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.
One of the more famous loser stories concerns a Harvard student from Lichtenstein, who gambled away a semester's allowance in a night. Then he put his Lotus Elan and his title (he was a Baron) on the table--and lost them both. The winner returned the title and the Lotus in exchange for the use of the car the following weekend.
But Harvard poker is very different from the poker played in the Boston saloons. There, if a player does not pay his debts, he has good reason to fear for his health. Students usually stick to games within the University, though they love to tell of the time one of the champions went into Boston after a big night at Harvard. He played at one of the city's most elite establishments, and lost $1800. He returned the next night and cleared $2300. "That takes a great deal of guts," an admirer said, "but after all, he did grow up in the backroom of a Harlem gambling joint."
The "Harlem Gambler" was backed that night. But in most Harvard games students play with their own money which comes from a previous summer's earnings or a parental allowance. A successful player can keep going all year on the basis of his earnings. But a player who has been "hooked," even if he frequently loses, rarely gives up the game voluntarily.
One player came to the end of a long evening and found that his losses were more than he could afford. But on his last hand he was golden--a blue bicycle (ace to five of the same suit). He called his father long distance and described his hand. His father agreed to back him if he would promise to stop playing poker. The student ended his career as a poker player several hundred dollars ahead.
Walking past Cahaly's one evening, a poker player pointed to a freckled face bent over Time Magazine. "That is Raging Thurmond," he announced, "one of the Dunster greats." A legend in his own time. Thurmond has flown in professionals from New York and even New Orleans to sit in at some of the Dunster House games.
Another renowned Harvard gambler was Vic Marma who invented a brand of poker known from Dartmouth to Princeton as Miami Marma. A.B., the Webster of Harvard poker, introduced a number of new terms including "K and L" --the game we all Know and Love (seven-card-stud-high-low), which is the type of poker most commonly played at Harvard.
Playing with the same people so often, each gambler develops a very characteristic style. "A.B. just radiated strength. He dominated the table, and could get away with more bluffs than any other player I've ever seen," one friend reminisced. A.B. was also known for his endless conversation which invariably unnerved his opponents.
Then there is "Larry The Machine," now a graduate student at M.I.T. Larry, who plays in the Dunster and the Leverett games, spent last year in the casinos of San Francisco. He considered going professional but instead decided to come East to graduate school. "It took me three months to psych out the casino players." The Machine explained. "They are all quite good; they follow the rules. But they don't think about a hand the way the guys at Harvard do. The poker here is definitely of a higher quality."
Larry looks like a character out of Richard Jessup's Cincinnati Kid, which is to a poker player what St. Augustine's Confessions is to a Catholic. Larry has the pallid face, the light-colored eyes ringed with yellow--signs that mark the man who spends his days sleeping off the exhaustion of a night at the table.
Under Massachusetts law poker is not illegal, but a player can be prosecuted for collecting winnings over $5. If the loser does not sue within 30 days, anyone else can file charges. The winner can be fined for twice the amount he has collected, but no one has been prosecuted by the state since the 1880's.
The Harvard administration has quietly indicated to the hard core players that it does not approve of poker. But when asked to stop playing in his room one student merely moved his to a different entry. "What the eye doesn't see the heart won't grieve for," he said, describing Harvard's policy. "As long as it does not interfere with our grades they don't care," he added. In spite of his confidence, a number of Senior Tutors have allegedly been on the rampage.
Some regular poker players do maintain good grades, but a majority have taken leaves-of-absence for one reason or another. As one poker player explained: "These guys have not found anything else here. I was in a play but I didn't like the people. I tried out for the CRIMSON, but didn't like the people around there either. Freshman year I was the Young Republican ward leader for my entry, but that wasn't right. Then I took up poker--and the people are really great. This is the way I've decided to do Harvard."
Another player enthusiastically described the glory of a week at the poker table: "The game starts in the evening and continues on through the night. At 7:30 in the morning when the House dining room opens the players break. We go out into the sun, the white light which sears the eyes. It is the only time we see the sun. After breakfast we go to bed until the evening when the game begins again." For these students poker is not a game. It is a way of life.