COLUMN: Fraternal bonding abounds at the poker table

Jason Noble Columnist

So I’d caught nothing but low pairs all night and was brutally short stacked, in danger of blinding out, when finally, after three two-seven hands in a row, I caught Big Slick.

Thinking my tilt was over, I raised big pre-flop, folding half the table. The flop came 7-K-A, so I was really starting to like my chances.

The table checked around and the dealer showed a six on Fourth Street, so I raised again and everybody except this stupid fish to my right mucked it. A deuce came on the river, which I figured could only help me, so I raised a Benjamin.

The fish called and then re-raised, forcing me all in. I called it and waited confidently for him to show the garbage pair he thought was going to take me out.

He took a nervous breath and showed … a pair of ducks! This lucky fish trumped my top two pair with a set of ducks he caught on the river. Unbelievable.


No, that wasn’t meaningless gibberish or a fishing story; it was a hand of No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker, told in all its euphemistic glory.

Not familiar with the game? Check out ESPN in the afternoons, or ask those kids you see hunched over the card table every night in your house den. Or, if you’re really brave, take a trip up to the Canterbury Card Club outside Minneapolis.

Yes, Texas Hold ‘Em. It’s the dynamic, cutthroat, engaging and addictive poker game of the pros, where you can play for hours to win or lose a fortune in a five-minute hand. It’s the game where you build stacks of chips to the ceiling or hemorrhage money until your wallet and bank account are empty. It’s the game where you do your best Matt Damon impression from “Rounders” and use cool slang that no one but other players understand. But even in all that grandeur, it’s still just a card game, not so far removed from the poker you stripped and drank beer to in high school.

And it’s the new big thing in college time mismanagement.

Hold ‘Em is growing in popularity among college students, and for some, has come to rival even Playstation and TV as an alternative to study and productivity. With ESPN’s constant reruns of the World Series of Poker and Web sites like that offer online play with both fake and real money, the game is more accessible than ever. But even more vital to the game’s rise in popularity than its accessibility is simply the nature of the game.

While poker itself is not as constantly stimulating as the video games and sports that usually preoccupy us, it is inherently dangerous and exciting, punctuated with highs and lows unlike anything to be found in other diversions. A skilled player may only play one hand in ten, but that one usually puts much of his money on the line.

Unlike Final Fantasy or flag football, every flop, fold or flush can earn or cost something real and tangible, something of great value. It’s that danger and possible payoff that keeps us playing, even if we’re not catching cards.

The thrill of the game comes when two face cards or a pair fall and you must read your situation, your cards, and, most importantly, your opponents’ minds.

Indeed, that mental game is the greatest element of poker.

Hold ‘Em is a dynamic example of mathematic probability and chance, but what makes it challenging, exciting and pleasurable is the psychology of it.

Success comes not from calculating chances of winning, but from reading opponents and deducing “tells,” from controlling one’s own emotions and trying to confuse opponents’ reads.

These mind games are the essence of the game and are seen at every level, from the final table of the World Series of Poker, to the low-dollar casino tables crowded by cigar-smoking old men, to the kitchen tables where college kids play. But for the latter, those of us who play in our garages and dens for nickels and dimes, there’s even more to the game than these mental strategies, reads, bets and bluffs.

We find a fraternity around the card table. Whether playing with our housemates or high school friends, the psychological battles and money grabs are countered with jokes and stories.

As we gamble for each other’s money and try to read each other’s secrets, we share, laugh and commiserate. As we hold ’em and fold ’em, we listen to old school rap, drink beer and bond.

And at the end of the night, someone has a little more cash, someone else a little less, but we all have a psychological relief and a short escape from the banal applied probabilities and psychologies of everyday life.

And there’s the cool lingo, too.