My father swears he put me through college with his poker winnings. Taciturn, logical, and restrained, my father plays poker with a quiet consistency that often outwits more eager gamblers. The oval table in the dining room of the house where I grew up had a two-sided table cover. Black vinyl on top, fuzzy green underneath. For poker games the green side would be up. Behind the swinging door that connected the dining room to the pantry would be an elaborate display of cold cuts. But the men who came to our house once a week barely rose from the table. They were much less interested in refilling their stomachs than they were in reviewing their cards.
“It’s Burney,” my father announced. He bragged that he could tell by the sound of the footsteps across the floor which of the players was arriving. I was glad to see Burney because he always had a piece of hard candy for me, lint sticking to the plastic encasement, and a penny or a nickel that he fished out of his pocket. “Ned,” my father guessed, correctly, about a dour, dark-haired, barrel-chested man who nodded somberly in my direction. Then Marshall’s feet clomped across the floor. Marshall was an entrepreneur who played poker like he conducted business — with too much abandon and not enough forethought. He started the chain of Paperback BookSmiths, VideoSmiths and, later, LearningSmiths. When he won, he won big. But just as often he left bankrupt.
Rick came next. An Emergency Room doctor with no children of his own, Rick was my favorite. “Jenny! How are you!” It was never a question, just an enthusiastic greeting. I always lobbied for Rick to take me to bed when it was time to go. He would throw me on his shoulders, making me almost tall enough to reach the high ceilings in our Victorian house, and march up the stairs.
But for one or two hands, I was allowed to stay downstairs. I would sit very upright next to my father’s chair and look silently at his cards. His face always remained impassive. “Check,” he would say, slamming his fist on the table. Someone else would fold. Finally, the betting started. My father always waited to raise, knowing that if he gave away the fact that his cards were good he would scare the others out of the hand and win only a modest pot. “One chip for high, two for low, none if you’re betting high-low,” he announced. And that breathless moment would come when the clenched hands were on top of the table, all hiding the secret of their play under closed fingers. With the precision of a choreographed dance, every forearm would rotate upwards at the same time and all five fingers would open wide. Then there would be shouts, gasps, and swearing.
Even I, though I knew it might cost me the privilege of watching, couldn’t sit still and silent as the cards were revealed. I did not understand all of the mysterious secrets of the cards — that aces could be high or low; that a regal red queen could ruin a low hand for someone who was trying his luck, believing the others would be betting high; that a ten of spades, ten being a whole year away from me, could be a good low card. But I understood the excitement of having a good hand, the joy of raking in a large pile of chips, and the camaraderie that comes with playing a good game — a game full of tension and skill, where luck, too, has everything to do with the outcome.
I was the youngest of four children that my father raised, and when I graduated from high school a year early and left for college, our house, even on poker nights, must have seemed empty. I will never forget sitting in my nightgown with my legs dangling from a chair as I was privy, for a moment anyway, to the smoky, guffawing world of men.