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Pressing Your Luck

The Inner Workings

By Catherine L. Tung

I’ve tried three times in my life to learn poker. Harvard is not the kind of place where poker thrives—as much as we sometimes try to pretend.

The first time I tried was in high school, when all the guys we knew would go over to Ben’s basement to play cards and drink, and we girls decided that we could have fun, too. So one Friday night we piled into my friend Lauren’s basement, which had the appropriate beer sign and bar atmosphere, and dealt out a hand. We struggled through a few minutes of play before someone confided timidly, “I don’t really know how to play this.”

“Me neither.”

“Me neither.”

“And someone spilled salsa on that card. Gross.”

“Let’s go play pool.”

The third time was this past summer, when I worked with teenagers at a day camp. Kyle, the only kid who seemed at all impressed that when I wasn’t being a camp counselor I was going to Harvard, kept challenging me to play poker. The games were low-key and I was able to fake my way through it—no betting, we would essentially just draw five cards each and compare our hands, and while I was able to save face in front of my sole admirer, I still didn’t really know how to play.

The second, most productive time, which gave me enough knowledge to fake my way through subsequent games with Kyle, was one winter night in Straus. One of my dormmates and I were waiting for the others to come back from a poker game and I mentioned casually that I’d never learned to play. We fetched a pack of cards, and made a resoultion that I should be taught immediately.

“Okay, let’s see…” My dormmate shuffled the cards and then scratched his head. “Um, first of all let’s learn what a hand is.”

We went through the different hands—one pair, two pair, three of a kind, straight, flush—all the terms that I’ve heard for years and years but that still sounded unfamiliar, and when he had finished explaining we were done. I had “learned poker.”

Not really, of course. Despite these efforts I still shy away from a deck of cards and a suggestion of a friendly game. I’m cut off from a whole world of poker references and from ever fully understanding those famous movie scenes. Is there a reason? Repressed anxiety? Underlying sexism in the world of gambling?

Perhaps, but the main reason I’ve never played poker is that I haven’t accepted the element of randomization/luck/fate involved in every card game. Poker requires you not merely to accept, but to enjoy and revel in the random distribution of the cards. This, I think, is the crux of my frustration. If you’re not able to accept the cards you’ve been given, if you’re not able to rejoice when fortune throws you a good hand even though you had nothing to do with it, if you’re not able to use your skill to shape circumstances of luck, then you can’t play poker. No amount of thinking or explaining can build this skill. It involves a willingness to sit down and simply allow sheer experience and passage of time to fill the gaps in your knowledge, and to sit down as a novice and play a round of poker where you stand to lose, if not actual cash, some representation of money and a bit of pride besides, is intimidating no matter how friendly the crowd.

In my mind, this game involves a certain celebration of our lack of control over things, a testing of our luck. How difficult must this be to students who have mapped out the past 20 years of their lives to land themselves at Harvard, and have mapped out the next 20 years of their lives to land themselves at—pick a destination—Wall Street, The New York Times, Hollywood, Oxford? To accept the fact that I can’t control the content of my poker hand would open up the possibility that my carefully drawn plans for graduate school, careers, fame and a daughter named Molly are equally susceptible to the luck of the draw.

However uneasy this may make me and others like me, there remains the indisputable fact that unplanned sequences of events often lead to some of the most rewarding results that our lives will ever see. To me, that fact is what gives life its vitality, and what makes a seemingly simple game like poker so popular, so famous and glamourous. And that fact is why I believe the fourth time I try to learn poker I will, if not succeed outright, at least be able to finally play my first real game.

Catherine L. Tung ’06 is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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