This story was written by Ed Barrett – a poker player.
“The Malihowski’s put fried onions on their oatmeal!” Mom was sounding off at me again for not eating my oatmeal. What did she expect? Who would eat oatmeal that didn’t have any sugar on it? It was during World War II. Sugar was rationed and Mom was using saccharin, the original sugar substitute, to sweeten my oatmeal. I had no idea how she knew that the Malihowski’s put fried onions on their oatmeal. She knew I hated fried onions and was probably making it up, thinking I would be happy with the saccharin if fried onions was the only other alternative. Mom never looked me in the eye when she was fibbing. I didn’t know what a ‘tell’ was at the time, or how to take advantage of it, but this time Mom definitely was fibbing. And it made me mad. So I screamed. I’d turned seven two weeks before and the screaming, which had been perfectly acceptable behavior until now, set Mom off. When I saw her reach for the catty-nine tails which she kept hanging on a hook in the pantry, I made a beeline for the front door with Mom in hot pursuit.
None of this has anything to do with poker, but it sets my mood for the day on which I played penny-ante for the first time. I’d watched my older brothers play in the basement of Hennessey’s Candy Store on the corner of what is now 12th and Broadway Streets, in Poke Hollow, Pennsylvania, where I had grown up, but they told me I couldn’t get into the game until I was eight years old.
Poke Hollow had eight streets, except for the dirt roads that led to individual homes, but the town council thought that having a street with double digits in it would sound more prestigious. When I was growing up, Broadway Street was Pothole Lane, and 12th Street was once Winding Ditch Pass. The changes all came about a few years ago when the county black topped the roads.
I went to the town dump when Mom chased me out of the house. My plans were to run away to Wilkes-Barre, which was three miles from Poke Hollow. I dug through the trash for empty soda bottles, which were worth two cents each in deposit. It was a pretty good day. I found fourteen bottles and an old wooden box to put them in. This would get me three Royal Crown Colas and seven pretzel sticks. Enough to get me through the first two or three days on the road. Normally I’d take the bottles home and clean them with the garden hose before taking them to Hennessey’s to collect the deposit, but I didn’t want to get too close to Mom today.
Mr. Hennessey saw me coming, and before I could get in the front door he had his forefinger directing me to leave the dirty bottles on the front steps. Mr. Hennessey had been running the store for over forty years according to my dad and didn’t mind bending the rules if he could make a few pennies from it. Selling cigarettes to minors, four for a nickel, was common, and the poker game he allowed the teenagers to play in the basement led to sales of soda and pretzels. There was a single penny slot machine in a small room behind the main store area which he would allow anyone with a penny in their hand to play.
Mr. Hennessey was in a playful mood today. Or so I thought. Instead of paying me with a quarter and three pennies, he slowly counted out twenty-eight pennies to me. As I waited I could hear the shuffling of cards in the basement. That would be my next stop before hitting the road for Wilkes-Barre.
One small problem; all the pockets in my pants had holes in them, so I had to carry the pennies in a small paper sack that Mr. Hennessey sold to me for a penny. So much for Mr. Hennesy’s playful mood. I stuck my tongue out at him and then made my second beeline for the day. I ran around to the side of the store and quietly entered the basement from the side entrance.
“What ya got in the bag, Adam?” It was Jimmy, my oldest brother.
I made my first mistake of the day. Well, the second. Screaming at Mom was the first. I shook the bag and Jimmy could hear the pennies jingling. The game suddenly stopped. Hoot McCue was the fastest thinker. His real name was Albert, but they called him Hoot because he was “wise like an owl,” my second oldest brother John had told me.
“How would you like to learn to play poker, Adam?” Hoot asked.
Money talks. No more waiting until I was eight years old. I’d watched the game enough to know how to play. But getting into the live action might be different. I was a little hesitant.
“Tell you what, Adam. We’ll each give you a penny to get started if you’ll play.”
How could I resist? There were four of them playing. If I lost the four cents I could quit.
The game was a one penny ante, guts to open for another penny, and two cents to bet after the draw. There was something about three raises of two cents each after the draw that I didn’t understand at the time. Small stakes, but when your total bankroll—total life savings actually—is twenty-seven cents plus the four cents that Hoot had volunteered, it’s pretty serious business.
The four cents went on the first hand. I had nothing—total washout, but I called anyway. I just knew that the three cards that I drew would go with the Jack of diamonds and 6 of hearts that I had kept. I squeezed the cards carefully as I’d watched the others do. 7, 8, 9 of different suits. Close to a straight. Did that count? I couldn’t remember, but I put in my two pennies anyway and lost to a pair of fives. I was hooked. In went the first penny of the money I’d gotten from Mr. Hennessey. Another penny to draw, two more to call the bet. Same result. Repeat on the next hand. I counted my pennies and was alarmed to find out that I was down to nineteen cents. The others were smiling gleefully.
Then came my first poker lesson. I had drawn three cards again and had nothing. I’d watched Jimmy say ‘raise’ on the previous hand, and everyone threw their cards away. It was worth a try.
“Raise,” I said, and put four pennies in the pot. My brother John, Hoot, and Squeaky Wilson (high-pitched voice) all folded. It was working! Until it got to Jimmy. He was laughing at me.
“You always stick your tongue out when you’re lying to Mom,” He said. And he put six pennies into the pot. “Raise,” he said. “You can call, fold, or raise, Adam!”
I really wanted to cry, but instead I threw my cards at Jimmy. That got me a backhand on the side of my head and reduced my bankroll to thirteen cents.
So I decided to watch for a while. At a penny a hand, and having the attention span of a seven year old, which I was, that lasted for three hands. Down to ten cents I squeezed my cards carefully. Ace of spades, King of spades, Queen of spades, Jack of spades, eight of clubs. I’d heard everyone talk about a royal flush and I knew that none of them had ever had one. Everyone put a penny in the pot for the draw. Jimmy asked two cards, John took three, Hoot asked for one, and Squeaky took four.
I carefully put the one card I had drawn into the middle of the other four and waited. Squeaky bet two cents, John raised him, Hoot folded, and Jimmy raised to six cents. There was a fortune on the table! I squeezed my cards carefully. The middle card was black…it was a nine. I’d missed my royal flush. I squeezed just a little more. It was a club. I’d missed completely! But I couldn’t fold! I looked around the table. Squeaky had thrown his cards in out of turn when Jimmy re-raised, and my brother John, who never did pay attention to what was going on, threw his cards in. The only one left between me and all those pennies was Jimmy. He was blinking rapidly. I knew that meant something. I needed time to think. Then I remembered! Just like I stuck my tongue out when I was lying to Mom, when Jimmy was lying to her, his eyes blinked rapidly!
I bit my tongue as a reminder not to stick it out. “How much more can I put in the pot?” I asked. Jimmy’s eyes blinked even faster.
Hoot smiled. “Two more, Adam. A total of eight cents.”
I counted my pennies. I had exactly eight left. “Raise,” I said.
Jimmy was breathing heavily and his eyes were going into Rapid Eye Movement mode. He stared at me, watching for my tongue to come out. I bit it so hard it began to bleed, but there was no way he was going to catch me lying on this one. Suddenly he stopped breathing and his eyes froze. He threw his cards at me without calling!
I gathered up all the pennies and put them in my paper bag. Jimmy was down to three cents and John was down to four cents. The game was over.
Thus was the start of my eventual avocation as a poker player. It was a good start. Some years later I would learn the word ‘tell’. I already knew a few, and had eliminated one that might have cost me money in future years. The most important lesson I learned during my first poker game was that it wasn’t a good idea to throw cards at other players. I weighed the consequences of sleeping in a field somewhere against going home to face the wrath of Mom. I opted for going home. It’s not often that I get the upper hand on my older brothers. I just had to let Mom know about it.
As I was about to leave, I noticed that my cards were still on the table. I decided to turn them over.
“Is this what they call a four-flush?” I said and made my third beeline for a door today with Jimmy in hot pursuit.