The First Time I Played Poker

No matter how much you try to shelter your children, they are bound to encounter bad influences. All you can do is train them how to react and hope for the best. I’m fairly certain that’s the logic my parents used when they went to a movie and left their three small children with the crooked arrow of the family – Grandpa Hoyt. He’d raised three fine men after the war and was retired and living comfortably despite his penchant for drinking and gambling. A few hours alone with him wouldn’t change their children forever, would it?

When I remember that night, I feel a little like Alice of Wonderland, perched on a toadstool, listening to the Caterpillar wax poetic on cards a midst a cloud of smoke. My twin sister and I were around five or six years old. Our brother was nearing eight. We lived in the Bible belt at the time – Garland, TX – and our parents normally kept us surrounded by good Christian influences. We’d never seen a casino or heard adults discuss gambling before in our lives. I recall being wild eyed and bubbly enough I might have accidentally bounced off the chair if I made my hand. The poker face was definitely not my forte at the time.

He taught us both Blackjack and Five Card Draw that night. As I picture it, I’m holding two cards, discarding three, and gleefully declaring, “Hit me, grandpa!” His smile merely grows wider as he tosses three cards across the felt and takes another drag off his cigarette. We were in “the train room” – part study, part game room, and home to grandpa’s model train collection – an offshoot from the dining room, sandwiched between the garage and back yard. It was dark, despite the track lighting which illuminated the train, and little of grandpa’s cigarette smoke was choosing to exit through the sliding glass door he may or may not have remembered to crack open. My brother is on my right, sister to my left, and grandpa is straight ahead. It may be the only time in my life that I recall my status as a middle child earning me the best seat in the house.

My dad says that when they found us like that their jaws dropped. My uncle claims there’s a fair chance we were playing with a pin-up girl deck that contained PG-13 imagery. I don’t think grandpa pushed things that far. I’m pretty sure he pulled out a brand new deck of plain old Bicycle playing cards every time we came to town, but the details are pretty murky. The only thing my dad could think to say respectfully was, “Dad… what are you doing?!” Grandpa promptly waived him off with a nonchalant, “I’m babysitting,” which included enough sass to imply that fact should have been obvious.

We played poker many, many more times over the years and grandpa eventually began dumping a bucket of pocket change on the felt for us to use instead of chips. I remember learning that he always left his wallet in the car, carrying only what he was willing to lose into the casino. I still love hearing my dad tell how he and his brothers scored an all day boat rental at Tahoe after their dad had a profitable evening at the casino. It wasn’t until long after I could tell that story myself that I finally heard the most important detail – he’d been playing Blackjack, not poker. Grandpa only ever observed the poker games at the casinos. He never dared to sit with a table full of strangers attempting to swindle each other honestly, without pretense, over a few hands of No Limit Texas Hold’em.

Grandpa may have let me get bitten by the poker bug, but I am the one who chose to scratch that itch over and over and over again. He passed on long before I first dared venture into a casino for any reason. Nonetheless, I feel he’s watching me every time I play. Sometimes, although I’m not sure he ever actually said it in real life, I imagine grandpa telling my five year old self to, “Leave while you’re ahead.” If he could have the opportunity to explain why he’d chosen to teach his grandchildren to gamble that night oh so long ago, I believe he would tell you he wanted them to learn to dream big and fight tough. Everyone has to start learning how to play the hand they’re dealt sometime. Why not today?

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