Ben Mezrich and the Boys of Poker
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Ben Mezrich deals a hand in his Back Bay man cave
The bright-red symbols flash like fireworks the instant I lift the cards from the table, and the sight of them sets a burst of pure adrenalin coursing through my veins; it’s something primal and beautiful, wired right into the nervous system—a hypothalamic reaction that probably harkens all the way back to some Neanderthal hunter-gatherer instinct, vestigial and also really counter-productive; the last thing you need when you see a pair of cards like these is a blast of chemicals sweeping through the logic centers of your brain. Then again, I suspect even a Neanderthal would know what to do with the pair of aces now hanging from my trembling fingers. In Texas Hold-Em, it’s a killer hand, no matter how you play it.
I look across the table at the faces of the other players and their varying metropolises of colored chips. A few of the chip towers are intimidating, a few about the same as my own. But the truth is, the chips don’t really matter. This isn’t Vegas, and I don’t have a duffel bag full of cash tucked beneath my chair. This isn’t some late-night research jaunt for a book—although there are, indeed, at least two MIT kids at the table who have probably seen the interior of a dreaded casino “back room” more than once. This isn’t Vegas; this is a one-bedroom apartment in the Back Bay with Red Sox paraphernalia adorning the walls and empty wine and beer bottles stacking up along the kitchen counter. There are no pit bosses, cocktail waitresses or casino security goons—just nine friends at a table, a microwave oven with a digital display to keep track of the blinds, and a pile of twenty-dollar bills. It’s what we call a “regular game,” a uniquely American pastime, and we’ve been gathering together to play cards in similar apartments on a nearly weekly schedule for more than five years. The longevity of our game is probably not unique, but the makeup of our poker family is distinct; a somewhat amorphous cross section of guys spanning an age range of early 20s to early 50s, with jobs ranging from the highly professional to the sporadically unemployed, from über-wealthy Web entrepreneurs and hedge fund magicians to actually homeless, struggling actors and jacks-of-no-trades. And yet somehow it all works; the game continues, one week bleeding into the next, even as our lives expand and contract, through engagements, breakups, marriages, even babies. The game remains a constant. Maybe the only constant, as real and true and predictable as the sudden thrill of the revealed aces in my hands.
Despite the books I’ve written, I’m no card expert—far from it. My wife, who is at the far corner of the table (the only girl in our group, not for lack of trying) has actually won more recently than I, utilizing her take-no-prisoners, fiercely aggressive betting style; quite simply, she bets like a Valkyrie, riding into every hand like her cards are a flaming sword, rather than what they usually are, barely suited connectors—and yet somehow, sometimes, it works. Myself, I’m an expert at placing third, which is to say, I don’t play to win. I play because this is my salon; I’ve never been accused of being a particularly literary author, and I’d be lost in some dark, smoky basement bar on the Left Bank of Paris, trying to trade bon mots with beret-wearing poets or scruffy artistes in leather motorcycle jackets. But here, at a makeshift card table in Boston, surrounded by guys wearing baseball hats and sweatshirts, I am at home.
The truth is, men don’t usually make friends after college. We might collect acquaintances, find similar souls to watch sporting events with or trade party invitations, but we’re pretty much finished acquiring friends by the time we’re legal to drink. It’s not that we don’t like having friends; it’s just that we take the world in stages, and it’s up to our first 20 years to accumulate the core friendships that will bolster us through the following decades. Our 20s are then free for what often devolves into an almost Arthurian quest for sex, then on to our 30s, sex giving way to a vastly more adult search for money, or at least a means to that end. In our 40s, we divide our time between food, children and television—but making real, lasting connections with other guys? It’s not something we expect, and when it happens, it can come as quite a shock.