I’ve played more poker than I’ve attended church. Both, done right, are good for the soul. Played in a run-down mobile home on an Indian reservation once. It was at Pyramid Lake. Not ours off Interstate 5 — the one up a smidge near Reno.
The local sheriff’s nephew warned that you could get “…shot, killed, beaten and stabbed, all at the same time. You go in there and they’ll slit you open like a canoe.” Good folks, them Paiutes. Seem to recall having a grand time that night.
I’ve played in rec rooms and lost Georgia farmhouses where you had to be careful not to win too much because the good ol’ boys sitting around the table were so formidable they terrified the Ku Klux Klan. You didn’t want to wake the next morning peering down from a cloud, realizing your last moments on Earth were as Purina Alligator Chow. I’ve played in casinos. Never recall having fun. Then there was our delightful and regular Monday night game in a Newhall bunkhouse-ette.
Most poker games, the serious money ones, are tedious tests of wills and stamina. My life span has decreased by decades from all the cigarette and cigar smoke compressed into an 8-by-8 room and increased by centuries from the laughter. There was beer, fast food, sadly, no fast women, ribald language and plenty of theater. Vampires all we, sometimes, a friend would bring a P.I.
Poker Imbecile. A mark.
I like to think we were kind to him and they’d always say it was the most fun they had with their clothes on for 20 bucks or less. Around that table were my best friends, some of whom I knew since childhood. We’d laugh long past exhaustion. Sometimes, we’d all place hands on shoulders, sway and sing obscure Broadway tunes, in a confident, male, heterosexual rendition.
We’re all good poker players. But cards was just an excuse to insult one another, our pets, our parents, our cars, our jobs, the art we produced, the way we combed our hair — oh dear heavens. Our spouses. Our poor, dear, saintly spouses.
Cheating was expected.
One of our regulars was a professional musician and Grammy winner. Good player, with lapses of concentration. The two guys on either side of him would sometimes steal chips. Two hours later, Mr. Grammy Winner starts yelling because he’s been winning and he’s down serious money. The two bookend players would slowly egg him on, noting that he wasn’t a very good player and just wasn’t aware of how bad he was. He’d start to defend himself and they’d disgustedly chastise him, then both kick in a few handfuls of chips.
“Here. Here’s 50 bucks. Shut up.”
“You two have been cheating me all night!” the musician would yell, in feigned anger.
“Long before that.”
“Are we counting last month when you went on tour in Texas and your girlfriend was home alone?” Surveys were taken. How many had slept with so-&-so’s wife? Except for the husband, all hands would be solemnly raised. You don’t share stuff like this in couples’ therapy. Ever.
We played straight poker, stud or draw, high ball, low ball, Texas hold-em. We’d play Indian Poker (where you place a card, face out, and hold it against your forehead). When someone was ahead, they’d sit on their chips. On their deal they’d try to play Go Fish or War. Stakes? A quarter.
We used to play a game called Black Mariah. High spade (ace) in the hole splits the pot with the high hand. Mr. Grammy Man’s kid brother was a big-time music producer. Once, he made the mistake of going to the bathroom. We were all laughing and arguing when he returned. The dealer handed the deck to be cut. It wasn’t. The dealer dealt. Slowly. We had salted the deck, dealing the music producer the — ahem — “chiflado.”
You know. Like, cashews? Pistachios? Pecans? Mixed?
The Ace of Spades.
And, two more aces to go with it.
We’re not paying any attention to him, but everyone in that cramped and smoky room knew he masterfully hid his heart attack when seeing trip aces and the automatic winner in the high spade.
Here was the gag. We’d all just keep carrying on, acting like goofballs. But as soon as Music Man finally pointed out: “Hey! C’mon! Let’s play cards! Who’s bet?” THAT was our sign. A full 20 minutes had passed. We all glanced at our cards. He bets first, a conservative toss of sucker chips. One by one:
“Sucks canal water…” Fold.
“Crappy hand…” Fold.
“Trash. Like your first wife.” Fold.
Music Man groans. He shows his three aces.
We offer sympathy. “Pobrecita!” adding the effeminate tense. The producer gets many pats and shoulder rubs. There’s sympathetic “Ohhhhhs” and “That was Paint!!” Paint is a poker term for Sherwyn brand latex — “Sure — Win — ?” Get it?
Laughing, our musical friend unloads unasked-for instructions on self-procreation on all of us.
Poker isn’t necessarily fun. Old friends are.
Just got an invite from a pal of mine. They’re getting up a game this week. Do you think there will be breaks for eight-part harmony of old Broadway tunes? Unflattering imitations of a relative’s late-night romantic cries for help? The State of the Union, as if given by Cher? During a knuckle-biting climactic decision to call a bet on a week’s salary pot, one player takes a breath, leans over the table to ask: “Do you have any — NINES…?”
I’m going to play poker again. Yay. Smiling about it already.
After all. It’s not Georgia. Not an Indian reservation, where you might get shot, stabbed, killed and get your feelings hurt, all at the same time.
John Boston is a local writer and has always wanted to learn how to play poker…