Upping the Ante: Poker Night Is for Real Men

By Max Gross

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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For a while the Hapless Jewish Writer nursed the delusion that he was not a bad poker player. You might say it began one night in Israel, when he relieved his Israeli and American co-players of more than a hundred shekels (about $25). He was euphoric.

As it turns out, it shouldn’t have surprised the HJW that he could beat Israelis. Most Israelis lack the essential component for poker success: subtlety. Still, the HJW — easily lulled into cocksure arrogance — became convinced of his mastery of poker. Whenever the subject came up he would say, beaming with pride, “You know, I’m actually an excellent poker player.”

Several months ago, the HJW was invited him to a Friday-night poker game, and he enthusiastically accepted.

“You’re going to play poker?” asked one of the HJW’s friends.

“Actually, I’m an excellent poker player,” came the reply.

“But you can’t hide anything!” exclaimed the HJW’s friend. And, yes, when the HJW thought about it, he had to admit he did wear his emotional hurly-burly on his sleeve. He could never control himself in political debate or mask the desperate, yearning look in his eyes when he spoke to a beautiful woman.

But the HJW tried to remain optimistic.

The stakes were low — 20 bucks bought you a stack of chips — the ante was a quarter and betting more than $2 on a hand was considered gutsy.

The HJW played aggressively. He bet big — dropping $2, even $3 per hand. When a hand came along that looked like it had possibilities, he stayed in the pot long after he should have folded.

Alas. He ran through the first stack of chips and bought another. He lost that one, too, and had to resist the impulse to buy a third. He went home angry, thinking about his loss.

“So how much did you lose?” his father said on the phone the next morning.

“Twenty bucks.”

“That means 40,” his father said, knowingly.

Being good at poker didn’t strike the HJW as essential to his lifelong quest to become a mentsh; he didn’t admire the champion poker player over Winston Churchill or William Shakespeare. But there is something about poker that makes it a male rite of passage. If the HJW was better at baseball, or if he was a great lady-killer or if he had done a stint in the Army, he wouldn’t care so much. But the notion that he was a reasonably good poker player was one of the only things keeping afloat the connection with his beloved macho writers like Norman Mailer.

“Jews are obsessed with gambling — Jews and Asians,” said poker connoisseur Avery Cardoza, who is Jewish.

Cardoza had been a professional gambler for a number of years in Las Vegas, Reno and anywhere else he could find a game, but managed to get himself banned from the casinos for taking too much of their money. He is the author of “How to Play Winning Poker” and runs the Cardoza Publishing Co. Cardoza met the HJW for lunch, during which he gave the HJW a poker lesson.

“You’re probably betting on junk,” Cardoza said. He asked the HJW what he would do if he were dealt two sevens at the outset of a game.

“I’d bet a quarter,” the HJW said.

“No!” Cardoza said. “Two sevens is a weak hand!” With two sevens the HJW should only stay in the game if the pot isn’t raised.

Cardoza is a big believer in playing conservatively. The HJW’s impulses needed to be tamed. Discretion, he learned, is the better part of valor.

For several weeks the HJW studied the poker books Cardoza gave him and played for Twizzlers with a friend. (And, yes, the HJW found that he could beat the hell out of her, but she didn’t play very often.) When another invitation came from his colleague for Friday night poker, the HJW was eager to change his poker image.

Before arriving at the poker game, the HJW and a colleague played a few practice rounds. And the HJW found that his colleague was, perhaps, more hapless than he was.

“Two pair — that beats three of a kind, right?” said the colleague.

The HJW did a double take.

When they sat down to play for money, the HJW folded weak hands and stayed in the pot only when he was fairly certain that he could win. And he came out of the game more or less even. (He was down five bucks, but had arrived at the game late and was fairly confident that if he continued playing he would win it back.)

The HJW was seated next to another writer, Thomas, who began his sentences with phrases like, “So I was playing poker online last night….” As he watched Thomas, he realized that they shared the same strategy. Thomas folded most of his hands, but stayed in for the large pots. However, Thomas was luckier than the HJW — he accumulated a far larger stack of chips by the end of the evening.

In contrast, their colleague played with reckless abandon. He bet $2 or $3 (or sometimes more) on nothing better than pairs, and he was soundly defeated. Every once in a while he would turn up with a good hand, and, because he bet so heavily, he stayed in the game having lost only $15.

And as the HJW watched his colleague play, the HJW found himself admiring his colleague’s bravery. He played with his guts. And, if being a good poker player was, indeed, about virility, then his colleague was beating him. Did Mailer play with his guts? Or was he just a lousy poker player?

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