I need to make one thing clear from the start: I am not a gambler. Not by any stretch of the imagination, even though my poker nights with the boys started when I was in my teens! Yes. I am making a very clear distinction between capital G gambling and a weekly poker game with my friends. How are they different you might ask? Well, for starters, when you start playing poker for pennies at 15 years old in the 1960s, gradually upping to nickels & dimes, and then brazenly moving to quarters, you are not gambling. You are, however, stealing from your piggy bank, but that transgression is for another story!
To further illustrate my claim to be a non-gambler, consider the following. A couple of years ago, my wife and I made the short trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to see Lady Gaga’s new show. We stayed at the hotel in which the show’s theatre was located, and of course on the main floor of the hotel was the requisite casino. I feel that one of the main reasons I could never be a gambler is that walking around the floor of the casino and watching hordes of people with plastic cups filled with coins, a drink in one hand, the other hand firmly gripping the huge “arm” of the slot machine, and yelling, at the machines blinking lights and rotating drums with all the colorful symbols, to make them a winner. And, if you are unlucky enough to walk by one of these “arm yankers” as they hit the jackpot, you’d better have earplugs at the ready, otherwise you won’t hear a word of what Lady Gaga is singing that evening. This is not for me. Instead, I prefer the blackjack tables where you at least have some measure of a chance…Yeah, right! After checking in, I proceeded to the aforementioned tables with $100 in my pocket. This is the amount of money I was willing to lose. In other words, when the $100 was gone, so was I. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in my room, much to my wife’s surprise!
This, however, was not my first time in Vegas. You would have to go back to 1971 when my buddy Steve (who you will meet below) and I packed up my 1965 VW bug and headed west from Montreal on a 3 1/2 month trek across Canada, then into the States finally making it to Las Vegas, before we began the long trip home. As you can imagine, it was a much different Vegas back then. In fact, at some point on the voyage we were asked if we were interested in working on a construction crew for a new hotel, the Holiday Casino, which opened in 1973 and was rebranded as Harrah’s Las Vegas in 1992. Back then you could still find blackjack tables with a $1 minimum, which is where I parked myself for the better part of a day. Steve got bored watching me play and headed off to the slots. I started with a $25 stake, to us a big sum of money, and when I won chips I would put them in the pocket of my jacket, only leaving the original stake on the table at all times. When Steve returned several hours later, he found me still playing but for some reason I was leaning heavily to the right. I had not realized this before he asked me why I was doing that, then I realized that I had been fairing not too badly at the table and was still depositing coins in my jacket pocket. When Steve finally emptied the pocket, we discovered that I had won approximately $300! A nice dinner and a Vegas show was now possible!
The poker nights of my teens and early adulthood only had four players: Yours truly and my three buddies, Steve (of Vegas fame), Michael, and Ed (“Butchie”). I met these guys when I moved into the neighborhood when I was 12. When we first began playing, these were weekly events tapering to every other week, to once a month as we grew older, and “life” got in the way. There are a plethora of great memories from these evenings, but the one that sticks in my mind still is Saturday, November 13, 1971. After all this time, 50 years to be exact, why this particular date? Because it was four days before my 21st birthday, but much more importantly, it was five days after Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven,” and we all heard it for the first time that evening. For eight minutes and two seconds we sat there with our mouths wide open, cards still in our hands, not saying a word. The game was over. Twelve years later, I relocated across the country, this version of “poker night with the boys” relegated to very fond memories.
It took about eleven years in my new hometown (another reason I am not a hard-core gambler) before I met Michael (#2 if you’re paying attention!) who introduced me to his poker buddies. This group of miscreants began around 1990 with original members: Jack, Wayne, Ron, and Frank (the last two are brothers). There was another player Jim, who filled in occasionally. My friend Michael (Jack’s brother-in-law) joined the group around 1992, and I first started with them around 1994. In case you’re wondering why all the dates are “around” (apart from the Led Zeppelin evening), well, just look at the dates! The games were played at several locations over the years, but the two that stick out in my mind are Michael’s basement, and Jack’s place, which was called the “Tiki” room. Before you jump to the conclusion that we sat around sipping umbrella drinks, let me set the record straight. Beer was definitely the drink of choice, however, what made these poker evenings most memorable was the amount of weed we smoked while playing! On second thought, “memorable” might not be the right word!
The fun really began after an hour or so of playing. This might not have been the case if we had stuck to one simple game like five card stud, but no, we had to play dealer’s choice, which meant some of the craziest poker games ever invented with so many variables: wild cards, rules none of us could figure out, etc., etc., and that made for some very interesting games, to say the least. A typical hand sounded like this:
Michael: “Whose deal, is it?”
Jack: “I think it’s Ron’s.”
Ron: “I just dealt.”
Wayne: “No you didn’t.”
Frank: “What day is it and where am I?”
Me: “&%$#@ you guys. It’s Wayne’s deal.”
Wayne: “Right. Okay, let’s play Holy Cross with 3’s and one-eyed Jack’s wild, middle card of the six-card cross is wild and pass two to the left.”
Me: “What the $%^&$#@ hell is that? And why does it have to be a cross, you know I’m Jewish? Never mind, just deal!”
Wayne: “Okay, where are the cards?”
Me: “%^$#^ right in front of you!”
Jack: “Does anyone want another beer?”
Wayne: “No thanks, but how about another toke?”
Me: “What a great idea, then we can all take turns trying to remember what the hell we’re doing here!”
Ron: “What’s wild?”
Michael: “7’s and blind Jacks, right?”
Jack: “Which way do we pass?”
Frank: “How many cards in the cross?”
Ron: “Jack, what’s wrong with your dog?”
Me: “*&%#$%#@&*, it’s 3’s and one-eyed Jacks wild, the pass is to the left, and 6 cards in the cross and Ron, the dog thinks your leg is a female dog.” Pass the joint, I’m clearly not stoned enough!”
This exchange was usually followed by peals of laughter, joint passed around, at which point the process of figuring out whose deal it was and what game we were playing started all over again. Needless to say, the number of hands played after that first hour diminished incrementally. What stands out in my mind about those evenings, is that six men from very different backgrounds, and a wide variety of interests could sit around a table for several hours joking around, getting high, and acting like we were still in high school! It’s as if we collectively hung our differences at the door, to have some fun, the only common denominator being poker. And then, I moved again. Fond memories indeed!
On a more somber note, while I would like to take credit for the idea of writing this story, that belongs to Michael #2. He reached out to me recently after his brother-in-law unfortunately passed away, suggesting that a story about those evenings would be a nice way to remember Jack and all the fun the six of us had all those years ago. He was right.
To Jack. You will be forever in our hearts and minds.
Los Angeles 2021