Hedging Your Bets

When a game of poker becomes two... three

I’m a late convert to Hold ‘Em (the popular five-card poker game), but I’ve always been a card player. In fourth grade it was Chinese poker, then hearts. Four of us would set up a notebook between our knees on the bus, or push the trays aside at lunch and play some more. The Klutz Guide to Becoming a Card-Shark was my favorite book.

But I never moved past playing for peanuts—I always scoffed at the prospect of playing for money. Real money? What are you, crazy?

My older-and-wisers apparently knew it was inevitable. On the eve of my departure for Harvard, my mother adapted the litany of warnings to which I’d become accustomed—don’t speed, don’t tailgate, don’t drink—to a college environment. Suddenly speeding tickets were less concerning than speed, tailgating less a threat than tailgates. Instead of the dangers of drunk-driving my parents reminded me that I descend from a long line of extremely weak-stomached drinkers, a reminder which has its own distinct way of echoing. Of all the vices I might encounter far from home, though, gambling struck the most fear into my mother’s heart, more than overdoses, accidents or illicit liasions. Images of her first born son in prison—or, worse, a torture room in the basement of the Bellagio—floated through her imagination, narrated by Robert Stack.

Once I mentioned in passing that a friend had enjoyed a day at Suffolk Downs. $10 had funded an entire day of entertainment, he had said: horses, peanuts, characters in the crowd. Sounds like benign fun. But suddenly ghosts emerged from my family’s history: kids from the block, distant cousins, parents of my pre-school friends, characters from every facet of the past—all had fallen prey to their addictions, borrowed money from everyone around, and finally become official pariahs, excommunicated.Sufficiently scared, I steered clear of gambling (or at least, didn’t seek it out) for five semesters, until a slow reading period night in January found me at a friend’s frat house at Tufts. Most of the students had not yet returned for second semester and campus was quiet, so a few of us just sat around and watched TV.

In a moment directly out of a health class scare video, one brother asked if I had ever played Texas Hold ’Em.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Poker,” he said, in a tone part drug dealer, part disdain.

As two of us on the table were novices, the disdainful dealer agreed to play without money. I won the table and quickly suggested we play again—this time for money. Apparently, I was a natural. The next day I woke up and went directly to the Square for my first poker set.

Since then I have lost dozens of buy-ins. The stakes are low, but the game is always on my mind. In section I fail to speak for the first 45 minutes and then it’s too late, everyone else has been talking too much—I’ve been bet off the table. Expecting final exams to pull up my average is winning it on the river, while a good grade on the first paper is a win right off the flop. A dangerous way to think.

Dr. Richard Labrie, Associate Director of the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School who authored a recent article on college gaming, says it’s just a phase.

“A lot of gambling in college may be a function of risk-taking that occurs in youth, which many people outgrow,” says Labrie, one of four authors who analyzed data from a 2001 national study of college student gambling habits conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health. “It may have something to do with development of the brain—the superego, the part that makes decisions, grows a little more slowly.”

Risk-taking is natural, Labrie says. The problem arises when adolescents fail to balance risks with benefits.

“Getting a little older and maturing tends to be a protective factor,” he says.

Having achieved legal gambling age, I instituted my own protective factors: no sports gambling. Only $1 scratch-off lotto, not 2 or 5. One poker game a week. But, impetuous youth that I am, I’ve quickly found excuses.

Away on intersession, jet lag seemed a good reason to stay in the hostel our first night to play poker—on the condition that all of that night’s winnings go to the next night’s alcohol. You see, I told my self, gambling can be for a good cause.The excuses quickly became less valid: it’s a great way to kill an hour after dinner, or before heading to a movie. Finding a quarter in the street is one-twentieth of a buy-in; might as well chip in the other $4.75!

As another protective factor, I’m not entering tournaments—it took a lot of restraint not to drop ten dollars on the college’s first campus-wide tournament, which began last week. But as a reward to myself for that show of restraint, two roommates joined me for a friendly game on a Wednesday night. So what if we don’t have a fourth? Good way to kill an hour, right? The three of us huddled around a ratty little Habitat for Humanity ottoman we bought for a dollar—which is how much I have left in chips after just ten minutes of play.

I buy two more ottomans, but soon I’m down to $1.55 and I haven’t had a good hand all game. The 20 cent big blind comes to me—down to $1.35. I will win this hand! I bend my two cards up from the Ottoman: Kind of Diamonds. Ace of Clubs. That’s worth ten cents more. $1.25.

The flop—9, Jack, King. All clubs. Worst case scenario I have a pair of Kings, but I’m one club shy of an Ace-high flush. Nothing can beat that, right? Flush beats straight, right? My mind races over the permutations but all I see are clubs.

Bet opens at 40 cents. I raise to 80. Everyone’s in. $0.45.

The fourth card’s a seven of spades. Everyone checks—we know what to wait for. I save my $0.45, just in case, and pair of Kings is still a high hand. I start to plan my victory celebration: “Kings would’ve done it, but booyah! Ace high flush.”

Flush. Flush! My neck tenses, blood courses up through my cheeks. This room is small, the clock on the wall is so loud, the microwave’s beeping, why is it on? The CD stopped, ahhh let me see the last the last the last card...

The shape comes into focus first: a little black clover. Clubs. The number’s incidental. Side-betting continues, I don’t pay attention. This one’s mine. “Well fellas, almost a royal flush!” is on the tip of my tongue.

Ryan, the last to bet, shows first: Queen. Ace beats queen! It’s still mine! Wow a good flush, but not as good as…

“Straight flush,” Jesse says, with deference and awe.

My muscles slack. 9, 10, J, Q, K. Clubs. Didn’t even see it. No triumphant turn of cards. No raking of the pile. No obnoxiously loud stacking of chips.

“I’m never playing again,” I say, and turn the cards. Empathetic sighs all around. That hurts.

I mean it, too; I’m done.

At least ‘til Thursday.

David B. Rochelson ’05, News Executive and FM Proofer, is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Mather House. He looks this intimidating all the time, we swear.