Poker is in my blood, but so is losing, so I won’t be turning pro.
My parents played poker every week, in spite of being Baptists. In my father’s case, the Baptist prohibition against gambling was one of many “thou shalt nots” that he honored in the breach rather than in the observance, but you could safely say it was my mother’s only vice, a modest one: penny-ante poker, played in the dining room on Saturday or Sunday evenings.
Mom and Dad both had leather bags that held their pennies, Mom’s decorated with beadwork. They kept the bags in their dresser drawers and brought them out on game night (usually after I’d been put to bed). I remember the sound of the bags hitting the table, and then the crisp shuffling of the cards. The guests were usually Mike and Betty, and/or Fran and Chuck, and sometimes Flo and Morris. I dreaded Flo, because she had a voice that could wake the dead and a laugh that startled crows, and I would not be able to sleep until the game was over.
Flo aside, the games were low key. I remember my mother telling me that Fran said one evening, “I guess you win; all I’ve got are two pairs of fours.” The same pennies flowed back and forth for years.
My own training started early. Someone, either my mother or my older brother, taught me the order of the hands as soon as I was old enough to “make a fan” with the playing cards. “One pair, two pair, three of a kind…” – it was a litany. We played poker with my cousins, who lived at my grandparents’ house. We used my grandfather’s chips: blue worth 10, red 5, white 1. The chips made us feel cool and rich, and I learned the basics of math. While my parents played all manner of weird variations – hi-lo, baseball, etc. – we kids stuck to five-card draw, with none of that “draw four with an ace” foo-foo. Occasionally, deuces might be wild, but we drew the line at any other nonsense.
Growing up, I watched “Maverick” on Sunday nights, with James Garner as a smooth, poker-playing character in the Old West, and I bought a paperback of Poker According to Maverick. In college I saw The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen, more than once. A fraternity brother tipped me off to Herbert O. Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player. But we did not play much poker in college, perhaps because no one had any money.
But in the Air Force, with an actual check arriving every two weeks, I began to spread my wings. In the barracks, the main card game was hearts, during which we drank many beers. But for poker, I remained sober, and folded every bad hand. My cohorts drank and never folded, so I prospered. However, I was never able to take any of Buck’s money, because Buck knew my secret.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Whenever Kihm has good cards, his hands shake.” Indeed, there was no need to study me for subtle “poker tells.” My trembling hands and widening eyes announced the quality of my cards as clearly as the Hole Cam on televised poker. I remember having a mittful, three kings, one evening, and Buck smiling, laying down his hand while everyone else raised and re-raised. (It helped that I drew one card to the three kings, and everyone but Buck thought I’d missed a flush or a straight.) I won $13 on that hand, $18 that night, but none of Buck’s dollars. And feeling guilty, I bought everyone breakfast at an all-night diner. (The dollar went a long way in 1968.)
About 20 years later, and 20 years ago, I was playing poker with my parents during a visit, and suggested my daughter sit in. My father said, “Ah, does she know the rules?” And she looked up at him and said, “One pair, two pair, three of a kind…” and he said, “Oh, I guess she does.” I was so proud of her.
Amarillo Slim once said, “If you can’t spot the sucker after 15 minutes at the poker table, it’s you.” It doesn’t take me 15 minutes to figure that out; I know it’s me going in, but I love the game. So I read a lot of poker books, and watch poker movies (my favorite being A Big Hand for the Little Lady), and I am content.
* * *
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
All In: The Poker Movie (2012)
Dealer’s Choice: The World’s Greatest Poker Stories (1955) which includes “Ladies Wild” by Robert Benchley and many other classics
The Education of a Poker Player (1957) by Herbert O. Yardley
Poker According to Maverick (1959)
The Biggest Game in Town (1983) by Al Alvarez
Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player (1990) by Anthony Holden
Positively Fifth Street (2003) and Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009) by James McManus
Read ‘Em and Weep: A Bedside Poker Companion (2004), edited by John Stravinsky
Take Me to the River (2006) by Peter Alson
Illustration above: His Station and Four Aces by C.M. Coolidge, 1903