(I didn’t write this month’s letter. My poker and fishing buddy Peter Donaldson did. Peter’s an Irish Catholic boy from Brooklyn, but a fast learner. After he moved from North Carolina to Occupied Virginia, to take a job in DC, he sent back to the Chapel Hill Newspaper some reflections on what he missed. I couldn’t have said it better, or as well, myself. —JSR)
I am a terrible poker player. I know exactly how bad I am because I once played with an empiricist—or finagler, depending on whether you think he was motivated by science or greed—who after each game calculated how much each of us won or lost. During the two years my friend collected data, I lost more than any of the seven regular players and had the longest losing streak. In my own defense, I should say that my two-year average combined a so-so year, during which I almost broke even, with a miserable year, during which I funded my friends’ recreations.
I am a poor poker player because I think of poker as a relaxing diversion and an occasion for camaraderie. Better players understand the game as an exercise in discipline and a chance to outsmart one’s neighbors.
The Chapel Hill poker game to which for eight years I devoted every other Thursday evening had a history of almost two decades, during which harsh words were exchanged only once. The limits of the game’s goodwill startled visitors or new players. If, for example, a player accidentally discarded the wrong card and complained about it, the game stopped and an effort was made to find the incorrectly discarded card—if it was possible without giving the negligent player the advantage of looking at the other discarded hands.
The regular players were mostly university faculty, but they ran from new lecturers (some of whom became tenured over the years) to distinguished professors. Graduate students, a doctor, a lawyer, an insurance salesman, and an assortment of occasional players of varying skills and indeterminate occupations also played. One regular was an outspoken fan of the state’s most conservative politicians and another worked for the liberals. A variety of religions were represented, of which the most popular seemed to be Some and None. The game always included at least one woman; several years ago, two women were regulars.
The custom was to play every game at the same house. We rarely changed locales and then only when necessary. Once we started a card game in a back room while our host was dining with guests in the front of his house. When the host was on sabbatical in Europe, we moved to another house. But when he returned home, so did the poker game. Only country music was permitted during the game despite people’s taste for other sounds. Snacks were few: popcorn provided by the host if he was winning, and an occasional bag of chips provided by the previous game’s big winner. People brought their own drinks, usually beer. We got fancier when longtime players moved away: pseudo-black-tie suppers were held to say farewell.
The game’s only absolutes were good manners and willingness to sacrifice one’s gain, if necessary, for the harmony of the group. Some of those who sat in from time to time found the game’s steadfast fellowship amusing; others thought it was frustrating. The object of poker, after all, is winning the most money. The New York Times recently ran an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, in which he concluded that winning at poker “means not giving your fellow players a break because you value their feelings.” Mamet would not have lasted in our game.
Once, one of the Southerners in the game illustrated the South’s special character by noting that Southerners prefer “Where are you from?” to “What do you do?” as a conversational ice-breaker. He argued—and I never met a Southerner who disagreed with him—that avoiding an emphasis on what one does is based on the belief that what you do is a paltry way to indicate who you are. Some of us are winners and others are not. Southerners mix denial and sociability as a means of coping with the inequalities of life. As with life, so with poker.
A year ago, I moved to Washington, DC. What strikes me most in my new home is how much this once-Southern city could use an infusion of the culture and manners characteristic of my old poker game. Most Washingtonians revel in precisely the sort of differences among people that my poker-playing friends avoided. The Washington Post, for example, gleefully profiles what it refers to as “highpowered-dual-Washington-insider-career marriages.” People have to deal not only with what they do, but with what their spouses do. Even the city’s charity is delivered in ways that highlight the differences between the haves and the have-nots. Last winter, a toney caterer was contracted to provide tuxedoed waiters and finger foods at a reception for the homeless, conveniently dovetailed into a made-for-TV movie about life on the street.
Although I didn’t take the poker games very seriously, I miss them dearly. The time and distance away have made it clear that there were lessons to be learned at the poker table. A friend, who claims to be quoting Mark Twain, says that the two best things in life are playing poker and winning, and playing poker and losing. In North Carolina, the emphasis was on playing poker; in Washington, it’s on winning and losing.