Throwback Thursday: A Tale to Tell (cont.)

Posted: March 24, 2016 in Throwback Thursday
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Everyone has a tale to tell. Few people, however, are intriguing enough on their own to warrant an audience. The stories, though… the stories are what define a man; they deserve a voice. After more than a decade embracing a game I love as the vehicle to a better life, I’ve decided to take a step back and pay homage to the people and experiences that have shaped my career, moreover, my life. This is my story (part 1)

Image (3)Despite my exposure to real world issues, I couldn’t understand my mother’s sickness. I blamed her. I saw it all as a choice, and I had no real comprehension just how drastically her chemical imbalance affected her decision-making process. For a long time, I hated her, and it only grew deeper when her actions began weighing on Elicia. I was the eldest, I was able to cope, I was able to finally cut all ties and seek normalcy with my Grandparents. Lish saw it as an opportunity to experience life. She became influenced by the wrong crowd and eventually pregnant at 15. Her youth was completely stolen, but in turn, she’s grown into an incredibly strong adult, callused as a result of her trial by fire youth. Once Eric was born Elicia finally took the step of leaving my mother to her own devices.

All things considered, I had it good. Despite having their own financial concerns, my grandparents ensured we never wanted for anything. They kept my sister and me in new clothes and provided rides and encouragement to partake in extracurriculars. For me, that was sports, specifically baseball. Through sports and the close-knit nature of a town with one stoplight, I developed life-long friendships. We grew up together, from toddlers to teens. We argued…a lot. We were loud and never missed an opportunity to bust someone’s chops. We wrestled, fought, pushed and shoved. Day in and day out the pecking order was challenged, each one of us trying to be the biggest, fastest, tallest, strongest, smartest, funniest, most likable young men we could possibly be. As a whole our moral fiber was strong, so it’s no surprise none of us really did any gambling, at least not on outcomes beyond our control. Challenge an ego, however, and anyone of us would quickly throw down our last buck on a testament of skill. “Bet me” was my favorite way to win an argument just through projecting confidence… that is until we discovered poker.

We first started playing around age 14, at a sleepover. Lamanna, Skimpy, Randy, Simmons and myself all ponied up $5 and played mostly 5-card draw. I don’t remember much aside from losing and being extremely sore over it. I was an awful loser; stubborn and emotionally attached to every outcome, as well as delusional and ignorant enough to expect victory, even in games of chance. I’m fairly certain the others got such a kick out of beating me that they rarely missed an opportunity to play. Even with money being tight, at least one weekend a month the five of us would throw together an impromptu home game.

Poker proved to be the perfect social competitive outlet. Unlike video games, everyone could play at once and the concentration level wasn’t so intense that conversations about real issues, such as bra sizes and The Steelers’ Super Bowl chances, could thrive. Because my grandparents trusted me implicitly, I was often the host. I had all the essentials: a cheap round card table, a spacious attic remodeled into a bedroom, plenty of Doritos and Pepsi, and the infamous jar of pennies. Allow me to explain, this was 1996 and we weren’t even aware of what poker chips were. Yet, the concept wasn’t totally lost on us as we used pennies to represent quarters. The structure was very simple, we all would buy in for $5, rebuys were welcomed but no one could cash out prior to the group agreeing enough was enough. By 6 a.m. most of the group would be broke and passed out while the remaining few would agree to cash out and call it.

We learned the game much differently than the current young enthusiasts. Hold’em wasn’t in our vernacular, this was the east coast, after all, home of 7-card stud. We didn’t understand structured betting either, so we played some bastardized version of spread limit where the minimum bet at any time was a quarter and the max was the entire jar of pennies, obviously table stakes alluded us. The games consisted of all the typical home games: Chicago, 7-card Stud: deuces wild, Follow the queen, 3-5-7, Guts, Jacks or Better Trips to win, etc. None of us knew anything about strategy aside from what beat what, and even that was at times lost on us (my biggest losing night was due to misreading my opponent’s hand, the story to follow). Ignorance truly was bliss.

I’m quite certain this is what it resembled. The last hand (3:30) mimics our betting structure or lack thereof:

Over the next 18 months the playing field remained fairly level in that none of us were students of the game, we were all effectively gambling for kicks. However, it was becoming apparent that Skimpy, Lamanna and myself were commonly the last ones standing. New players would frequent the games along with Simmons and Randy, but rarely would any of them pull a win. The separation was due to a simple understanding of risk. Lamanna and Skimpy played tightly, they were quick to throw hands away as their risk tolerance was low. Unknowingly, I was taking advantage of tendencies. Against Randy, Simmons and most others who would play here and there I rarely bluffed. Against Skimpy and Lamanna I developed a habit where I would bet the entire jar of pennies. Having to pull out of pocket, or even worse to owe a gambling debt in order to cover the bet was terrifying to a bunch of broke teens. No one ever called and conversely, no one, to my knowledge, ever pulled the move themselves as a bluff. Similarly to a WWE wrestler, this became my signature move and my first real taste of success through aggression.

It didn’t take long before my Pap caught wind of what we were doing until the wee hours of the morning. He, of course, went through the motions of explaining to me how dangerous gambling is, despite the fact that I had seen him pump twenty after twenty into the video poker machines at the Slovak Club. I dismissed his warnings with a confident glare and head nod, reminding him that I wasn’t the type to take on a losing battle. I knew he trusted me. Eventually, the warnings became more indirect, presented in a manner I couldn’t ignore. I found myself right back on the porch, where I spent so many hours as a kid, again hanging on my Grandad’s every word. He would tell me stories of friends who destroyed their lives over the obsession to bet, and even his own experiences bookmaking when he was young. As much as I loved my Pap and could listen to his stories for hours, I was sixteen at this point and certainly knew it all. I politely explained to him how poker was different, a game of skill.

Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker…It’s like any other job. You don’t gamble. You grind it out. Your goal is to win one big bet an hour, that’s it. Get your money in when you have the best of it, and protect it when you don’t.”

With a rye smile, he cracked open a PBR and reached for the phone. “Hey Graham, yeah it’s George. I have Berk over here telling me poker isn’t gambling, how he doesn’t ever lose… yeah, ok cya in a minute.” His best friend and next door neighbor, PJ Graham, wouldn’t miss this exhibition for the world. An ex-Marine, he loved to bust balls and shoot the bull over a few beers. Much like my Pap, PJ was all personality and similarly all heart underneath a tough exterior. He absolutely adored my Grandad, similarly to the way Walter Matthau jovially tortured Jack Lemmon in Grumpy Old Men. I knew I was about to face the firing squad. An onslaught of friendly ribbing followed by a stern life lesson.

Fortunately, I was quick on my feet and just arrogant enough to throw down the gauntlet. I told my Pap to grab his wallet while I retrieved the cards and jar of pennies. The jokes quickly faded into silence which eventually turned to laughter followed by a slew of questions. These two looked like proud papas giving away celebratory stogies outside of the delivery room. Within an hour, I had every cent and the blessings from the two men I looked up to most.

A few weeks later I again found myself on the porch surrounded by my Pap and his drinking buddies. The audience was eagerly awaiting George to reminisce his time spent as a young man conquering the world, but his seat remained empty and he remained silent. I took my seat, only to notice it felt strangely more comfortable. For one day I had graduated from the floor to the speaker’s throne. As everyone’s attention shifted, I happened to catch my Pap’s eye. He gave me a casual smirk and a head nod before PJ broke the silence, “Let’s go, Berk, tell them how you cleaned your Grandad out.”


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Next Entry: Throwback Thursday: Lasting Impression
Previous Entry: Throwback Thursday: A Tale to Tell

  1. […] I was left to lament over the mistake I had made of misreading my hand, seven’s full of aces. Ignorance was punished in our game, players were responsible for declaring their hand while others kept their mouths shut. Neither I […]


  2. […] Previous Entry: Throwback Thursday: A Tale to Tell (cont.) […]


  3. […] Be Continued…) Part 2 **Check back every Thursday for a new […]


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