These men were grizzled, dark-eyed and wearing camo. It felt more like the set for Winter’s Bone than my idea of a casino. What’s more, they were not shy about staring. I was the only one they didn’t know, and I was just as surprised as they were that I was there.
I don’t know where it came from, but one day while living in Galway, Ireland, I got the notion to start a poker night. After failing once, I learned that keeping a monthly game going required a large pool of players, and such a network took recruitment, promotion and a honed rhetoric when rolling out the idea to others. (“Just a group of laid-back people having fun, shooting the breeze.
There’s no sharks or anything. Trust me, you’ll love it.”) Suddenly, my colleagues, my softball team and my new housemates all took on new meaning as potential poker players. Whenever I met someone new, I would listen to their stories and laugh and bide my time until I could put my arm around them and say: “So, man. Do you play poker?”
Suddenly, there was a poker night in Galway.
Despite the gambling and drinking, the poker night was in essence a social miracle. There were men, women, Italians, Irish, Canadians, scientists, humanities majors, construction workers, those who had played before and those who hadn’t. These people brought their friends, and the network began to grow itself. First-time players often won, owing to something halfway between beginner’s luck and not understanding the game enough to allow other people to read them. One Italian never was victorious but showed up every time, regardless. Whenever he made it to the last two players, we would cheer him on – and he would curse our mothers in his native tongue for jinxing him yet again.
Eventually, poker became the defining activity in the household. Ronan, one of the housemates, became equally enthusiastic about it. If we crossed paths in the kitchen at evening, it would take mere seconds before one of us suggested putting up two euros and throwing down some cards. We often continued playing, just the two of us, once everyone else had left a poker night, the game sometimes dragging on until 3 a.m. Eventually, however, that couldn’t account for all of the times we had the urge to play poker, so we started online accounts.
It’s unusual to tell people you play online poker without receiving a concerned look or quietly being asked if you have a problem you want to talk about. Explaining the overwhelming thrill of taking 46 cents from a stranger when the cards go right just makes them all the more worried. It’s even more difficult to explain how you accidentally got your girlfriend addicted.
What was left of my good judgement was alarmed when, instead of going out on a Saturday night, she suggested we stay in and play online poker. We would only enter a table with two euros, and she wouldn’t make any of the decisions herself (although by this point she knew the game well). Still, that didn’t stop her from springing up and yelling “Why would you do that?” every time I lost a hand.
Leaving Galway and the poker night I had created was hard. (In the house, I was replaced by a Spanish girl who ended up being a natural at the game ... good luck, Ronan.) It wasn’t helped by the fact that New York state, where I returned, did not allow online poker. Instead, there was only one place to get a game.
The casino was an hour-and-a-half away, and I had to drive through parts of a snowstorm to get there. By the time I arrived, the cards were already being tossed and, judging by the chip stacks, had already claimed one or two victims. No one wore sunglasses or baseball caps over their eyes like you see on television, but the players were no less serious. Many of them were of retirement age and had, seemingly, lived a hard life to get there. Others looked like they could use the money and were playing for more than enjoyment. You could tell they knew each other, but that didn’t equate to any pleasantries.
I wish I could say I made good on all those poker nights and time spent watching cards, but it was obvious to me sitting down at that table that wasn’t going to be the outcome. It probably took them at least 10 hours to find a winner. I lasted three hours and longer than three players, which to me justified the drive there.
One old man with a cane would grow his pot, get up and let the game play on without him, and then return to increase his stack again. As for myself, I played the part of the conservative beginner and then cashed in on that narrative later when I couldn’t get any good cards and had to bluff some pots to stay alive. Eventually, as always happens, there came a point where I had to bet it all to stay relevant. I flopped a middle pair and knew one player in particular would take me all in to try to scare me. He did – but then hit the card he needed for a straight on the river.
Or, more simply said: My first poker tournament was over.
I could say I went home satisfied with myself for trying something new and at the same time entirely willing to let the gambling phase of my life come to an end. It would have made a nice bookend to the stories I could tell of the year I was interested in poker. I could explain how I now have more fulfilling and productive ways to fill my time that, in the end, make me a better person and allow me to contribute to society.
Instead, I got on the phone and called up everyone I could think of.
“So, man. Do you play poker?”
Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He tweets at @PenOfRyanDennis.