The road to manhood passes through many way stations but almost inevitably includes time spent, sooner or later, in a place called Poker. For myself, the game began many decades ago with vaguely homoerotic basement contests of strip poker.
There, humiliation seemed to be, as was often the case then, the essence of pubescent male bonding. Over the years this element of the game has disappeared, but not so the veiled delight in a successful bluff, the stare-down of a goading raised bet, the correct reading of a player’s little tell, the fateful flop – all culminating in fleecing or being fleeced by a good friend. A tiny bit of schadenfreude (malicious joy at another’s misfortune) is unavoidable and secretly savoured. Whining is frowned upon. Gloating considered excessive. (Although I have been known, on rare occasions, to push my face into a big pile of newly won coins and bills and make blubbering sounds.) Bound together by these devious pleasures, myself and a half-dozen buddies (usually including one token woman) have gathered, almost every Monday evening, at one Vancouver dining-room table or another, for the past 20 years. By now, the event is so familiar that it has assumed the comfort of ritual. As we settle into our places, it’s hard to deny a little whelm of evil anticipation, one not so different from the boyhood thrill aroused by the incineration of ants under a magnifying glass or the nocturnal poaching of plums from a neighbour’s tree. The hunt is on. The neolithic psyche isreleased: Ogg want aces! Amid the camaraderie and genuine affection, each of us knows that, over the next three hours, momentary hurt will be inflicted – or incurred. The only consolation offered? A show of humility. There are some former players whose ghosts are called up as object lessons in what not to do. These would include a former TV talk-show host who’d let his loquaciousness blind him to the possibility that the man raising the bet might well have an unbeatable full house; and an easygoing construction engineer who lacked the true Vince Lombardi take-no-prisoners killer instinct required of poker. In a game that features regular displays of deceit, intimidation and dumb luck, confidence is frequently the trump card. Poker is, after all, about winning; what is not bred in the bone gets learned – or not learned – by most boys on the playground by age seven. As the deal rotates from player to player, new games are called. Their names often suggest, in some vaguely ominous way, the fate of the losers: Fiery Cross; Blackhawk Down; Kim Chee; Molotov; Deep Space Nine, Urinary Tract Disorder. (There are few wuss names in poker.) There are times when a player’s luck goes seriously south and he feels abandoned even by hope’s narcotic effect. The player hemorrhages money – sometimes for weeks or months on end – like a man with a bazooka hole in his wallet. Losses mount. Stoicism is called upon. Irony is a common retreat. Usually, little is said aloud by the others, as though mentioning it might add to the jinx. In this, the rectitude of team sports is drawn upon: It’s just a broken leg, coach. I can still play. There are other times when nothing can go wrong and cards fall from the dealer’s hands like manna. An inside straight pulled on the last desperate card. A well-hidden ace-high flush flopped before incredulous eyes. Or even better: a massive do-or-die bluff propelled by the appearance of good cards. Opposition suddenly wilts. The wince of annoyance in a losing competitor’s eyes is returned with a shrug and open-palmed gesture indicating Providence has, indeed, been kind. Some around the table then resort to a loud analysis of the series of recent bets, trying to assess when (or if) amid the dealing the winner received his fortuitous bounty. The twists of fate and luck in gambling are not so easily fathomed. As a rule, winners – especially those who have bluffed – never reveal their secrets. Poker, like other seductions, is best played close to the chest. In the beginning, the Monday night poker games were fuelled with beer, Cheezies and the occasional circling of a joint. But in the ensuing 20 years, as we boomers have crested the demographic wave, things have changed. Good wines, fancy cheeses and olives now often crowd the tabletop. The toking of the modern, near-debilitating B.C. skunkweed is now generally avoided in the face of the genuine attritions of middle age. (“What game are we playing?” isn’t uncommon these days, even after a couple of unstoned rounds of bets have been made.) The thought that we might all end up together, wheelchair-bound and half-deaf, in some future retirement home is greeted with as near a sense of equanimity as we can muster toward approaching dotage. With luck, we agree, this will happen. Boys’ Night until the end. The cards will have giant numbers. Everyone will shout. Perhaps a bit of medicinal marijuana will flow from adjacent IV drips. We’ll play Deep Space Nine and Fiery Cross and Urinary Tract Disorder, and wonder which game will mark our final flop.