I AND FIVE friends break the law the first Friday of most months. We're a sort of reincarnation of the "over-the-hill mob." Actually, I'm not sure that what we do -- playing poker for money -- is against the law, although I've read in the papers about police raids on private poker games.
Some nights I think it ought to be against the law if it isn't. Those of the nights Lee commits robbery by beating my royal straight flushes with five fours.
Probably there are hundreds of poker games around here on first Fridays. They may be what causes the downfall of our country, while most people think drugs and pornography are leading us down the path Rome took centuries ago.
But I doubt our road leads to perdition. We're a pretty wholesome group and the young people of today would do well to follow our example. It may have taken us a few years to reach our state of exaltation, but here we are nevertheless.
The last time we played, five of us consumed a grand total of 13 bottles of Bud Lite in five hours. Jack, who used to raise hell when he drank martinis, now meekly confines himself to two or three glasses of white wine.
Nobody smokes anymore. Some of us used to, maybe all of us. We quit years ago. Bill was the only one who didn't quit. We made him go outside when he wanted to smoke a cigarette -- even when the game was at his place. We don't have to worry about his smoking anymore. He was found dead in his town house a couple of months ago.
We eat too much, however -- particularly Bat. The host is responsible for providing a spread of bread, cold meat, cheese, pickles and what-not in case anyone wants a sandwich during the game. Bat always arrives ravenous, claiming he didn't eat dinner. The way he vacuums up those sandwiches, I'd say he fasts all week before the game.
Yes, the young people of today should emulate us -- but we don't make much money. After 35 years of poker in two groups, I know that if I win a couple hundred dollars a year, I'll lose it the next. I'm probably flat even after maybe 1,700 hours of poker. That tells me I'm smart to stay away from Atlantic City.
Obviously, we play for low stakes: a quarter limit. We also play mostly games in which some cards are wild. And we almost always play hi-lo -- that is, high hand and low hand split the pot. How can anyone win any money playing that way?
Well, Bo, who dropped out of the game when his wife told him he spent too much time playing cards, once won $75. That's the same wife who made him climb down off the roof of the community pavilion when we were building it years ago.
I won $44 once; so did Jim, or did he win $46? Jim and I get mixed up a lot; we're both half deaf.
I'll tell you the kind of games we have: One night before he quit the group because Jack drank a few martinis and yelled at him with too much feeling, Frank was called and announced pridefully that he had a straight flush -- and reached for the pot. Jack said menacingly: "How high!?" Yes, it turned out Jack had a higher straight flush.
Jack sometimes combines exuberance with lack of restraint. His wife makes delicious meatballs for the poker group, though. Maybe we could get her to play . . .
Another reason young people would be well-advised to do as we do is that we tend to business. We don't interrupt the game with extraneous chatter and gossip. Sometimes one or two of us tries, but the rest yell, "Deal!" and that sort of puts a damper on conversation. Bat even gave up telling dirty jokes because they always made Lee blush.
We've got quite a large group of alumni. Besides Frank and Bo, there is Warren, who retired and moved to the Eastern Shore and fell in with a bunch of high-stakes players; Fielding, who became mesmerized by business; Carroll, who just sort of lost interest; and Jerry, our dean, who owned half of Washington, it seemed, but would argue all night over a quarter and died at 82.
How do we enjoy ourselves, you ask? We don't gossip, we don't smoke, we drink hardly at all, we play for very little money, we eat plain food. Just what in blazes do we do that keeps us coming back month after month, year after year?
Well, we play a game. And we laugh and holler and needle each other and argue over nickels and dimes, and the world is not with us much at all for five hours.
When Jack said Bill had died, we were silent for perhaps five seconds. Then we hollered, "Deal!"
That's the way we play the game.
Hal Willard deals and writes in Baltimore.