Last night, it was me and the boys. The boys are my father’s poker gang. More than 50 years ago, before I was born, my father started playing poker every other Tuesday with a group of seven men. The sessions rotated from house to house with the wives providing the refreshments. I grew up around the poker table, often sitting on Daddy’s lap while he played. Our trusty, beloved beagle Cindy was often by his feet. Whenever poker wasn’t at our house, we’d send dad off with the hopeful declaration, “Win a pot-full!”
A few years ago, I was trying to figure out a good way to spend more time with my dad. I can’t remember exactly how it started, but one day we pulled out a deck of cards and started playing poker. Soon, we were playing on every trip home. When he was in the hospital after a heart attack, I took in a deck and we wiled away the hours playing. He taught me all the different games he and his buddies played.
Then, in March 2010, I got invited to the big show: to play with the boys. None of the men that played with my dad when I was small are still alive, but he’s been playing with the current crew for a good long time. Other than one player who’s around my age, the average age is probably 77, but they’re a spry bunch and they love their poker. I was nervous. I was the second offspring to play and the only girl that has ever played with them. I wanted to make my father proud and not slow down the game.
The games, which have been made up by the players through the decades, are only tangentially related to true poker and have names like Double Reverse, Wings, The Wheel, Mt. Idy (still don’t understand that one or the name) and Pass the Card. For example, with Killer Diller, each player receives five cards and can play up to two from his hand, while the rest come from the five common cards that are turned over one at a time. The fourth common card is wild and any others like it in your hand are wild too. But if the fifth and final card turned up matches any card in your hand, it kills your hand. So much for strategy.
This is the last bunch of guys that would think of themselves as sweet and I’d probably get permanently exiled if they knew I was saying this, but it’s incredibly endearing to watch them gruffly bust each other’s chops and help each other at the same time.
As members aged and had trouble figuring out their cards given the wacky rules of each game, they instituted something called “cards speak.” A player still has to decide if he’s going high or low, and, trust me, which all the possibilities and wild cards, it’s not always easy to figure that out, but if you think you may have a full house and it turns out you actually have four of a kind, the other guys will figure it out for you. They’re very competitive, but they’ve got each other’s backs.
When my father moved into a residential care community and quit driving, other members would swing by (usually way out of their way) to pick him up. As his health declined and it became harder for him to get up and down stairs, with no fuss or much deliberation, they simply moved the game permanently to a lounge at his residential care community. Whoever is hosting that week pays for the snacks the retirement home provides. The staff turns a blind eye at the beer the hosting player brings in. A few months ago, pneumonia left my father too weak to deal so someone else dealt for him when it was his turn. His not playing until he was strong enough to deal again wasn’t an option.
We play from 7 p.m.-10:30 and break at 9:30 p.m. for ice cream. There’s not a lot of conversation other than about the poker game and about North Carolina State University sports. I have little idea what any of them did for a living before they retired, how many children or grandchildren they may have, or what their political leanings are. We’re not there to make small talk, we’re there to play cards.
After my first go-round in March 2010 went well, I became an honorary member. Initially, I’d play with them if my trips home happened to coincide with game day. Now, if I can, I plan my journey around the poker schedule. I’ve probably played eight or nine times over the past three years. It’s the highlight of my trip.
Last night, a first happened: I was the big winner. I won $26 (we’re dealing with nickel, quarter, and dollar chips here and no one can lose more than $17. High stakes poker, it’s not).
Over the years, whenever my father wins a fair amount, he gives me and my sister $1 each. For the first time, I got to give my dad a dollar. It felt like a million bucks.
Today’s $10 goes to One Drop. It’s a charity supported by the World Series of Poker, so that’s my tie in (I know it’s a stretch). One Drop is a charity started by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte that develops access to water projects in several third-world countries, partnering with other relief organizations like OXFAM.
Feb. 6: One Drop: http://www.onedrop.org/en/default.aspx
37 down, 328 to go!