Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's in the Cards...or the Genes

I find myself slowly creeping up on my 40TH birthday. Hiding from it is probably a better description even though the event will take no notice whatsoever of my efforts to avoid capture. I don't want to grow up anymore than the next Toys 'R Us kid; but, as the winter months tip toe into Texas for their brief stay before being unceremoniously thrown out on the street by the bluster of spring barging in like a drunken Irishman full of too much hot air and recycled beer loudly proclaiming the yearly anniversary of my birth, I find myself reflecting more and more on what I still want to be when I grow up. Or least, what I want to do in the next 40 years or until the Second Coming...whichever comes first. If me and the planet are still here when I turn 80, I suppose I'll have to rethink everything again.

In between pondering my purpose in life and during those rare times when I have nothing better to do, I've been playing online poker. It's not nearly the same as sitting around the table with a group of family or friends, telling stories and jokes, and generally having a grand old time, but it'll have to do for now.

I've always enjoyed playing real live card games. There is a feeling and a smell to a well worn deck of cards which I can't even think of a proper way to describe. A new deck is a little like a brand new car. They're all sleek, glossy and shiny with a sharp chemical smell of fresh ink. They're slippery in your hands and fly across the table on a deal. A well worn deck of cards, on the other hand, has a texture that forces you to make an effort to spread them across your hand to reveal the secrets handed out by the dealer. They will still fly across the table until some minuscule imperfection in the card or the table stops the card dead in its tracks like it hit a brick wall. The ink smell is still there, but it has lost some of its edge and has matured from countless games as if aged in a barrel with fine wine.

It is no secret that my love of card games comes from my upbringing in a family of card players. I think I learned to play gin about the same time I learned to play Chutes and Ladders. My grandfather's (mom's dad) morning ritual for as long as I can remember was playing Gin with his second wife while drinking their morning coffee. My great grandfather Pennington (mom's mom's dad) even played poker semi professionally to help put food on the table for his family back in the Great Depression.

I guess you could say card games used to be a way of life in my family. I don't remember many family gatherings or visits that didn't involve a game of cards at some point or other. Gin or Canasta were the main games of choice; however, an occasional poker game was not unheard of. I say used to because family gatherings have become increasingly rare these days for a variety of reasons; and, on those rare occasions when we can get everyone in the same spot, the TV or the computer or the honey do list trumps the simple pleasures of a real live, ink coated cardboard in your hands, face to face game of cards.

One such family gathering stands out amongst the disorganized mess that is my memory. I can't remember the occasion, whether it was Thanksgiving or what. Nor can I remember who all was there. I do remember we were at great granddad Pennington's house in Austin when someone, cousin Pat (I think), suggested we have a penny ante poker game. So, a bunch of us all sat down around the round oak table now sitting in my mother's house and commenced to playing good old fashioned 5 Card Draw and 7 Card Stud. This was well before the huge popularity of Texas Hold'em.

I recall holding my own fairly well despite the fact I was the youngest player at the table (all of probably 16 at the time) and hadn't played much poker before that night. I can't remember what time it was exactly; but, sometime around way past late:30, a general consensus arose amongst the group that it was time to pack it in for the night. Cousin Pat piped up and said, "One more hand. No limits." I was sitting across from great granddad which gave me a front row seat to catch the gleam in his eye as he said, "Awright". The action came around to Pat at which time he bet $10. Heady stuff for what was a friendly penny ante game up to that point. Great granddad was next in line around the table from Pat, and the only sound he made was the sound of his belt clearing belt loops as he whipped off his money belt. He started to count out several hundred dollar bills much to Pat's dismay.

I remember Pat trying to argue about something. I can't remember exactly what. I suspect it was a feeble argument trying to limit the game to table stakes or pleading poverty. Whatever it was, it was a losing argument and a losing bet. He lost on both counts, and the game was over.

I miss that. You can't get that kind of story from an online card game. "I beat the computer in hearts" or "I was in a heads up hold'em battle with a guy from the Ukraine on" just isn't quite the same. Where are the smells, the sounds, the glint in the eye, the knowing smiles, the smug satisfaction of watching your opponent cringe as you lay down a winning hand in an online card game? Will it matter in 40 years?

The big round oak table is still there bearing the patina and scars earned through years of family get togethers and countless card games. It sits waiting for a table full of family and friends to gather around to shape new memories of old games. It waits patiently to see how often mom will try to bait the stack in Canasta, who will try to bluff to an inside straight and whether a rare lay down hand in gin will appear. I look forward to that.

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