Lessons in life may be in the cards
October 6, 2004
As a kid, I got to know my grandmother and an uncle by playing pinochle.
We sat for hours at a big oak table in the dining room of her farmhouse shuffling cards, chatting, discarding, brewing a fresh pot of coffee, and shuffling some more. It seemed there was a pinochle game going on pretty much every evening.
I think we must have talked about everything under the moon. These were the days before television was all-consuming. Instead of the family sitting around staring at a glowing screen, we sat around a table and stared at the cards, which gave us plenty of time for jokes and gossip.
Later, before I was old enough to drive, a friend and I got in the habit of turning up at a local cafe on Friday nights and sipping Dr. Pepper as we played Spades or Hearts by the hour. Every teenager in town passed through Rosie’s during the course of the evening, so we were like Communication Central keeping track of who was sweet on whom and which kids were grounded for the weekend.
Down the street at Zeke’s pool hall, exactly the same thing was going on over a never-ending game of euchre – only the gossip-spreaders and storytellers were retired farmers in faded work shirts and sweat-stained fedoras who mostly kept track of who had died, who was in the hospital and, occasionally, whose truck was parked all night in front of a house where it probably shouldn’t have been.
Euchre, pinochle, Hearts, Spades. I have a suspicion not many teenagers would know what I’m talking about. They’re experts at Halo and Gran Turismo and Metal Gear Solid.
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I took this nostalgic trip around the card table after reading that card games and table games may just be making a comeback. Board game sales were up 6 percent last year, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, and card games are the hottest trend at teenage parties.
Well, one card game anyway.
“Most of my friends play poker,” Mark Glicksteen, an eighth-grader at Medea Creek Middle School in Oak Park, Calif., told the Times. For his 12th birthday, Mark had a “casino party” — guests played poker, blackjack and roulette. During the school year, Mark and his friends have weekly poker games at their houses. They usually play just with chips, but sometimes they have $1 buy-ins.
OK, so there’ s good news and bad news.
People worried that kids are learning how to gamble have a justifiable concern. We all know how strongly addictive gambling can be for a portion of the population, and the devastating effect financial losses can have on families.
On the other hand, poker seems benign when compared to some other stuff teenagers learn.
The rise in popularity of poker among teenagers is being fueled, of course, by its sudden prominence on television. Every night, you can tune in to watch some pasty-faced, shifty-eyed professional gamblers sitting around a dealer.
They’re playing no-limit Texas Hold’em. I’ve never played no-limit anything in my life, so there’s rule No. 1 for teenagers:
— Don’t bet anything you can’t afford to lose.
Teenagers should be playing for potato chips or toothpicks. Most adults should be playing for nickels. Because if you learn anything from watching the professionals on TV, it should be this:
— Poker is a game of skill, not luck.
A lot of people like to think they’d have a better life if they’d just been dealt a better hand. How come other people have all the luck? Those people are waiting for something good to happen.
Other people take the hand that was dealt them and figure out how best to turn it to their advantage. And if they can’t win with that hand, they toss it in and try another. In other words:
— It’s not the cards, it’s the people.
You find out a lot about your friends when you spend a few hours playing poker with them. Their best and worst tendencies rise to the surface. Ever been in a “friendly” game of poker when two old buddies are suddenly at each other’s throats over a pot worth $12? Did they perhaps have some unspoken issues they carried into the game? Or maybe it’s because …
— When you win, somebody else loses.
Sure, that’s the case in any competition. But it’s not quite as direct and personal as in poker, when you reach out across the felt and drag an armload of chips to your pile. Just a minute ago, those chips were in somebody else’s pile. And in another minute, somebody is going to try to take them from you.
Poker endures – and people actually watch it on television, for crying out loud – because it strips down the issues to wits and money. It’s about as American as it gets.
Even if you don’t know poker, you know what it means to have an ace in the hole. You know why you should hold blue chips. You’ve thought about calling a bluff, and you’ve sometimes had to up the ante.
And even when the chips are down, you know there could be a wild card in the deck.
Now, I’m not thinking Family Poker Night is probably going to be such a hot idea. But you can play pinochle or Hearts. Or pull out the Scrabble and Monopoly boards.
I’ll bet you learn a lot.
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1221.