I walked gingerly up to the table with my registration slip. The eight men sitting there turned towards me. They looked me up and down, making calculations. Rural poker sharks do not look like the Vegas typecast seen in movies. These men were grizzled, dark-eyed, and wearing camo. It felt more like the set for Winter’s Bone than my idea of a casino. What’s more, they were not shy about staring. I was the only one they didn’t know, and I was just as surprised as they were that I was there.

I don’t know where it came from, but one day while living in Galway, Ireland I got the notion to start a poker night. After failing once, I learned that keeping a monthly game going required a large pool of players, and such a network took recruitment, promotion, and a honed rhetoric when rolling out the idea to others. (“Just a group of laid back people having fun, shooting the breeze. There’s no sharks or anything. Trust me, you’ll love it.”) Suddenly, my colleagues, my softball team, and my new housemates all took on new meaning as potential poker players. Whenever I met someone new I would listen to their stories and laugh and bide my time until I could put my arm around them and say: “So, Man. Do you play poker?”

Suddenly, there was a poker night in Galway.

Despite the gambling, drinking, lying and some of the other mortal sins occurring in my living room, the poker night was, in essence, a social miracle. There were men, women, Italians, Irish, Canadians, scientists, humanities majors, construction workers, those that had played before and those that hadn’t. These people brought their friends and the network began to grow itself. One brief romance occurred on the walk home from a poker night, while some came simply to get away from their partners. First-time players often won, owing to something half-way between beginner’s luck and not understanding the game enough to allow other people to read them. One Italian never was never victorious but showed up every time, regardless. Whenever he made it to the last two players we would cheer him on, and he would curse our mothers in his native tongue for jinxing him yet again.

Eventually poker became the defining activity in the household. Ronan, one of the housemates, became equally enthusiastic about it. If we crossed paths in the kitchen at evening it would take mere seconds before one of us suggested putting up two euros and throwing down some cards. We often continued playing, just the two of us, once everyone else had left a poker night, the game sometimes dragging on until three in the morning. Eventually, however, that couldn’t account for all of the times that we had the urge to play poker, so we started online accounts.

It’s unusual to tell people that you play online poker without receiving a concerned look or quietly being asked if you have a problem you want to talk about. Explaining the overwhelming thrill of taking 46 cents from a stranger when the cards go right just makes them all the more worried. It’s even more difficult to explain how you accidentally got your girlfriend addicted. What was left of my good judgement was alarmed when, instead of going out on a Saturday night, she suggested that we stay in bed and play online poker. We would only enter a table with two euros, and she wouldn’t make any of the decisions herself (although by this point she knew the game well). Still, that didn’t stop her from springing out of the bed and yelling “Why would you do that?” every time I lost a hand.

Leaving Galway and the poker night I had created was hard. (In the house I was replaced by a Spanish girl that ended up being a natural at the game…good luck Ronan.) It wasn’t helped by the fact that New York State, where I returned, did not allow online poker.

Instead, there was only one place to get a game.

The casino was an hour and a half away, and I had to drive through parts of a snowstorm to get there. By the time I arrived the cards were already being tossed, and judging by the chip stacks, had already claimed one or two victims. No one wore sunglasses or baseball caps over their eyes like you see on television, but were no less serious. Many of them were of retirement age and had, seemingly, lived a hard life to get there. Others looked like they could use the money and were playing for more than enjoyment. You could tell that they knew each other, but that didn’t equate to any pleasantries.

I wish I could say that I made good on all those poker nights and time spent watching cards, but it was obvious to me sitting down at that table that wasn’t going to be the outcome. It probably took them at least 10 hours to find a winner. I lasted three hours, and longer than three players, which to me justified the drive there. One old man with a cane would grow his pot, get up and let the game play on without him, and then return to increase his stack again. As for myself, I played the part of the conservative beginner and then cashed in on that narrative later when I couldn’t get any good cards and had to bluff some pots to stay alive. Eventually, as always happens, there came a point where I had to bet it all to stay relevant. I flopped a middle pair and knew one player in particular would take me all in to try to scare me. He did, but then hit the card he needed for a straight on the river.

Or, more simply said: My first poker was tournament over.

I could say that I went home satisfied with myself for trying something new, and at the same time entirely willing to let the gambling phase of my life come to an end. It would have made a nice bookend to the stories I could tell of the year that I was interested in poker. I could explain how I now have more fulfilling and productive ways to fill my time that, in the end, make me a better person and allow me to contribute to society.

Instead, I got on the phone and called up everyone I could think of.

“So, Man. Do you play poker?”

*

This article is part of The Milk House column series, published in print across three countries and two languages. It can also be found at themilkhouse.org.

This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman in 2020.