18. Poker and religion

I never played poker until I was in my 30s, a single guy working at a Catholic high school in St. Louis. The faculty group I partied with played poker everyday in the faculty lounge (with money on the table), and almost every Friday night at someone’s apartment. We organized an annual poker event, the Pentathlon of Poker.

Those were the days.

When I left that school for the corporate world – a real job, my father called it – I didn’t play as much. Then I got married, and a few years later we moved to Chicago. Poker faded in the rear-view mirror…

…until my 50th birthday.

To celebrate my half-century mark, my young wife organized a poker game for me, inviting most of my tennis friends. That first night we had 2 or 3 tables of middle-aged guys drinking beer and playing a variety of quarter-ante games.

It was a natural guy thing. It caught on.

We’ve never had regularly scheduled games, but whenever someone’s wife is out of town on a Friday night, a poker game happens.

After 20+ years, what began as a guy thing has become an old guy thing. We play the same games and tell the same stories over and over, usually of poker hands played long ago. Back when we were middle-aged.

There are three kinds of guys in the group: guys who have hearing aids, guys who need hearing aids, and the 50-something kids who think they’ll never need hearing aids. Our collective vision is deteriorating as well; it’s tough to distinguish between clubs and spades at the far end of the table.

One summer tradition of this group is playing tennis on Wednesday evenings, and going to a bar for beer and pizza afterward. And liars poker. Liars poker involves using the small 8-digit serial numbers on dollar bills as poker hands. The numbers are hard to see. The first few weeks we played liars poker, the one person who happened to have reading glasses with him passed them around the table so others could read their bills.

It was soon apparent that the words “eight” and “ace” are indistinguishable to old guys in a loud bar, so we began calling eights “snowmen,” in order to avoid auditory ambiguity. I’m sure we’re an amusing group to the rest of the bar patrons, who probably think we’re World War II buddies.

But if liars poker in a bar is amusing, our regular poker games around a dining room table are funnier. And slower. A typical hand…

Player 1: Whose deal, and what are we playing?

Dealer: My deal. Seven stud, low Chicago.

Player 2: Low spade in the whole splits the pot?

Dealer: Right.

Player 3: Lowest spade is… ?

Dealer: Same as always… deuce of spades. How long you been playing?
Ante up everyone… someone’s light.

Player 1: I’m in.

Players 2 & 3: I’m in.

Player 4: Thought I put in… maybe not. I’ll put in.

Player 5: You always think you put in.

Player 6: What are we playing?

Dealer: Low Chicago. Okay, here we go… king of hearts… 3 of diamonds… 4 of clubs… 6 hearts… good low cards, except we’re not playing high-low… deuce of spades is burned, the 3 is golden… king of spades… and 10 of hearts for the dealer. First king talks.

Player 1: I’ll bet a quarter.

Players 2 & 3: Call.

Player 4: Is that deuce down there a spade or a club?

Dealer: Spade. Pay attention.

Player 4: Okay, deuce is burned. Raise fifty cents.

Player 5: Raise fifty? Or raise to fifty?

Dealer: Dave bet a quarter, John raised fifty. Seventy-five all day. Turn your hearing aid up.

Player 5: Lemonade cup??? Who’s drinking lemonade???

Player 6: Wait, who bet first?

Player 5: The chicken or the egg?

Player 1: I bet first.

Player 4: And I raised.

Player 6: Okay. Seventy-five all day? I call.

Dealer: I’m in. And pot’s good… and it only took 45 minutes. Four more cards to go. Jeez, I need a nap.

Player 5: A cap?? Why do you need a cap?

And so the liturgy goes.

There’s something about playing the same games with the same group, and telling the same stories for decades. Like church, it provides a structure, a ritual, to your life. And if you’re a non-religious person, that kind of ritual takes on its own importance.

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