#MYPOKERSTORY: A TALE TO TELL

Posted: September 24, 2018 in life
0Pap

George Virostek, MP WWII

As a tyke, there was no one I looked up to more than my Grandfather.  It seemed no matter where we went people would engage him in casual conversation, and he had certainly perfected the flirty old man routine. He was a man about town, a true guy’s guy, but most of all a family man. Needless to say when he spoke, I hung on every word. He was a fantastic narrator. My most memorable moments with him were stormy summer evenings spent on the porch. Me wide-eyed, fully immersed. Him a few beers deep and feeling nostalgic, painting a perfect picture of some past adventure he had embarked upon. Hours would pass. I’d find myself moving from the chair to the floor, to his lap, all while fighting heavy eyelids. Sleep would inevitably win out, but never due to a lack of being entertained.

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…

My parents split when I was five after what could only be described as a toxic and tumultuous relationship. My father fit the bill of a tortured genius. His knowledge and intellect rivaled scholars of the tumblr_nhvfs2vVpy1s2wio8o1_500highest level while his emotional intelligence was on par with a sociopath. He rarely expressed any emotion beyond anger, with a fuse shorter than Wile E. Coyote’s explosives. He was reckless and intimidating anytime he began to see red. Fortunately, he never laid a hand on my sister or me. Unfortunately, my mother was often the target of his rage-fueled tantrums. There were countless moments where I feared for her safety, a handful where I feared for her life. A theme that would become all too common throughout my childhood regarding my mother’s well being.

Through some small miracle, my mother had the strength to escape the clutches of an abusive marriage, a story too many victims don’t get to tell. However, she was ill prepared to forge out on her own raising two young children. Throughout her marriage she suffered numerous schizophrenic episodes, resulting in a handful of stints in the psych ward. Later in life, she would be told she was suffering from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder amongst a chemical imbalance in her brain, but at the time, she was widely regarded as lazy and self-destructive, antidepressants being the band-aid offered to her. By the time the divorce finalized she seemed more stable and ready for a new beginning. The reality was that she was an unemployed 28-year-old woman who was mentally weak, and it didn’t take long before she turned to drugs to escape.

A lot of the memories blur together but somewhere between 1st and 6th grade we had moved 4 times. My mother remarried a man who offered the world in the way of tolerance and respect, as well as a weakness for substance. The downward spiral advanced at a rapid rate. Joe, my stepdad, was a functioning alcoholic. He worked a labor intensive job and never let his demons get in the way of making a living. But he was weak. My mother’s substance abuse had graduated from pot and alcohol to pain pills and then finally, crack. Joe helplessly watched, numbing reality with a bottle.

We struggled mightily and it wasn’t long before her mental and physical health began to deteriorate. She had grown very obese, having nearly doubled her weight since I was a kid.  Unable to work, she relied solely on government aid to survive. Joe’s weekly checks were barely enough to cover rent and the bar tab, let alone my mom’s crack habit. The few hundred a month she would receive kept her dysfunctionally high and us functionally poor. Not poor in the sense that I was unsure where my next meal was coming from, but in a relative sense. We didn’t have a car, we rarely had a phone and our cupboards looked like the corner of a bomb shelter pantry while our fridge was sparsely stocked with pop, moldy jelly, and condiments. The two bedroom apartment reeked of stale cigarette smoke and was too filthy to ever consider having friends over. Fortunately, my maternal grandparents were saints. They ran interference when child services attempted to step in. And stopped by daily to ensure we ate and were bathed. My sister and I were still young and foolish enough to remain loyal to our mother, so Pap and Gram quietly provided relief, always just a phone call away.

It didn’t take long before I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my sister into the sun porch. It was an addition, secluded from the rest of the apartment, providing the freedom to have people come and go at my discretion. I was twelve, living in the equivalency of a college dorm room. I thrived in my independence, having the ability to keep my space smoke free, clean and private. And somehow I held myself accountable. Every morning I would get myself up for school, attempt (generally unsuccessfully) to get my sister, Elicia, up as well, and walk to the cafeteria for breakfast. I learned very early to never pass on a free meal. I was routinely making adult decisions through the innocent eyes of a child. I saw the world in black and white, only right and wrong, no exceptions. I defaulted to my moral compass as a guide and to this day have yet to even so much as consider trying a drug, cigarette or a sip of alcohol; the curiosity eluded me.

By thirteen, I was a seasoned vet in dealing with my mother’s decline. I grew up fast, with intricate knowledge of day to day responsibilities all while ensuring my home life was a well-kept secret. I was incredibly embarrassed by our situation. Not particularly because we were poor, but more so by my mother, her terrible life choices and the neglected living conditions. I spent most nights praying no one would ever find out my mother did drugs, or that we had cockroaches in our bathroom. Kids can be cruel and I couldn’t bare the thought of being outcasted over circumstances beyond my control. At the time, I thought no one knew. At least no one beyond my best friend Jace. Looking back, however, I realize now that the parents had an idea of what was going on and thankfully they extended a helping hand rather than exposing the skeletons in my closet. I’ll never forget the day Sally Simon, my close friend John’s mom, showed up at our door with bags upon bags of groceries. She claimed she had been cleaning out her cupboards and wanted rid of all this extra stuff, but it was clear she had done some serious shopping. I was mortified. Beyond my immediate gratitude and fundamental need for the supplies she was providing, was my innate desire to desperately protect this secret home life I was subjected to. The angst I felt during the ensuing days for fear that John, or anyone else for that matter, would confront me over my situation was my version of Chicken Little, the sky seemed to be falling. Reflecting back, I can’t express enough how thankful I am for having been exposed to such gracious acts and thoughtful people. Sally and others greatly shaped my character, allowing me to fully grasp empathy and the impact of taking action.

I was the oldest fourteen-year-old anyone could dream up. By this point, I had seen my mother in the psych ward, in back alleys buying crack, and the final straw was behind bars. I still remember my pap coming over to the empty apartment at 2 a.m. on a school night to pick me up and take me to bail my mother out. Upon arriving I just remember begging the officer to do his best to keep it out of the local papers, or at the very least to use her remarried name. That night I packed my bags and completely turned my back on her. It had become clear she could no longer care for herself, let alone me or my sister. As our situation grew worse my Pap and Gram never hesitated to take on the responsibility of raising two teenagers with welcoming arms. Unfortunately, my sister was the type to learn through experiences, she chose to stay with my mother and we would embark down two very different paths. fork-in-road11

 

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.

P1960347-SFY-Final selects-EDITED-170104We first started playing around age 14, at a sleepover. My closest friends– Skimpy, Simmons, Lamanna, and Randy all ponied up $5 and we 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. Ignorance truly was bliss.

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, 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 giphydeveloped 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 aggressive risk aversion.

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 direct, 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.

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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