The Death of Poker Night
Around 1975 or so, I lived at the Ark. Not the ‘two by two’ kind, but the housing cooperative of a hundred residents that was at 2000 Pearl here in Austin. The building is still there, and it’s still a housing co-op, but it’s no longer called the Ark. I hope to high heaven that none of the residents from 1975 still live there, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few are tucked away somewhere.
That’s because the Ark was hard to leave. Yes, it was essentially UT student housing, and thus short-term by its very nature. But there were residents who looked as if they were born there, and would never leave. They would emerge for meal times and announcements, then scuttle back to their rooms, Yoda-like. A few resembled Yoda, come to think of it.
And why would anyone ever leave? The Ark was a great social experiment in Utopian lifestyle made possible by the fact that none of us needed jobs since we were all living off our parents, who were under the laughable assumption that their hard-earned dollars were going to the acquisition of some type of marketable skill for their offspring, and not for…other things.
In short, the Ark was Paradise. A preposterously illegal vending machine on the second floor dispensed Lone Star and Shiner longnecks for a quarter, far from the prying eyes of the TABC. There was a swimming pool in the back that people jumped into from the roof. Every Friday afternoon, there was a TGIF daquiri party where we blended and consumed mass quantities of fruity alcohol. Right, like we had so much to unwind from. There were parties for all occasions. And when the sun went down, everyone paired off for indoor recreation. Yep, pretty much the Garden of Earthly Delights.
Of course, into any paradise there will eventually come a snake, and ours came in the innocent guise of…Poker Night.
Poker Night was not a widespread event–only about a dozen Arkies participated, some only sporadically. It always took place at the far end of the dining hall, on some ratty-ass chairs and sofas called the Poseidon Area–so named because, at one point in the distant past that none of us remembered, there was a mural of Poseidon on the facing wall. It must not have been a great mural, because it had long since been painted over. But the name remained. The Poseidon Area it was, forevermore.
I don’t remember how it started–maybe a slow weekend cramming for mid-terms–but one night somebody produced a deck of cards and some poker chips, and the next thing you knew, seven hands of stud were being dealt onto the chipped coffee table. Which is the way things happen in a co-op–spontaneously, and then instantly acquiring the air of an established tradition.
Things stayed innocent for a while. The game became weekly, the stakes were nickel-dime-quarter, and everyone was friendly. The game’s high winner would be honored as that week’s Poker God, with a ceremony we improvised during Monday dinner announcements. Once during the Olympics, a Brazilian resident named Nikki stripped to his gym shorts and sneakers and ran around the dining hall with a burning torch of rolled-up newspaper, while a couple of us horn players played the Olympic Theme and medals were presented for the Gold, Silver, and Bronze. We almost set off the sprinkler system, and the low ceiling tiles were blackened with soot in spots, but hey–all in fun. We never burned down the building, OK?
But one day, a serpent stole into our little game in the Poseidon Area. And that snake’s name was…In-Between.
At least, that’s what we called it. Other names were Acey/Deucy and Hi/Lo, but the idea was the same. After the ante, each player had two cards dealt face up and had to bet whether a third card’s value would fall between the other two. A player could choose to pass–obviously receiving a five and a seven was not a smart play–but if they did choose to play, and the third card fell outside the range of the other two, they had to match the pot and drop out.
OK, first of all, there’s no strategy and no bluffing in this game. You could only choose to play, or not. And you’re not playing against others, just against the deck. Many a time, what seemed like a safe bet–receiving a King and a deuce, say–would go south horribly with the appearance of another King or an Ace. Match the pot and drop out.
This game was cruel, all right. As the pot grew, you had to stay in the game or lose what you had already put in. And matching pots means that our formerly innocent little game, where a $25 haul was considered a windfall, suddenly spiraled out of control. Now the pots could quickly build to $100 without warning–and in 1976, $100 was about half a month’s living expenses. Not something that any of us felt comfortable parting with on the basis of three cards.
I began to hate In-Between, because it always soured the game and usually ended the night. Half the time, it seemed like it got called just because the dealer was tired of playing and wanted to move a bunch of money around. But there’s no skill to it, at least not in the traditional poker sense, and it took on the flavor of ‘the nuclear option’.
Then one week, it got called again and I floated away from the table. I preferred not to be there for the bloodletting. I drifted into the kitchen to see what I could rustle up. (Another great thing about the Ark was that there was always food around. It was like a stationary cruise ship.)
I was sitting at the far end of the dining hall away from the game, eating cold mashed potatoes and contemplating bed, when fellow Arkie Larry came over with a worried look. “Man, you gotta come over…there’s more than $300 on that table.” Remember, this is 1976. That was 500 gallons of gas.
With a sense of dread, I came back to observe play. Only two people remained in the game: Wendy and Paul. Wendy, the dealer, was slowly turning up two cards for Paul’s hand. Ten other people were standing, transfixed at the sight of more money than usually seen in one place piled on the middle of the table between them.
“Ace.” She turned up his second card.
The tension was unbearable. It was more than money now. If they were playing for their own fingers, it couldn’t have been worse. A foul chemical odor seemed to emanate from all of us, but nobody could break away.
Paul half-whispered, “I’ll play.”
Wendy snapped up his third card. “Deuce.”
I felt like a hammer had struck me in the chest. Nobody made a sound. All the air had fled the room, leaving nothing but a strong smell of flop-sweat and formaldehyde.
Paul sat for moment, staring. Then quietly, “You’ll have to take my IOU. I’ll settle on Monday when the bank is open.” And he stood unsteadily and walked to his room.
Wendy dealt herself two cards: a five and a Queen. “I’ll play.” The third card was a Jack. She quietly began clearing the money from the table and putting it in her purse. That was the night’s last hand.
I don’t remember the resolution of that last game. Maybe the debt was forgiven, or the pot split between Wendy and Paul. All I remember is that we never had another poker night. And the weekly crowning of the Poker God was never celebrated again.
It had gotten away from us, and nobody knew how to bring it back. Life’s terrible stakes had suddenly imposed themselves on our little Garden of Eden. The semester was ending, and people began retreating to their rooms or the libraries to cram for finals. A month later, the Ark emptied out as it did every summer–but with an air of finality, this time.
Of course, new students showed up in the Fall to take the place of those graduating and/or moving on, and the cycle began anew. But for those of us there that night, Fun and Games had been replaced by a grim sense of Things To Come. Particularly for those who chose to continue living in Texas, it was a sort of on-the-job training for the real world.
Not for me, of course. I eventually moved to Eugene, Oregon and became a jazz musician. But some kids never grow up, right?