The Game THAT COULD LIVE FOREVER Poker Club: Every Monday night, 10 older men gather for a game that is an exercise in long-standing friendship.

November 12, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Be quiet. Listen to the sound of bumping poker chips coming from the other side of this double door.

SESSION IN PROGRESS says the sign outside the "Top of the Oaks Room" at the North Oaks Retirement Community, where Eddie lives. Eddie Krizman, 80, had a "setback" this year, so the guys come here for their weekly poker game. Sometimes they deal for Eddie, but he wins on his own.

Outside the room, the world fumes. Inside, the world plays. Cantaloupe, Pepperidge Farm cookies and Shasta root beer are an Eddie's tradition. As a point of order, the other guys in the Poker Club -- Danny, Jerry, Lenny, Leon, Harry, Bob, Arnold, Danny and Joe -- chip in a buck every session to cover the food.

They're just 10 older guys getting together every Monday night to play poker in Pikesville. But it turns out some of them have been playing together for nearly half a century. And their refined ritual is about much more than poker. Their game is a portrait of friendship, and a hedge against mortality. When a player runs out of money, he is covered. When a friend dies, he is replaced by another friend in the Poker Club. The game could live forever.

Lucky, lucky men. When we all come of old age, will we be lucky enough to have friends who can stand to be with us once a week? Friends who have a working knowledge of our life and who have a sincere ration of care and interest in us. Friends who sign the card when we're in the hospital and who deal for us when we get out. Friends for life -- until we die.

Sit in now for a game or two of poker with the guys from the Poker Club. The night is young.

*

Late August, early evening, Monday. "You want some cantaloupe? It's very good," says Arnold Gold, 77-year-old Poker Club historian. The gang is all here at North Oaks on Mount Wilson Lane, off Reisterstown Road after the left at Stuart Kitchens, which Arnold owned and named after his son. Arnold still sells kitchen cabinets, but someone else owns the Stuart name.

The guys will play cards until 11 p.m. without yawning. Their game of seven-card stud has enough in-house rules to ensure everyone's survival. No one runs out of money because the kitties serve as automated teller machines. And there's a three-raise limit to keep betting in check. The play is fast -- 20 hands working at light lifting during each 10-minute drama. The stakes are cheap -- someone might win $20 on a charmed night.

Arnold deals from the deck of blue Bicycle cards. The antsy, red deck waits. The white chips are 25 cents; the blues are worth a buck; and the yellow is worth a five spot. Each game has a high and low winner. And last week's winners will lose this week, and the losers will win, and it all will come out in the wash.

Inside this cocoon, the men don't dwell on current events or delve into each other's personal lives. It's not an episode of "Montel Williams" but more like scenes from "The Sunshine Boys." the names of each other's kids, and don't bet on all of them knowing last names, either. Arnold knows how to spell everyone's name, but he is the club historian, after all.

They don't pine over the "good ol' days." This is no sentimental journey; this is poker, and you don't cry in poker.

"They made me give up cigars," says Joe Ritter. This is a fact. Joe speaks in facts. He's the gang's drill sergeant, the pace car. His favorite expressions usually include the Lord's name.

"I know in the movie 'Diner' they had names like Boogie. We don't have names like that," says Arnold.

"We need nicknames, like Three-Finger Willie," says Bob Hoffman, who has been Arnold's CPA for 40 years.

The group has two Dannys, and that's as tricky as the roster gets. Danny No. 1 is Danny Kishter, who sometimes hums, "You got the money, honey" when playing. The other Danny is Danny Schleifer, a 78-year-old former engineer on the Mercury space program. Danny, who has Parkinson's disease, has played with these guys for 15 years.

In this hand, Arnold begs the dealer for low cards, a four or five. "Where's it written you're going to get a hand, Arnold?" Joe says. "Too rich for my blood," says Leonard Gold, Arnold's brother. Lenny rises to get a wedge of cantaloupe and a Shasta.

The men show their age by the songs they hum. War songs, mainly. The guys have World War II in common -- a time freshly pictured in their minds. Handkerchiefs hang from their pockets like football referee flags. The only man with a cane is Eddie, who had a stroke last year. Danny Kishter helps Eddie with the next hand. "You can see we're not too swift here," Danny says.

"We're not senile -- yet," Joe says.

"Yes we are! Yes we are!" Danny counters.

"Can we censor this article?" Lenny asks.

Originally, there was the Chestnut Ridge Country Club Monday Night Poker Group, Est. 1974. "The purpose of the CRCCMNPG is to foster a feeling of fun, fellowship, and friendship amongst the members," read the by-laws, as passed out by its former treasurer, Arnold Gold. The current Poker Club is a splinter group.

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