Monday, November 23, 2009

A Poker Story Not For the Squeamish

Now that one of the least satisfying baseball seasons in memory is over, I have vanished into The Void that will exist in my soul at least until the start of spring training. Even the hot stove provides only so much warmth here in the wilds of upstate New York. In my job at the Hall of Fame, I get to disappear all winter into baseball's past, and that's fine, but it isn't the same without the daily smorgasbord of games being played.

I've also had a chance to focus more on poker lately, my second-favorite game and a significant part of my pre-Cooperstown life. I landed a gig writing a newspaper book review which I'll post here as soon as it is published. The review was of the new book by James McManus, who wowed everyone five years ago with his best-selling Positively Fifth Street, his riveting blow-by-blow account of finishing fifth in the main event of the 2000 World Series of Poker. Now he has written a history of poker titled Cowboys Full, a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in the game.

One point McManus hammers home is that poker is the ultimate American game because it reflects the melting-pot growth and strength of the nation. In poker, anyone can play and anyone can win; you don't have to be the best player at the table to win the next pot, and you don't even have to have the best hand if you can out-maneuver your opponents. Poker is also the most international of games, as I discovered when I worked in a poker emporium in San Jose ten years ago. In that setting, Caucasians were very much a minority. A ten-handed game would usually include players from five or six countries; Vietnamese and Filipinos were the most plentiful, but there were natives of Japan, Cambodia, Korea, Thailand, and Mexico, along with assorted Arabs and African-Americans. You can't have more of a melting pot than that, or a more democratic game in which they could compete on an equal footing.

McManus discusses the importance of poker in politics, another realm in which bluffing, intimidation, and intuition are key virtues. Most presidents of the past hundred years were avid poker players, with Eisenhower and Nixon showing the most skill. Several future presidents used poker as a means to become part of the prevailing political power network. Their common link was a sense of being outsiders who needed a way to become "one of the boys" and found that getting invited to play the power-brokers' games worked very well. This strategy was used by Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and most recently Barack Obama. He used low-limit poker games to become a cog in the Illinois political machine, and the rest was history.

I experienced the same thing (without the political overtones) back in the mid-1970s when I got a job teaching at the University of Montana in Missoula. Montana still maintained a Wild West image, and I wondered how I might fit in, a little Jewish kid from New York in the wilds of cowboy country. Poker turned out to be the vehicle for my acceptance there. This was my first experience with legal poker, played in the back rooms of bars. I remember the first time a friend showed me one of the games, filled with rough-hewn faces and a vigilant dealer. My friend pointed to a cabinet behind the dealer. "Know what's in there?" he asked. Nope. "A gun. In case there's trouble." Thanks, Wild Bill. I sat down to play anyway.

The place to play in Missoula was the Oxford Cafe, a two-room cross-section of America if ever there was one. Open 24 hours a day, it had a counter where you could eat, a bar, a keno nook, a blackboard with sports action you could bet on, a pool table, and a poker room in the back. The clientele included cowboys and Indians, professors and lowlifes, Senator Mike Mansfield when he was in town, businessmen and drunks, and a colorful array of poker players. Some of the players were seasoned pros, some rank amateurs like the guy who would follow his weekly visit to his shrink by doing penance in the form of blowing off $500 or so at cards. There was an exile from North Carolina who called himself Shot, a guy who chain-smoked while hooked up to an oxygen tank, a guy known as Dick the Lawyer, and many more. The little Jewish kid fit it as well as anybody.

And then there was Art Wall. Art was in his mid-80s when I knew him, and in his youth had been part of a Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Talk about the Wild West! Art was still tough in his eighties. One night he was jumped by three youths behind the bus station, but subdued them and held them down until the police arrived. He was stooped but powerfully built, with huge gnarled hands. He would play poker for two or three days at a time, disdaining sleep but drinking steadily. Because he hadn't bothered to get his cataracts fixed, he had a hard time seeing his cards, and would take a long time to play. Though he could be ornery after a certain amount of drinking, he was a popular figure in the game, though that was maybe because he was a steady loser who never seemed to run out of money. Only one thing about him bothered anybody at all: he always had chewing tobacco in his mouth, and was always spitting into a big bucket stationed next to his chair, which would get pretty disgusting by the second or third day of one of his binges.

It was on one of those nights when four or five of us got involved in a pretty good pot. It was Art's turn, and it was $20 to call. He brought his hold cards up to his eyes for a closer reading, then peered at the cards on the table, then reached toward his tall stack of yellow $5 chips. He missed his aim and sent the whole stack flying off the table--and into his bucket, where the accumulated spit swallowed them up. We all flinched and tried to keep our chicken fried steaks from coming back up as Art put his cards down and plunged one of his big paws into the bucket.

"Jesus, Art!" we gulped while he focused all his attention on finding his chips amid the sludge. "Are you gonna call?" "Just tell us what you're gonna do, Art." "Come on, Art, let us know," we pleaded, but nobody could distract him from his rummaging. This went on for a couple of minutes, while our disgust multiplied. "Are you calling or folding, Art?" "For chrissake, Art, what are you gonna do?" Nothing we said seemed to penetrate his glazed-eyes semi-consciousness. Time stopped as he peered down at the bucket and swirled his hand around the slop.

Finally that big arm came up, and with it a large handful of chips--we couldn't see much of the yellow beneath the brown slime. He swung his arm around and slammed his hand on the middle of the table. "I raise!" he growled. Well, I've never seen a bunch of guys fold their cards faster. We couldn't get out of that pot fast enough. I know I couldn't get out of the room fast enough. I fled outside to the Montana night chill to calm down my innards.

I'd like to think that Art was bluffing. It would be a hell of a move, wouldn't it, knocking over the chips on purpose and making everyone wait for him to gross us right out of the pot. That was poker in the Wild West of the 1970s.

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