It wasn’t my first poker game, but it was the first one that, well, let me tell you the story…
Dad taught my brother and me poker when we were kids, sitting on the tile living room floor. We played five-card draw and five-card stud with cheap plastic chips1. No money was involved, but I remember instructions to not keep an ace kicker with a pair, or draw to an inside straight. I imagined my dad at the library, studying whatever book he could find on poker (wow, it might have been Yardley’s Education of a Poker Player) and trying to find a nugget or two to pass along.
Those three-handed games ended when we found more exciting and individual pursuits, and I really didn’t play again for a while, until The Game.
I was 14 years old, attending a fine arts camp at Mount St. Joseph College in Emmitsburg, Maryland as the electric bass player in the jazz group2. It was my second year there, and in fact, my second session of the summer. Basically, I spent a month hanging out with friends, playing in a jazz band, and being away from home; it was glorious. We had strict curfews, with counsellors (and a couple of nuns) watching our every move. And while some of my friends were violating every possible rule (with varying degrees of success), I was either too square to step out or feared that, were I caught, I’d get sent home. A more unspeakable punishment I couldn’t imagine, so I went to my dorm room when I was supposed to, and stayed there.
Until The Game.
I don’t remember the particulars of how I was invited, or even why. But somehow one of the counsellors let me know that there was a little poker game to be played after lights-out and was I interested in attending? The poker would be fine, I was sure, but to be invited to a post-curfew gathering of the Inner Circle – I was in heaven.
There were 6-7 of us I guess – I was one of only two campers invited; the rest were counsellors. I don’t even remember what variant(s) we played, but we were betting nickels, dimes, and quarters ($.05, $.10, and $.25, for the uninitiated). I got to hear all the gossip, and confirmed my fears that getting caught for a significant transgression of the rules meant a one-way ticket home.
Know what else I remember? The Coke. I mean literally the sugary soft-drink. They had liberated a case of the stuff that was used to fill the vending machine in the main hall and had put it in a washtub full of ice. As the evening progressed and the ice melted, the soda reached a near-freezing point. A slug of it from a can fresh from the tub created a glorious sweet burn down the throat. And this was before Archer-Daniels-Midland hijacked the American sweetener market with high fructose corn syrup. No, it was pure sucrose with no cloying aftertaste – just a carbonated sugar/caffeine high, as the people in Atlanta had intended.
I won some – I don’t know how much, though I remember thinking that my sodas for the rest of the trip were paid for. Maybe it was because I wasn’t keeping ace kickers to my pairs or drawing to inside straights.
But of course, it wasn’t the money that mattered that evening. I had cleared one of the hurdles into adulthood, bonded with the counsellors (including the head honcho), and stayed up well past the appointed bedtime.
I slipped quietly back into my room where my roommate was sound asleep. I couldn’t sleep – either because of the caffeine or the excitement of the evening – and reveille (played by the lead trumpeter in the jazz band) came early and painful.
But it was a small price to pay as I slowly made my way down to breakfast. Little did I know that, decades later, I’d look back at that evening, after thousands of poker games, and think…
Best. Poker game. Ever.
1A couple of years ago, I was cleaning out my parents’ house after they moved to a retirement community; I found that set of chips. They are now a prized possession.
2If you attended that camp any time during the early 1970’s, please ring me up on Twitter (@leehjones) and let’s share stories.
Lee Jones is the Head of Poker Communications at PokerStars. He first joined the company in 2003 and has been involved in the professional poker industry for over 25 years. You can read his occasional tweets at @leehjones.