Gambler’s Second Chance March 17, 2015
By Michael Calvert
“Maverick was his name,… gambling was his game.” was the opening line of the TV show we never missed. Dick Reider, Angelo Colassante, Johnny Culp, Mickey Caulkins, Punky Collins, and I had become habitual poker players. Bret Maverick was our hero. A riverboat gambler with ruffles on his white shirt, string tie, black coat and hat, he had blondes massaging his shoulders as he blustered and bluffed at the green baize table on ornate paddle-wheelers plying the Mississippi after the Civil War.
It began in the eighth grade after Ohio State’s basketball season was over and before the Cleveland Indians opening day. Dick invited us to his house after school to play cards. He ushered us to an octagonal card table in his paneled basement where his mother and her sisters used to play canasta.
After we admitted that we didn’t know how to play poker, Dick deigned to teach us. He had learned from his Italian cousins, Anthony and Vince Sigliano. He began by shuffling halves of the deck together noisily as he looked blankly at each of us. Our faces did not betray that we were impressed with his dexterity.
“In basic poker. everyone gets five cards. Pairs beat a high card, two pairs win over one pair, and three of a kind is better than two pairs.” He continued with definitions of straight, flush, full house, royal flush, through five of a kind. “Punky, you listening?” he snapped like Sister Miriam did when someone was staring out the window. Punky nodded with a scowl.
We played some practice hands, and then Dick said, “OK. The dealer can make one- eyed jacks, deuces, or anything else wild. That means you can make them whatever you want. If queens are wild, you can add one to two aces and you’ve got three aces.” Before we went home for dinner, we were playing three-card draw, five-card stud, and Texas hold ‘em. Everyone agreed to come back the next day as we swaggered away from the table.
My parents didn’t say anything about our poker game. I didn’t say anything either – even though we watched “Maverick” together that evening. I somehow knew that while Bret was applauded for living the life of a gambler, I would be discouraged, if not forbidden, to play poker with my buddies. This added to the allure of the next night’s card game.
Everyone showed up and was eager to play. Dick insisted on going over the rules again. Then he said, “We need to make this interesting. You got to have some skin in the game to really learn poker.”
“We don’t have any money to bet. Who the hell do you think we are? Bret Maverick?” said Johnny.
“We could all get in real trouble if we start really gambling,” added Mickey.
“For Christ’s sake, I’m not talking about gambling,” said Dick. “I don’t know where you got that idea. We just need to play for pennies to make the game real. Everyone put a penny in the center.” Dick tossed a penny onto the center of the table. After some sideward glances, everyone anted up.
“Don’t worry,” said Dick, “This is a penny ante game. My Uncle Sergio has a hundred dollar ante game in his basement every Friday night. Now that’s serious gambling.”
Dick dealt five rounds of card and announced that starting with me, the player to his right, each of us could make a bet or stand pat. The guy to his right could fold his cards and drop out, match the bet, or match it and raise the bet. After everyone has played someone can call the bet. “That’s the moment of truth and the winner gathers in the pot,” said Dick with a smile as if he was anticipating holding the winning hand.
After an hour or so, everyone had won at least one hand and began to enjoy competing. Raises of a nickel and even a dime were made. Punky stacked his pennies five high next to a nickel and a couple of dimes. Dick had folded his cards several time muttering about his bad luck.
“About time I got a decent hand,” said Dick as he fanned his latest cards in his hand and rearranged them. Punky raised the first bet by a nickel, and Dick chuckled and said, “I’ll see your nickel and bump it up by another dime. It’ll cost you another of your shiny dimes to see my cards, Punky. Fifteen cents for the rest of you. Who’s in?”
One by one we all folded except Punky who was undecided. He glanced at Dick who smiled placidly, his eyes focused on the pile of coins in the middle of the table. Finally Punky threw down his cards, and said, I’m folding. What the hell you got, Dick?”
“Read ‘em and weep, sucker. Just a pair of deuces” said Dick, smiling broadly as he raked in the pot.
“What the fuck! I had three kings,” yelled Punky. “That’s not fair, god damn it.” Several of us joined added our voices to Punky’s.
“You got to play to win. You folded, you gutless bastard. I bluffed you. That’s poker,” said Dick. “You just learned a lesson that could lighten your wallet a lot in a game at my uncle’s.” Some guys told Punky he had been cheated and others muttered about unfairness. Dick stuck to his guns. After a couple more hands, the game ended, but everyone said they were coming back.
We continued to play penny ante poker two or three times every week through the spring. We memorized the fine points of the game faster than we had learned fraction and the parts of speech in Sister Miriam’s class. We listened closely as Bret Maverick
tossed off poker wisdom on TV. Away from the table, he instructed his brother Bart to never draw to an inside straight. He also said to watch a player’s hands for a while because everyone develops a poker face, but fidgeting hands usually tell whether he’s holding good cards. Dick said the Siglianos knew when someone tried to bluff, and they raised the bet and took his money. They also knew when a smart ass was poor mouthing about his hand, but chipped in and raised the bet to reap as much as he could from his good cards.
“You got to be thinking all the time,” said Dick. “You win by calculating the odds. If you need to draw a jack for your straight, there are four in the deck, your odds are 4 of 52. Not good odds. Time to fold.”
“You might be lucky and draw it,” said Micky.
“Yeah. You might even do it several times if you hit a lucky streak,” Dick said, “but Lady Luck’s a damn tease. As my cousin says, she’ll break your heart and leave your ass dead broke. Better to be smart than lucky.”
Sometimes I lost fifty cents or a dollar of the ten dollars or so I earned each week from my paper route, but other times I won a dollar or two. Once I walked away with four dollars, my pockets bulging with nickels, dimes, and a ton of pennies. I was sure that I was a better poker player than everyone except Dick and that I could walk away with winnings on most nights.
The extra money was welcome, but the thrill that accompanied throwing down the winning cards and using both hands to pull the coins to me was even better. Making the most of the cards I was dealt, knowing when to fold, picking the right cards to discard, betting to build the pot, and watching everyone’s eyes and hands brought a rush of pleasure and a tingle of electric excitement. I thought about poker all day, crafting betting strategies and elaborate bluffs – under the shower, in the classroom, and on the playground,. Everything was a prelude for the game. After a good night, I lay in bed and replayed hands. Sleep came slowly.
In the summer, the ante became a nickel and raises at least a dime with no limit. I quit my paper route to make more money caddying at Winding Hollow Country Club. I was putting $15 in my sock drawer every week for tuition and books at St. Charles, and I had money for Cokes, pizza, an occasional cheeseburger, and poker.
In my exuberance, I told Mom that we were playing cards at Dick’s, but I assured her that it was penny ante poker. Nothing serious. She had her hands full with Dad. He had a new sales job. Mom said, “I’ve got to sit down with your dad and figure out how we’re going to manage until he starts getting some commissions.”
In the last week of August, Dad called me into the dining room and shut the door behind me. Piles of bills covered half the waterproof tablecloth. Dad pulled out a chair for me across from Mom. He folded his hands on the table and said, “Michael, our family
finances are tight right now, but we’ll be fine as soon as my commissions come through. I spoke with Father Haluska at St. Charles, and he’s agreed to delay payment on your tuition. This is confidential. No one at school will know. We need to borrow your tuition money to pay bills.” Mom’s eyes were on the table. I went upstairs and brought the eight twenty dollar bills to the dining room.
I didn’t know any of the freshmen at St. Charles, and welcomed the familiar faces at our Friday and Saturday night poker games. Dick upped the ante, and the raises had increased again. He took a dollar from each pot for pretzels and beer that his 18-year old neighbor bought. Everyone got more talkative and jokes seemed funnier.
Some nights I left the table twenty dollars to the good, but there were some losing nights, too. By Thanksgiving, the wins and loses doubled. Snow on the golf course ended caddying. On the first Friday in December, fifty dollars remained in my sock drawer. My luck was rotten that night, but I was sure I would win back the thirty dollars I lost. My the cards didn’t come to me and my losing streak continued. I was down to ten dollars. I told myself I would bounce back next time. I was smarter than those guys. My luck was bound to change. Bret Maverick had bad nights, but always came out on top.
After my younger sisters and brothers were in bed, Mom came into the dining room where I was finishing my Caesar translation. Dad had missed supper several times in recent weeks, and after the VA disability check came, he didn’t come home at all for two nights.
Mom sat down, folded her arms in front of her, and said in a thick voice, “I don’t know what we’re going to do, Michael. I’ve got to give the bread man and the milkman something or they’ll cut off deliveries. Ohio Bell says they’ll discontinue phone service if we don’t pay them.” She paused, “I have to ask you for some of your caddying money. I hate to do it. I’m not sure when you’ll get paid back, but I’ll make sure you get repaid.”
After a long silence, I said, “I’m sorry, Mom, but I only have ten dollars.” “How can that be? Where did it go?” she responded immediately.
Again I hesitated, “I’ve had a run of bad luck playing cards. I didn’t think you would need it. I am so sorry, Mom.”
She nodded slowly, and said, “We’ll work out something. Don’t worry. It will be OK.”
Crushing guilt descended on me like a villain in a Dickens’ novel. I gambled away money needed for bread and milk. Surely I was on a path that would lead to reform school and the penitentiary.
Two days later, the phone was dead. My sister was distraught that she could not talk with her seventh grade girlfriends. I was embarrassed that a couple of my St. Charles
classmates who called about homework would now get a recording. Mom spoke to the delivery men and bread and milk kept appearing on our doorstep.
I told Dick I had to miss the game because I might be getting the flu. I tried to do my Latin and algebra homework on Friday night instead of Sunday, but couldn’t concentrate. I went to bed early, but lay awake for hours estimating how much I had lost during the fall, and trying to think of some way to make money. If it snowed, I would shovel walks, but snow was not in the forecast.
On Saturday morning, Mr. Olson knocked on our door. Mom greeted him warmly although we didn’t know him well. They were Lutherans. He, his wife, and two little boys lived nearby. After cartoons were turned off, and he was seated, he asked if I could watch his little boys after school and on Saturdays. His wife would be working at Sears and Roebuck over the holidays. Mom turned to me for a response.
“Sure. I like Brent and Billy. And I know how to change diapers,” I replied quickly. “Great. We can’t offer a lot because Sears doesn’t pay much for holiday workers, but…” I interrupted, “Whatever you think is fair, Mr. Olson. I want to do this. Thank you.”
After glancing at Mom’s beaming face, he said he would write down the pay, hours, phone number to reach him and his wife and whatever else I might need. He offered his large hand and I gripped it tightly, grinning back at him.
A second chance. I could make it up to Mom. What a relief. Thank God. I resolved to go to Mass on Sunday; I had stopped going when I started caddying. When I called Dick and said I could’t play because I had a new job, he was a bit sullen. He didn’t ask about my job and I didn’t volunteer that I was babysitting.
A week later I took Mom the envelope of bills Mr. Olson had given me. She said, “Thank you, Michael, but you need to keep some for pocket money. How about five dollars?”
“I don’t need that much. I’m just glad I can help you.” She pressed a five into my hand. The look on her face was worth infinitely more.
Both Mr. and Mrs Olson worked late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights during the Christmas season. After the boys were in bed, I came downstairs to find Bret Maverick on TV. He was on the stern of a riverboat telling his brother Bart, “There’s always a second chance in life. People that don’t make it back east come out here. Never give up on yourself, little brother.” I didn’t know what had befallen Bart, but I thought Bret was speaking to me.