You’ve probably got a friend like this. You may not be in touch with her for a year. But for whatever reason, you call her, or she calls you. You go for a beer, and before the foam settles below the top of the glass, the years have melted away.
I have such a friend – her name is “Live Poker.”
In our 35 years of courtship, we’d never been apart for more than a couple weeks. But now, thanks to Covid, I hadn’t seen Live Poker for 20 months.
But I’ve got my booster, we’re all wearing masks, and goodness, how I missed my old friend.
So I made my way to San Jose last night to play poker. This was a trip back in time for me, because my first date with Live Poker was in 1985, right there in San Jose.
Our first hangout was on Saratoga Avenue in a beautiful old A-frame building that housed the Garden City poker room. There was a first-rate chop house in the front, with a fireplace, stone hearth, and an honest-to-Oscar Goodman three-piece jazz band performing in the evenings. Live Poker, she lived in the back, in a cloud of cigarette smoke and chip cicada-chirps.
I was inexperienced, but she wasn’t, and I quickly developed a crush on her. When Bay 101 opened up across town, she took me on a date there for its opening day in 1994.
Times change. Garden City went under the bulldozer – the only thing left is the 60’s-era sign. My evening’s destination was its heir, “Casino M8trix,” just around the corner from the airport. The original Bay 101 building, a Florida-pink monster, went under the bulldozer too – the dirt it sat on was too valuable for just a one-story building and massive parking lot. So Bay 101 moved down the street, and now sits a few blocks from M8trix.
But I hadn’t been in that area in 15 years, and when I pulled off I-880 at Brokaw Road in the dark, I had no idea where I was. Despite having spent a couple of decades living and working in that area, nothing looked familiar.
Thanks to my GPS, I found my way into the parking lot and walked in. A guard asked me to pull down my mask and they took my picture. That was new. But oh, the sound of the cicada chirps was like Free Fallin’ coming on the radio – I was transported to a place of security and comfort. I got to the sign-in desk, gave the man my name, and then looked again. It was Cesar, who used to scribble my name on a whiteboard at Garden City under the $3/6 limit hold’em list.
“Cesar! I recognize you from Garden City, don’t I?”
His eyes twinkled. “Yes, you do. It’s good to see you back, Lee.”
This was not a miracle of memory, as I’d just asked him to put ‘Lee J’ on the $2/3/5 NLHE list in his fancy poker room software. Whiteboard or laptop – it was good to be on the list for a poker game.
Just being in the same building as my old flame, Live Poker, was good for my soul. I bumped into a poker buddy, Anand. Thanks to the wait time, we had an excellent visit. When Cesar called my name, another old friend from Bay 101, Davy, waved me into a seat at Anand’s table. A seat, at a real poker table, in a real poker room. Be still, my heart.
It had been a minute, as the kids say, but before long I was back in the swing of things, estimating chip stacks, counting (or remembering) pot sizes, toking dealers, and all that fun stuff.
I won a few pots, I lost a few pots, and man, it felt good to be back. I only summoned the discipline to leave when the witching hour of 2:00am approached. I had promised myself I wouldn’t play another blind. I was UTG+1. To my right was a $10 straddle. And I picked up pocket jacks, the best starting hand I’d seen all night.
I make it $45, and get the expected two callers. But now the cutoff decides that $180 is a much better number to play for. I’m waiting for it to fold back to me, but suddenly the guy in the small blind jumps right in and calls the $180 cold. This fellow is nuts, creating non-stop action for the table. His stack had fluctuated wildly, and currently sits at $900.
The others fold to me and now it’s my turn. The 3-bettor started with $500, just 50 big blinds effective. And there’s an ocean of potentially dead money in the pot, so I just 4-bet rip it for my $900. The two guys who originally called behind me, this breaks their hearts. One of them tanks for 30 seconds before folding, the other just sighs and folds. But the 3-bettor can’t wait to shovel it in.
Now it’s back around to SmallBlind. And boy, does he tank. He looks at his cards, he looks at the ceiling. He sighs. This goes on for multiple minutes. In the meantime, I’m wondering whether the 3bettor has aces or kings.
Finally, the guy on my left calls the clock on SmallBlind. The floorman starts the clock. SmallBlind starts an argument. I start thinking, “Poor time management.”
With time running out, SmallBlind calls.
I turn up my jacks. The cutoff turns up – no surprise – two aces: diamonds and clubs. SmallBlind doesn’t show. We all agree to run it twice.
First flop is king-queen-four, all hearts. The guy on my left looks at my jack of hearts and says, “Well, there’s a sweat.”
“Yes, that is a sweat, isn’t it?”
Board runs out bricks, so I lose that one. And SmallBlind still doesn’t show.
Second board comes king-high again, all spades. The guy on my left looks at my jack of spades and says, “Well, this looks familiar.”
“Maybe I’ll play it right this time.”
The board runs out bricks again – I lose again. Everybody looks at SmallBlind, who looks at his cards, looks at both boards, looks at his cards again, and mucks. When we get it all sorted out, the whole fiasco only costs me $100 because of the side pot.
I knew that if SmallBlind reloaded, there was a danger I’d lose my resolve and keep playing, so I immediately stood up and told the dealer that he had a seat open.
As I finished racking my chips, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hey sunshine, d’ja miss me?”
It was Live Poker. She was wearing a t-shirt with a rainbow flag that said, “Love is Love.” Her light brown hair was sun-streaked and she had Ray-Bans pushed up on top of her head. She was eating from what appeared to be a bag of gummy edibles. Sure, she was older now, with a wrinkle or two around her eyes, but she was still every bit as alluring as she was in 1985 when we first met.
“Did I miss you? Do the Stones miss Charlie Watts? And by the way, did you see that last hand?”
“You think I was going to change just because you weren’t around?
“I hoped you wouldn’t change – but these are weird times.”
“Weird times are when you need to see your old friends. I hope you’re not coming around to say good-bye.”
“Good-bye? No way. I’m coming around to tell you that I’m back. I’m still finding my way in this new world, but I can’t imagine a world without you.”
Her mask tried to cover her smile, but it jumped through her eyes and I couldn’t miss it.
“That’s… that’s good to hear.”
She leaned forward, kissed me on the cheek, and whispered in my ear. “Don’t be a stranger. I missed you too.”
Then she turned and strolled away. Maybe it was the wee hour, maybe it was my old eyes. But I saw her walking away, and then – then she wasn’t there. Just the normal comings and goings of a late-night poker room.
I stood there for a moment, listening to the sound of the chip-cicadas, the murmur of table talk, and Cesar’s voice calling people to their seats. Then I headed toward the parking lot. Nope, definitely not gonna be a stranger.