If that’s all there is my friend, let’s keep on dancing.
Tomas Mann vía Peggy Lee
Fifteen strip mall stores stare silently out across two rows of treeless parking, over a neglected sidewalk bordered by dusty drought resistant shrubs, four lanes of spotty traffic, to the fences, rails and wires of public transport. The box stores are not particularly neglected but are dressed in trouble; faded signs and colors, windows faintly clouded by accreted fumes and smog. A bar. Ethnic Restaurants. A Video and Cigarette shop. A dry clean attached to a Laundromat. A storefront church. Income tax/ Check cashing/ money orders. A Food and Liquor market. To the east an off brand gas self service gas station. To the west, a temporary fence guarding weed choked cracked cement. Parked cars are few, excepting at the east end, near a card room called Eusibio’s.
As a child I was introspective, self absorbed, self reliant; as an adult I am devoted mainly to family and work. Even my relaxation is relatively asocial: skiing, backpacking, scuba, flying; I even read and write to myself rather than to others. No golf. No Baseball, no bars. I write not for others but to explore my inner being, reflect on life.
When our children matured and left home my wife and Oprah both began to allege that while women form lifelong sustaining personal relationships, men fail to do so, much to our detriment. I didn’t yearn for friendship. Yet I retired from productive work, and was dissatisfied with those chores that can suck the body and soul dry. How could I ignore both Oprah and my wife?
For the next five years I participated in a weekly poker game that had been running for almost 40 years. The game’s founder and sustaining life force was Tony, in his late 80’s, still almost 6 ft. tall. At age 16 he misrepresented his age, and enlisted in the WWII US Navy, claiming to be a cook. In the desperate situation of that all consuming war Tony was soon made head cook on a troop transport. It was a very rough environment but he was a big skinny rough Italian kid, and his fighting, craps, and poker skills were adequate to allow him to accumulate enough by war’s end to buy a restaurant, then a motel.
In time Tony developed a formula, a modus operendi, for running motels profitably, and accumulated four. Family, or blood, was a big part of the formula, as was his own style of tough love, a combination of great generosity with an unforgiving, unbending hardness toward those who failed him. He made decisions quickly and never changed his mind. He is the titular and economic head of a large American Calabrese family who has never stopped working. But after a broken hip, and advanced diabetes, he is confined to the upper floors of one of his properties, where his apartment and office are situated. There he and his wife live alone. Tony continues to work to live, and live to work; but he is unable to play poker and the Forty Year Game foundered, leaving 8 marooned players adrift in a sea of tedium. We tried for a number of months to find our way back, but failed. Without the Don we were alone. A few of us still got together for a desultory trip to Cache Creek casino. To my surprise, I missed not only The Game, but Tony and the Players. Two of them, Sam and Joe are semipro gamblers, and both suggested I join them at a local card room.
Sam sells golf equipment, requiring him to travel constantly around the state to golf clubs, where is also: What else? Poker. He is a single middle aged man quite devoid of social skills, a rather lonely man, who can instantly read the multiple possibilities in any given set of cards in the complex high/low poker split games we used to play. As a child he knew Amarillo Slim, and now, for better or worse, he lives to gamble, anytime, anyplace anyhow. He is sustained by a devoted mother, by dreams, by the aura of gambling, the colorful people, the perks, the glitz, and the occasional significant win. His tales are entertaining; he lies dutifully, betrayed only by an occasional request for small loans, which to his credit, he always repays. Sam retains an innocent faith in both his own Christian perfection and in the Big Win that one day will surely come. He claims he is completely sinless, an assertion he defends fervently, irrationally, and at length.
“Have you never, but never, sinned?”
“Women? Lying? Spilling the seed like Onan? I’ll lay odds haven’t even stopped yet! Even what you think is a sin you know. You think it you did it.”
“ Who’s Onan?”
“Well, I’m Catholic.”
“Oh yeah. Little boys, Sammie. You’re not a priest so that’s surely a sin. You can’t just say a Hail Mary for that. Or can you?”
“Saying fuck’s not a sin!” And he changes the subject. As usual, like folding with a bad hand.
“You gotta try Eusibio’s. He’s a prince. Immigrant from Guanajuato. But legal of course. He’s been right there for more than 25 years”.
“It’s still a card room!” I said, “Felons, prostitutes, cardsharps; malévolos, la putada, maleantes, drogadictos, criminales!”
“Not at all. Eusibio’s is family. His son, his daughter, even his wife sometimes deal when he needs them, or play house money when a table is short of players.
“Ha!” I said, “House money? How nice is that!”
“It’s not what you think. If a table’s not full, the game is very limited: Lack of players; the rake cuts the pot money.”
“The house rakes off four dollars of each pot. 20 hands an hour at 4 dollars is $80 for a full table. Ten tables, they rake $800 per hour. They need to keep the tables full. That’s why they offer incentives to players.
“Incentives. I’ll bet! To take your money, if you don’t lose it in the parking lot!”
“Not at all! I play there!”
“That’s my point, dick head!”
“No: There’s a security guard in the lot. And inside. Eusibio is just a very good person. Loans me money no questions asked; just to people he knows, people like me he trusts. Serves three meals a day to all players.”
“Well…” After all, I thought; he is sinless.
“So try it! Joe and I’ll meet you there.” Joe is another 40 Year Game regular, a retired businessman who plays constantly. Like Sam he is competent, ‘tight’, and wins or loses modestly. Joe is part owner of a racehorse that has never won much. Lucky for him he sold his business for more than it was worth, and has a rich wife.
I find myself looking for Sam and Joe in front of that uninviting strip mall at nine AM the following Wednesday morning. I had never played poker at that time of day. It seemed to me as degraded as a margarita for breakfast. But perhaps the time of day is just point of view; as good a time as any to go to ‘work’ like a banker.
To my astonishment, on entering the card room I see people I know playing Omaha Hi/Lo at the first table: A judge from Yolo County; A doc who had worked in migrant camp clinics I organized in the ‘70’s; he had been in the air force at Travis at the time, now was in Sacramento; A contractor who had occasionally played in Tony’s old game; Another players from Tony’s.
I greet the judge:
“My God George! It’s been years! What the hell are you doing here!?”
“Great tournaments.” He waves a had at the posted notices of the promotions and tournaments, and the 15 rules, which include: No Smoking. No foul language. No aggressive comments or behavior. No foreign language spoken during a hand. One player to a hand. Bad beat jackpots. (A bad beat is when a exceptionally fine hand is beaten by a better one.) “ Every six months the tournament winners play for a new car or a rolex.”
“You don’t need a Rolex or a car.” I said, “You can just collect them for decisions.”
Sam introduces Eusibio, the owner, who, after a decent welcome, touts the promotions. “The Sunday Hold ‘Em tournament has about 100 players; surviving 20 players each win $50, and the last 6 winners move up to the tournament winner who takes $750.” Eusibio is called away and Sam continues:
“The dealers, men and women, almost never leave. Tells you something. Most have families, long term goals; one is studying for the ministry, another to be an accountant. They are people, not just dealers!”
“Well…” No one wants to hear my Well, and the judge interrupts.
“Tell you the truth, Doc. I don’t win often. I come here for the place and the people.”
“To escape other places and people?”
“Not really. I like it here.”
I buy chips, sit down and play. The players are men and women, of diverse age, race, dress; prominent among them are those who commonly seem to enjoy gambling greatly, like older retired folk, and people of Asian descent. There are some tough looking characters, but very few. Collectively, among elderly poker players are thousands of poker-year’s experience. Bill is one who likes to tell tall poker tales, from his past. When playing he dozes constantly. He claims poor hearing and doesn’t respond at all to questions or comments; but each time he is dealt a hand he opens an eye; when the cards wake him he doesn’t show it until he is in control. He is called the Sleeping Giant. There are youngsters who are formidable, having played an incredible number of hands on line, sometimes playing electronic poker at eight or nine tables simultaneously. They can be deceptively innocent looking but quick and dangerous.
Over the next few months I play about once a week and never see or experience any problem whatsoever. What pleases me most is the atmosphere. The rooms are relatively quiet, with only the sounds of conversation, bantering, the probing comments of gamblers, and an occasional celebration of a big win; there is none of the harsh assault on the senses typical of large casinos. Rules are enforced strictly. Rare alcohol except in an almost sure loser; CaChing! No abusive or foul language that slips out is ignored, very different from our Forty Year Game, which was often loud and raw, though usually friendly. TVs are viewable high up around the room, subtitled but without sound, because some players want to track outcomes of games they have bet.
While the joy or pain of losing or winning is relative to one’s economic situation, in most card rooms betting controls and limits make it likely the average card room poker player will not lose or win significantly at any one session or. Even most ‘no limit’ poker games have a limit: the money one has on the table, and a maximum one can buy in to play with; no deep pocket bullies allowed, at least until one has accumulated a big stack.
One day the big winner is a young woman, a math teacher from L A, a long time player at Eusibio’s visiting family. She is on a lucky streak that she wants to ride to the very end, and has played on and off for 36 hours. I know I will never have the devotion or the energy for that; if I’m winning, or losing without deserving to do so, which is the way streaks are, I still leave as planned. She sits behind an $800 barricade of chips. I ask,
”What induces an attractive young woman visiting her home town, where her family and childhood friends are, to spend 36 hours playing poker?”
“What indeed.” She reflects. “Actually, whenever I visit we all get together and start a big fight. So I leave them to their fun, and come here. When I go home I just kiss and hug and say good bye. Out the door.”
“You hate your family?”
“Only when I’m with them; all together I mean. I love them one at a time, especially over the phone. I can lose the connection.”
The other card rooms I have played in are quite similar; many are less homey than Eusibio’s but welcoming and clean and filled with people I enjoy playing with and against. Archetypical are: an unemployed young man whose wife is at work all day; A retired state worker; a recent widower or widow; a soldier on leave from Iraq; a cell phone wired woman who operates an escort service and whose days are empty; a college student with a light Wednesday schedule; a divorced person; a felon unable to find a job. The most common denominators are: loneliness; adversity; retirement. In any given card room, day after day can be found the same players, who make up a social network based on the game. Why? I hope maybe I can get an idea on line.
The Attorney General’s website lists approximately one hundred card rooms in California. Amazon offers scores of books on gambling. But they all focus on winning, odds, strategy, and occasionally individual high achievers. I can’t find one which addresses the social networking of poker. Even Amazoning or googling ‘Friendship and poker or card room doesn’t reveal any sociologic studies of the subculture of cards rooms.
I still play only about once a week, unwilling to give up my real life to a card room subculture. I still don’t cultivate close poker friendships no matter what Oprah says, or get together with anyone after poker for a beer or a meal. I like the casual connections with these diverse strangers, in this limited way. They are poker adversaries I enjoy, and often admire. Each is a living world to explore, but like New York, not to live in. Card rooms are a venue for spontaneously formed loose social connections; an uncomplicated place to to forget trouble, doubt and loneliness in a far more civil and civilized venue than universities, bars, or the electromagnetic spectrum of the e.world. They are local, affordable, welcoming, ordered, and uncritical. While they rarely tell of the numinous, card rooms proclaim to humanity and to her inventions, pretensions, and transient created gods,
“Hasta la Vista Baby! I never loved you anyway.”
T he economic upheaval of 2008 was challenging for gambling establishments, but card rooms generally are survived. Eusibio’s expanded in 2011. Yet my interpretation of the clientele as depicted above has been called into question. A young handsome East Indian woman intermittently played there, though I didn’t know her because we played different games. One morning she was found raped and murdered behind a light rail passenger shelter less than 100 yards from the casino. The perpetrator was identified by the casino security camera record and arrested. The River, as the last and most important card in a game of Hold’em is called, revealed that my ingenuous observations about lonely players seeking company is only partly accurate. But I still occasionally play there, as do most of the old group of players.