Friday poker club plays out hand

Maryland Journal

For more than 30 years, a group of city men met for cards and fellowship, but now only two remain

Maryland Journal

May 21, 2007|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN REPORTER

Forty-nine rare poker hands hang from the walls of Buzz Chalk's North Baltimore basement. Each is framed and sealed under glass, splayed against white mats inscribed with names of the living and the dead.

Some of the hands belong to Chalk. But most belong to his Hampden-area neighbors.

The oldest is a royal flush of diamonds dealt to Chalk on Jan. 23, 1976. One of the most recent is a straight flush of diamonds, nine high, that won George Lopez a pot of plastic poker chips on March 20, 1999.

Nearly every Friday night for more than three decades, Chalk's "Card Club" has gathered in his rowhouse basement to play poker at small, round tables that bound the circle of friends for 35 years.

And whenever the rarest hands of straight and royal flushes defied the odds and graced the game, Chalk ditched the deck, framed the winning cards and hung them from the wood-paneled walls - an unconventional memorial to a common manly meeting.

But the rarest sightings these days are not of straights and flushes. They're of Baker, Bull, Frazier and Marshal - the regulars who anted up each week.

Year by year, player by player, the game has slowly folded. Death has reduced the ranks from 14 to the final pair of Chalk and Lopez.

"They've all died off," says Chalk, 75, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Yet he and Lopez refuse to declare an end to the Friday night ritual.

The 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. poker games have been trumped by games of gin or watching the O's or, more often, placing telephone bets on horse races aired on DirecTV. Evenings end closer to 10 p.m. these days, when Chalk helps Lopez up the three concrete steps to his car on 38th Street.

The quarter keg of beer that flowed from a tap installed by Chalk has been replaced by chilled cans of birch beer. The smoky haze from pipes and cigars is gone, but 80-year-old Lopez - hobbled recently by the loss of three toes to diabetes - still lights up a stogie.

The bucket of sticky red, white and blue poker chips - never valued at more than a nickel - sits untouched on a table.

"No one ever won a lot, no one ever lost a lot," Chalk says.

Each guy pitched in $2 for food and beverages (read: beer).

"We used to drink some beer here, boy," Chalk says.

"We never had an argument," says Lopez, a retired Noxzema Chemical Co. employee.

The basement's sole reminder of the former camaraderie lies in the 49 frames that list the winning players' names beside the sets of five cards, each one dated.

Chalk had the most straight flushes, 15; Lopez had 11.

What's not framed is any photograph of the players.

"We never had a picture taken of us," Chalk says. "I should have done that. I'm sorry we didn't."

An additional 28 royal and straight flushes - along with names and dates - are sealed beneath the plastic pages of a photo album stored in the corner of Chalk's brown carpeted basement, warmed by the flickering purple flame of a gas-lit fireplace.

With his collection, Chalk has done more than accumulate the evidence of a local city tradition. He has preserved a piece of city life that is fading as quickly as his game.

The depleted roster, he says, mirrors another sad reality for many elderly city residents: Each year the number of neighbors rooted for generations in the city dwindles.

In Wyman Park, the geriatric generation is being rapidly replaced by the gentrifying horde of transient transplants unlikely to remain long enough to support a poker game with as much longevity. Many of the houses are now occupied by new parents whose fear of city public schools - and desire for bigger homes - triggers their eventual suburban flight.

But the guys in Chalk's card club never left. Chalk and wife, Pat, have lived in their rowhouse for 35 years, raised two children there.

Catherine Baker, 79, has lived across the street since 1962, in a home where she raised three children. Her husband, the late Robert E. Baker, was one of the most reliable players in Chalk's game.

"He played just about every Friday night," Baker says.

Even after Parkinson's put a cane in his hand, the poker game across the street did more for his mobility than any medicine.

"He couldn't do anything all week, but, boy, come time for cards and he'd be across the street in half the time and forget his cane," she said.

Three concrete steps drop steeply from the sidewalk along 38th Street to Chalk's basement door. A peek past the white curtains on any Friday night would reveal only the graying or balding heads of players amid the smoky, subdued light.

Pat Chalk says the laughter and banter always echoed upstairs, where she would be washing her hair, painting her nails or watching television.

"They didn't like women down there," she says. "They're all gone now. We miss them all."

Gone are the guys who remember that Chalk's grandfather was the city worker with a ladder, going lamplight to lamplight to illuminate Hampden's streets.

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