EVERY HARVARD gambler has his favorite poker story: the fortune won and lost overnight; the sports car, the girl friend that changed hands over the green-felt table. Some of these stories are apocryphal. Most are not.
One morning last fall a morose and exhausted sophomore walked into the Coop, turned over his charge card to three clubmates and watched them ring up nearly one hundred dollars worth of purchases. Still wearing their tuxedoes, the four were settling the score from an all-night poker game.
After several of these early morning excursions to the Coop, the president of the club took the sophomore aside and offered to teach him the essentials. The only alternative, the president suggested, was to stop playing poker.
Burns, on the other hand, picked up the game from his freshman roommate who invited him to sit in on a low stake Friday night game. He developed a feel for the game playing for pennies but then the stakes began to climb from a quarter to a fifty cent limit on each bet, then to a halfpot--where a bet can equal half the money on the table--and finally to pot limit. In pot limit games, which start with a quarter on the table, several hundred dollars can change hands in one evening. Burns had moved beyond the casual carders. He was hooked.
Harvard poker players insist that there is a definite hierarchy of games. The biggest and most expensive are traditionally played in Dunster and Leverett. One former Harvard student flies down from Stowe in black tie for the weekly Dunster game for which each player receives a gold-rimmed invitation.
The Leverett group is much more informal. Although stakes are smaller the House claims that its poker is far more professional--and subtle. "I will never play at Dunster again. Last time the books were a hundred dollars off at the end of the night. They are regular cut-throats," a Leverett player said.
According to one gambler, Leverett House poker is "a family affair." Jock, who organized the game, went to Lechmere Sales last fall and bought a poker table. It is octagonal, covered in billiard-green felt. There is a small well in front of each player to hold his chips. The table cost $42, so Jock sold $6 shares to seven friends. Two percent of each evening's winnings are set aside for cards and cokes. There is a list of about 50 players and their phone numbers are tacked to the side of the table. Most of the players are available any time of the day or night.
One evening last week the regulars began arriving around nine. "Emperor" brought the cards. Before each game one of the players will stop at Cahaly's and buy two packs of Bee's playing cards. They have to be Bee's. "As soon as a card looks slightly ratty we throw out the deck. We were burning something like 14 decks a night. The janitor who emptied the waste-baskets was going mad," the "Emperor" explained.
The play started loose--there was betting even on poor or mediocre cards. At the beginning of each hand the players talked a great deal, trying to decipher the opponents' strategy. But as the pot grew the conversation subsided. The room grew completely silent with only two or three players left facing each other across the green felt. This is the moment when the poker player proves both his skill and his nerve. He "declares," shows his cards, and, perhaps, sweeps the chips into his well.
Towards midnight several more players drifted back from Radcliffe. "Most of us are pretty normal and do go out," one shark explained. But another said that "women are poker's wost enemy. Women and poker just don't mix." Nonetheless, a few Cliffies have played in the Leverett game. "They play just like they drive," one player mused. "They don't obey any of the traffic laws," he said, "so you can never tell what they are up to. They sometimes run you over, but they don't really know what they are up to."
The game ran on through the night. As the smoke lay thicker over the poker table, and the cigarettes ran out, the players sucked desperately at butts. Cigarettes are vital to a poker player. Several hours of concentration dissipated the friendly atmosphere. By noon the next day the heaviest loser was down $100, while the winner picked up $75. The Leverett gamblers considered this a smallish game.
Even when the stakes are small there is almost always an outburst of anger at some point during the night. One night a player, $200 in the red, reportedly hurled the last of his chips across the room, picked up his chair, and threw it up at the ceiling where it stuck. Sometimes there are fights, especially when a player refuses to pay his debts. But this is unusual except among freshmen.
Most players observe a strict honor code. "The loser will almost always cough up--eventually," one gambler said. There are, of course, the notable exceptions. One perpetual loser's IOU's (known to the holders as moths) were sold back and forth at 20 per cent of face value. At his graduation, a number of his friends got together and gave him several hundred dollars worth of his own moths.