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Oct 18, 2017

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Deal Me In
by Scott Stavrou
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.3

Never play cards with any man named 'Doc.' Never eat at any place called 'Mom's.' And never, ever, no matter what else you do in your life, sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own. -- Nelson Algren

Without man's innate urge to take risks, we'd all still be sitting around drawing on cave walls, grunting and belching. Fortunately, our daring ancestors ventured forth into the dangerous world and created civilization. Which means today we can take our risks in small doses, like sitting around a dining table playing poker... and grunting and belching.

If you haven't smugly riffled a newly won stack of poker chips in a smoke-filled room surrounded by smelly guys swilling beer and cursing, then you haven't lived. You can leave the martinis, Baccarat and double-breasted dinner jackets to James Bond and his crumbled-British-Empire ilk. If you're an American man, playing poker's part of your heritage.

Our nation was founded on the idea of taking chances. This country was built by a bunch of rowdy guys who liked drinking and taking risks, and didn't like being told what to do. This is precisely why poker -- that most American of card games -- couldn't have been invented anywhere else. The father of our country, George Washington, who also happened to brew his own beer, was known to host card games in his tent during the Revolutionary War -- a war in which, it's important to remember, our opponent held the far better cards. Against all odds, those stalwart colonial souls managed to back up their bluff and rake in the rich pot that included freedom, democracy, self-determination and the deed to several hundred thousand acres of prime real estate. Some years later (in the mid-1800s), poker as we know it today was invented in the American West. So, if our founding fathers hadn't played and won, we'd be as lacking in cultural identity as our floundering Canadian cohorts up north, eh? (Note to Canadians: Please address your letters to the editor, RE: Canadian Cultural Identity Crisis.)

It's estimated some 60 million Americans play poker regularly. Some play for their love of gambling, some for their love of money, some to escape the humdrum routine of their lives, and some just for their fondness for camaraderie. Whether you win or lose, whether you know when to hold 'em or know when to fold 'em, gathering around a table with a group of pals, a deck of cards, stacks of colored chips, and some eats and drinks is one of the hallowed traditions of the American male.

The human instinct to gamble with fate is probably as old as...well, human instinct. The Ancient Greeks believed the lofty Gods of Mount Olympus threw dice to divide up the world. (Crude dice have been found in most ancient civilizations.) Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus' robes. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul to pay off gambling debts. It's a fair bet that amoebas floundering in the early primordial soup wagered on who'd be the first to make it out of the bog.

Poker differs greatly from the games of pure chance in casinos. Gamblers, whether they bet on the roll of the dice or the spin of a roulette wheel, are generally betting against the odds. Smart gamblers know this, but it hasn't stopped gaming from becoming one of the most successful business enterprises. Skillful poker players use their knowledge to wager only on favorable odds. Gamblers are romantics looking forward to what might happen.

Accomplished poker players are realists betting on what should happen. Of course in poker, as in most endeavors, what should happen isn't always what does happen.

Fortunately in poker, as in life, you don't have to be good at it to like it. (Though I'm sure those who are absolutely no good are welcome and regular guests at many a poker table.) You just have to enjoy yourself.

>> There are no Miranda Rights in poker; anything you say and do can and will be used against you.

A man's character is stripped bare at the poker table. Friends will notice things about you that you've never even noticed yourself. These things are called "tells" -- signs you give off indicating what type of hand you have. If you hold chips in your left hand before betting, or always pull on your ear when you're bluffing, rest assured some savvy soul at the table is aware of it. There are no Miranda Rights in poker; anything you say and do can and will be used against you.

Being a good poker player requires something few people do in today's short-attention-span society: paying close attention to everything. Because poker's as much about people as it is about cards, and how we live influences how we play. There are those who play and live cold and conservative, striving to avoid risk, and those who play and live brash and full of bluster. There are players in the games of life and poker who'll never bet unless the odds are actually in their favor. If you can't spot the sheep waiting to be sheared at the table by the time you've quaffed your first beer, there's a good chance it's you. But in a friendly game always remember that you can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.

You don't have to have the best cards to win, either. You just have to play the best. And every hand is different, depending on what you choose to do with it.

If you enjoy bluffing your way through life -- and getting away with it -- then you probably get a major adrenaline rush by stealing a healthy pot knowing your opponents have you beat. The bluffing element of poker sets it apart from almost all other games and pursuits. You can't pretend to have the best hand and win in bridge or blackjack. You can't pretend you're a great mountain climber and conquer Kilimanjaro any more than you can bluff your way through the Iron Man Triathlon. So many human endeavors are cut and dried; if you say you're the best, there's only one way to prove it. This is the very beauty of poker. After all, isn't this what we all want?

In every deck of 52 cards there are 2,598,960 possible five-card poker hands. The bad news is that you're only going to be dealt one of them. The better news is that there's always the chance, the possibility, that you can transform whatever cards you hold into the winning hand.

That's why poker's never dull. The game has thousands of variants, and all it requires is your group of buddies, a deck of cards and some chips. It's always better if you switch the venue and the responsibility for providing the eats and drinks. And you can bring as much, or as little, flair to your poker night as you like.

If you're like me, you started with Budweiser, smelly Swisher Sweets and nickel-dime-quarter games. Over the years my friends and I have graduated to imports in both our beer and cigar preferences, and the same red, white and blue chips have grown to represent much larger sums. It's not fun without the risk of losing a bit more than you should, and you can't win if you don't play.

If you're really a gambler (this most superstitious of species) you'll of course have a good-luck token of some type, whether it's the old Dunes $5 chip you didn't cash in before the implosion, your tattered boxers emblazoned with the Queen of Hearts, the filthy Cubs cap you bought at Wrigley the year they were going to go all the way (but didn't -- again) or maybe even a silk smoking jacket. Poker is more psychology than sophistication. Studies have shown there's a real psychological boost from believing in a good-luck piece and that gamblers actually get an adrenaline surge as if they were in a fight-or-flight situation. Jonny Chan, former World Series of Poker champion, was always known to place an orange beside him when he played, though he never ate it. Stories abound about how many people have offered him absurd amounts of money for his orange, which he never sells. Having others believe in your good-luck charm never hurts.

Whether you carry an edible good-luck piece or not, poker night requires sustenance. You need fuel to keep you going during the hours you're spending trying to outwit your opponents. The history of eating and playing cards goes back even further than the Earl of Sandwich, who actually invented the snack that bears his name as a way to eat without getting his hands greasy and without missing a moment at the card table.

While it's not as exciting if there's no money involved, your game should never be too serious. You can play to win money or to have fun, but doing both is the best. Dealer's choice allows the deal to rotate around the table, with each person given a chance to deal whatever game he chooses. In the old days they used to place a silver dollar, one buck, in front of the person whose turn it was to deal. This ultimately became a cliche when President Truman, an avid poker player, declared: "The Buck Stops Here."

When we play poker, the games run the gamut from the classic 5-Card Draw of the Old West to 7-Card Stud, 7-Card No-Peeky, Baseball, Black Mariah, Chicago, 2-22, Guts, Lo-Ball, Omaha, Acey-Deucy, 3-Card Monte and several of our own twisted variants. It's good to have a healthy and eclectic mix of games, some where skill plays out along with some of the whimsical games of pure dumb luck that the poor players and drunks always enjoy and often win.

Each pack of cards holds within it the possibility of millions of different outcomes every single time we deal. In life and poker we can't all be winners, but we certainly can't win if we're not in the big game. And not knowing what'll happen, well, that's the real beauty of this poker game called life anyway, isn't it? That's exactly why life is such a big deal, after all. Anything might happen.

>> If you can't spot the sheep waiting to be sheared at the table by the time you've quaffed your first beer, then there's a good chance it's you.

Wild Bill Hickok and the Dead Man's Hand: Legend has it that Hickok always sat in the back corner of the saloon so he could see who was arriving, but eager to get in a high-stakes poker game that had only one seat open, he took a seat with his back to the door. He was shot in the back while holding two pair, black aces and eights, ever after known as the Dead Man's Hand.

ACES OF SPADES: Believed by many the world over to be an omen of evil, and known in the Far East as the "Card of Death." In 1966, the U.S. Playing Card Company produced several million decks composed solely of aces of spades for use as a secret weapon in Vietnam. They were dropped on the Front and said to have struck terror into the Viet Cong.

HIGH FLYING CARDS: Apollo 14 astronauts took specially made flameproof decks of cards for use in the 100% oxygen atmosphere of Skylab.

INVENTION OF PLAYING CARDS: Because they invented paper, and because it's almost unfathomable to imagine a culture having paper and not making cards, the Chinese are generally credited with the invention of playing cards.

HISTORY IN THE CARDS: Before the invention of printing, the Italians are known to have produced hand-painted playing cards of four suits (though cards were first mass-produced by the Germans very shortly after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and were one of the first things to roll off after the Bible). In the Middle Ages the suits were set up to reflect contemporary society with hearts (cups or chalices) representing the Church; spades (or swords), the military; diamonds, the wealth of the merchant class; and Clubs the peasantry.

FACES OF HISTORY: Originally the four kings represented the four civilizations that begat Western culture: the Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews and the Holy Roman Empire. Today's images are much the same as the symbolic ones chosen centuries ago. The king of spades is the Biblical King David carrying the sword of Goliath; the king of hearts is Charlemagne; the king of diamonds wielding a battle-ax is Julius Caesar, who appears in profile because the only surviving images of him were profiles on Roman coinage; and the king of clubs is Alexander the Great, who holds an orb representing the world he conquered. Most of these original symbols hold true on today's cards, though cards as we know them truly became popular when English soldiers of the Tudor era returned home with the concepts after serving in France, adorning the royal face cards in Elizabethan Age garb. The colored roses held by the queens represent the ending of the War of the Roses.

POKER RULES: The first book to codify the rules of poker was compiled in 1871 by the U.S. ambassador to England, at the request of Queen Victoria, whom he had introduced to the game. The current authority on poker and all card game rules is the famous "Book of Hoyle," hence, the phrase "according to Hoyle" for something done by the rules.

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