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I Miss My Weekly Poker Game

It's not just the cards, it's the camaraderie lost to the pandemic

By Jon Friedman

I miss my weekly poker game.

poker cards
Credit: Adobe

I joined my friends’ Monday night game on the Upper East Side of Manhattan 25 years ago, in 1995. In the past quarter-century, girlfriends have inevitably come and gone. So have employers. But the game has always been there for me and the guys.

My God! This is my longest relationship!

The poker game is similar to the one that formed the foundation of Neil Simon’s wonderful play, “The Odd Couple,” which, in turn, spawned a celebrated movie, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, as well as a beloved television situation comedy, with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.

In my poker game, we have experienced the full cycle of life. We’ve lost players to tragic illnesses. We’ve celebrated marriages and the arrivals of babies. We offered encouragement and consolation when someone got divorced.

As loyal New Yorkers, we’ve high-fived one another when the Yankees won the World Series or the Giants captured a Super Bowl — or, for my friends at the table who bleed Syracuse Orange, when Carmelo Anthony led the ‘Cuse to a men’s basketball national championship in 2003.

Above all, I miss the camaraderie and the competition.

I know, I know. In the annals of COVID-19, the unceremonious end of a beloved poker game does really not seem like a big deal.

But it can feel that way, you know? As I mourn the long hiatus of my poker game, maybe you are, likewise, missing your yoga or spinning class or a canasta game or a chess match in the park or a book club or a sewing circle.

You see what I mean?

Talking, Debating and Laughing

Above all, I miss the camaraderie and the competition. Most of the regulars at my poker table were also lifelong journalists, like me, and long-time, if not lifelong, residents of Manhattan or a surrounding borough or suburb.

I don’t miss my winnings. You see, we didn’t play for the big bucks. (Hey, we aren’t dentists on Long Island!) Happily, nobody lost the rent money during one of our poker games.

We knew each other well. We could talk or debate — or, best of all, argue loudly about sports, politics, foreign policy, the best vacation spot in Italy, favorite restaurants, movies and TV shows, the merits of The New York Times’ columnists, network news, cable news — the sillier and harder to prove, the better.

Who was the better New York Giants quarterback, Phil Simms or Eli Manning? Which Rangers goalie was better, Mike Richter or Henrik Lundqvist? Which "Godfather" movie was better, I or II? What was Al Pacino’s best film role? What was Bob Dylan’s or Neil Young’s greatest song?

All you needed was for one of us to mutter, “Fuhgeddaboudit,” like in the movie "Donnie Brasco," to punctuate the argument.

As far as detailing the intense competition around the table, let me say this: I still can’t decide which outcome is sweeter: scooping up the chips after a triumphant hand or seeing the desolation in the eyes of another player, after my cards have beaten his.

We sure laughed and smiled a lot, sometimes through clenched teeth. If you remember Matt Damon’s performance in the terrific poker film "Rounders," you know what I mean.

Life Lessons From a Poker Game

I also learned a lot about being a better man, thanks to the game.

I have to admit that in my early years, I was anything but a model citizen. If I lost a close hand, I’d whine and moan about my perennial bad luck. Or I’d fire my cards into the center of the table.

Or, worst of all, I’d get up and leave, well before our designated last round, which began at 11:30 p.m. When I did that, I effectively left the remaining players in the lurch and they’d curse my immaturity. And rightly so.

Then, one night, on a non-game evening, one of my poker pals called me and said bluntly, “You know, nobody likes playing with you.”

I was stunned! Me! Mr. Raconteur?

He went on to say that I was such a sore loser that it took the fun out of the game for everyone else. I got religion, right then and there.

Overnight, I became a model loser. I proceeded to congratulate the other guys on their well-played hands, even at my expense. That phone call kind of changed my life. I learned to accept the bad with the good a lot more gracefully.




My Favorite Poker Hand

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about my greatest, luckiest moment of all time.

In "Rounders," Damon’s character says he can remember his heartbreaking losing hands more easily than his big wins. Hogwash! Not me, anyway.

It happened not long after I joined the game, in one of our earliest hands of the evening. It was dealer’s choice to decide which particular poker game we played, ranging from the stalwarts, Omaha and Texas Hold ‘Em, to Crisscross and seven-card stud, which is what we happened to be playing when I had my happiest moment at the table, ever.

I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you about my greatest, luckiest moment of all time.

In this game, the dealer hands out three cards to each player at the start. Two cards facing down and one up. I happened to get three aces — the best three-card roll imaginable.

Then, I drew some low cards facing up. So, to the eyes of the other players, I was likely to go low in this high-low game.

Since they were showing kings and queens and jacks, I assumed they were avidly betting on their high hands. That was fine with me.

By the time we got to the seventh and final card, the table was bulging with chips. I wondered what I’d get for my last card, facing down.

You guessed it: the fourth ace! Since nobody else was showing a straight flush, I had an unbeatable high hand. More betting. More raising. More money in the pot! I sure did have a hard time displaying a bland “poker face.”

Everyone in the hand declared “high” so there would be one winner (me).

“No good, Jon,” one of the guys said assuredly, “I have a full house, kings over eights.”

“No good, Charlie,” I shot back. Then, to achieve the maximum effect, I revealed my four aces, one by one.

Their minds were so blown by this that they hardly challenged me again for the rest of the rest of the night, so I was free to bluff like mad. (And I did!)

Ah, those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. But they may just be gone for quite a while. As Joni Mitchell sang sagely, "You don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone."

Jon Friedman 
Jon Friedman, who teaches The Beatles: Their Music, Influence and Legacy at Stony Brook University, is the author of the Miniver Press ebook "Goo Goo Ga Joob: Why I Am the Walrus Is The Beatles’ Greatest Song."
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