complaining that his tea is too tepid or his prune juice too pulpy, and Mark is likely to be shouting “deal me out” from an iron lung.

I sometimes wonder who’ll be around to haul in that last pot when everyone else has permanently folded. When I cash in, if it can’t be my first choice (a massive brain hemorrhage during orgasm), then I’d like to wheeze out my final breath at the end of a game of 1-3-1 Power, tossing my last chip on the pile while running a bluff with absolutely nothing to back it up. And if I do manage to steal that last big pot, then let it go to Bob or Paul — it’s about time someone cut them a break.

Several years ago, I hosted a game with all eight regulars in attendance. I was halfway through my sixth beer, with plenty more on ice and a tray of lasagna simmering in the oven. I was up 40 dollars, Bob was betting like crazy on what was obviously a mediocre straight, and I was sitting on a full house so well concealed as to be invisible. Of the five guys I like best in the entire world, four were sitting around the table with me, and, very shortly, I would be taking money from most of them ... and gloating about it.

Suddenly I was aware of just how good life could be. My mindless, dead-end job seemed further away than that Thursday night so many years ago in my first shabby apartment. As I raked in the pot and lit a victory cigar, I reflected on the wisdom of that great 17th Century German philosopher Anheuser-Busch, who I believe once wrote, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

What’s that, Jeff? ... oh, ‘shut up and deal’? Okay. Seven-card Meatloaf — One-Eyed Jacks and the Suicide King Wild, High Spade Splits the Pot.


I’ve stumbled on a great poker site called Pokerworks.com. It contains all sorts of poker lore, stories and insights, even some poetry. Typical is a clever story called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Chips.” It is maintained by a woman named Linda R. Geenen. I’ve never met her, spoken to her or even seen a picture of her (other than one on her home page in which she looks to be about 10 years old); however, I am reasonably certain that I’m in love with her. Any woman who loves poker this much is my kind of woman. To take a look at her site, click on the picture to the right (that’s your right, not my right).
By the way, the graphic on the green felt background depicts what is commonly referred to as “the dead man’s hand.” These were the cards Wild Bill Hickock was holding when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head during an afternoon card game in Carl Mann’s Saloon on August 2, 1876.

For a very extensive and detailed poker site full of helpful information, as well as links to
a host of other poker-related sites, try Online Poker Tools,
based in Manasquan, NJ, which is managed by Chris Sorensen.

Click here to link up to an extensive poker glossary.


Click here to take a look at the type of games we play.

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.