**Disclaimer, the story you are about to read might be entirely fabricated by my overactive imagination as a way to explain why I am naturally a good cheat at poker. Then again, these real and vivid memories might be entirely factual, remembered under the influence of jellied orange slices. All but two key figures are dead (and not in some poker vendetta or cursed object horror flick thing, just because that’s what happens to old people eventually). Only my great uncle and I could tell you what really happened, and while my memory bluffs, his is old and creaky and not to be trusted. It is up to the reader, then, to decide if this is real, and perhaps to test the theory in a dimly lit room, over beer and cigars, while a player with a bad hand drops his poker chips over and over because he doesn’t know how I know he has such a lousy hand.
This is the story of how I learned to cheat at poker.
One of my earliest memories is of learning to play poker against my will. I wanted to manhandle the new chicks that my brother would be raising for the county fair. I was prohibited from that activity after my mom found my lying on the floor of the chicken coop, saying, “play, minions, play!” while the yellow chicks ran over me. I remember her going off about lice and how you can’t train chickens to be a trained playground army, but I knew full well what birds were capable of because I snuck in while the folks were watching The Birds. I was hoping to train my army to protect the swings at the park from the bigger kids who liked to freak out the little children so that they could wrap the chains around the poles.
Instead of training my militia, I was inside in the heat of summer, stuck to a plastic chair because I refused to put on pants (I may regret revealing this much about myself), learning to play the most boring adult game of them all, poker. My parents kept a tin bucket–painted blue with serene ducks waddling along its edge–behind the washing machine. The bucket was full of pennies. Every now and again, they’d pull in down, put up a deteriorating card table in our living room, and get down to the business of playing a cutthroat, no-apologies, all-day-long game of 5 card draw penny ante. While I was much more interested in making shapes and maps with my pennies, my family was doing their best to make my pile of change dwindle and were constantly asking me, “Now why did you lose that hand?” My dad’s philosophy is that you should learn anything worth learning by screwing it up first. That’s exactly why I got a note sent home the first day of kindergarten. When Mrs. Fifer said, “Now listen carefully to the instructions, boys and girls,” I put on my best dad impression and said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ distructions!” Learning the basic rules of poker meant a lot of losing and getting my pile restocked until I could win.
By the time I met my grandpa Charles, my mom’s dad, he’d already had three wives and several types of cancer. He came into my life with a diminutive but ornery and very funny wife named Clara, a pervasive stench of cigarettes, bowed legs, and a missing eye. Grandpa lost his eye to cancer, and his great test upon meeting people, especially children, for the first time, was to pop out the glass eye and drop it into his beer. If the eye wasn’t in his face (as was normal for him) He’d remove his glasses and the eye patch and rub around the empty socket as if he had a headache. When he did this to me the first time, I just smiled. I would have said “cool,” but that word got us in more trouble in my house than “damn it all to hell!” **which was big trouble.** I instantly liked my cowboy/pirate grandpa.
Our first meeting was at one of the yearly miniature family reunions, which happen at the same time as the festival celebrating the small town where my grandpa and siblings grew up. Grandpa Charlie, his brothers, and several of their long-time friends would sequester themselves in a backroom, far from the mad, screaming children and pie-baking wives, and play a game of poker that began Friday morning, took a few hours off for the dance, and ended late Sunday morning when the far-flung relatives drove home, hungover. Children were strictly forbidden from the poker room unless they fell under one of the following categories: food/booze deliverers, those kids who had the $50 buy in to lose, and messengers sent by the wives. I was allowed in because I was a novelty. I was meeting my grandpa and countless aunts and uncles and cousins and people who might be family but might not, and I was obviously overwhelmed. Plus, I was a red head, like grandpa (probably) used to be. When I nodded (lying) when grandpa asked if I liked poker, I was allowed to sit on the bony grandpa’s knee, eat jellied orange slices, and take hesitant, unpleasant sips of his beer until the cigarette smoke and boredom chased me out of the room.
I remember staring at a picture on the wall, far enough above my head that the faces had morphed into monsters, and wondering why anyone would hang something so ugly in their home. I was eating a piece of purloined pie (Pinon) and dropping crumbs all over the carpet. That’s when Grandpa Charles came out for a bathroom break. He growled and assumed the gunfighter stance when he spotted me. I faced off and screwed up my face like all the cowboys in the John Wayne movies my dad liked. He laughed and patted my head. On his way back, he asked if I’d like to help him play. Of course I wanted to help the pirate play. He explained this awesome game where I would move around the room and see how everyone else was doing, then come and help him decide how many of “them pretty little chips,” to bet. To say I was naive is a vast understatement.
He grabbed his cowboy hat off a nearby table and plunked it on my head. It covered half my face. I realize now, that there was a reason for the hat. No one could see where I was looking because they hat stayed facing forward while I had free range of motion underneath like I was a defective bobble head. For the first few rounds, I wandered the room in that 10 gallon hat, looking for the best hands and betting accordingly, but as I did it, I noticed that one uncle kept extra cards in the cuff of his jeans and that the only woman at the table, gruff voiced and cursing, was occasionally dragging the burning end of her cigarette across the corners of aces and kings. Though I didn’t recognize what they were doing as cheating at the time, everyone at the table was trying to pull one over on everyone else, yet, in the midst of all the card marking, and hidden cards cards, and sending small children around to read hands they thought they were playing a completely fair game. In fact, they generally went home with about what they started with.
Eventually, I’d live with my grandpa and Clara part-time while I went to school. I spent many years watching the games and only subbing for bathroom breakers because I didn’t have the money to buy in. Even in my teen years, grandpa would occasionally ask me what I though he should do with a hand. Neither of us ever admitted to the others that I actually knew what I was doing or that I was fully aware of their shenanigans. I learned not only how to blatantly cheat, but also to read tells, which is like cheating, but with more real-world application. I also learned that cheating is no match against actual skill. It wasn’t until much later, when I was learning to play Texas Hold ‘Em in college, that I realized that my poker strategy was not entirely up and up. I didn’t mark cards, but I sort of naturally looked for the places where people screwed up and revealed their cards, like the guy who flicked his hand between two fingers, creating a lovely flip book that revealed every card he had. I eventually told him, but only because he was playing some for-money games that were wiping him out. See, I’m a moral cheat.
And this is the point where I could hammer in a shaky metaphor about how we are all cheating, really, or how we have to learn to read the cards people aren’t showing, but I won’t. It is easy for me to fall into the moralistic fairy tale trap even while I am astutely aware that my moral compass is a bit screwy. Nor am I trying to write an indictment of my grandpa and his bad ways, of which there are many, but rather I want to celebrate his good humor. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to suss out here. I will never be able to play in the world series of poker because of my one-eyed cheating grandfather, but I have basically lived out scenes from Maverick, which is kind of cool, oh, excuse me, damn fun. Besides, even when I was trying to build my vast chicken army, all I really wanted to do with my entire life was to tell stories. What would I talk about without characters like my grandpa? And even if I’ve told his story badly, doesn’t he deserved to be celebrated in it?