“I always thought the best way to get to know people is to play charades or poker with them.”
“I wish we’d played charades.”
Throughout television’s long history, situation comedies have loved poker. It’s almost expected, frankly, for a sitcom to feature at least one “poker episode.”
In the “Poker on Television” chapter of Poker & Pop Culture I talk about how a number of sitcoms use the “poker episode” as a way of introducing characters to audiences. I Love Lucy, The Odd Couple, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Friends, and 30 Rock are just a few examples of sitcoms that had a poker episode early on, sometimes among the very first episodes.
As a social game requiring a lot of interaction and dialogue, poker works as a kind of a sped-up way of introducing characters and their relationships to each other. It’s also a great context for funny one-liners and other hijinks resulting from the game.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) had been around for a couple of years when it finally had its “poker episode,” one from January 1964 called “A Nice, Friendly Game of Cards.”
The show features the great Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, the head writer on a comedy show. He lives in New York with his wife Laura (played by another TV icon, Mary Tyler Moore) and their son Ritchie. In this episode the couple hosts Rob’s work colleague Buddy, their neighbors Jerry and Millie, and another couple they don’t know, a man named Lou and his wife Beth.
In fact, the whole premise of the episode revolves around the idea that poker is “a good way to break the ice with people,” as Rob says to Laura. Jerry is a dentist and Lou one of his patients, and since Jerry was responsible for bringing the group together, he’s the one who suggests they play poker as a fun way for everyone to get acquainted.
Alas for Rob, he ends up making a pretty bad first impression with Lou — and poker is to blame.
Before the game begins, Rob entertains his son Ritchie with a series of magic tricks, starting with disappearing handkerchiefs and balls and ending with a special deck of marked cards with which Rob can easily perform tricks of the “pick-a-card-any-card” variety.
Ritchie then goes to bed, the adults arrive, and the poker game begins.
Lou is an ex-Assistant District Attorney, and as the game proceeds he reveals early on he’s a touch more competitive than everyone else.
“Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just a game,” says his wife Beth. “There’s no other way to take it. It’s how you play the game, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose,” replies Lou with a snort.
Later when quizzed about his former work, Lou reveals he’d encountered some crooked poker games in the past. “I always advise everybody never to play cards with anybody excepting their friends,” he says.
They’re playing five-card draw, and Rob is losing steadily to start. Then during a moment when Rob is away from the table Laura accidentally damages one of the cards. It’s no problem, though, as she quickly finds another deck and the game continues.
But there is a problem. She’s introduced Rob’s marked deck into the game!
Rob returns, and by coincidence begins enjoying a winning streak that lasts the next couple of hours. Rob hasn’t been cheating, either — he hadn’t noticed the different deck.
Finally the last hand of the night arrives, and a big pot develops involving several players, including Lou and Rob. Little Ritchie wanders down during the hand, and having learned from Rob how to read the markings earlier, immediately begins identifying players’ cards much to Rob’s horror.
They manage to shoo little Ritchie away, his remarkable ability being successfully dismissed as precociousness. As the hand continues Rob tries desperately to lose a big pot to Lou to give him back what he’s lost and perhaps lessen the chance of any suspicions being raised. But Lou’s being stubborn and keeps threatening to fold. Meanwhile Laura — oblivious to Rob’s plan — keeps raising to complicate things even more.
Out of the hand himself, Rob pleads with Lou to call Laura’s last raise, but he’s having none of it. He wants to fold. But Rob won’t stop insisting he call.
“Why? Why should I stay in?” asks an exasperated Lou.
“Because you got three eights and she’s only got a pair!” cries Rob.
An enraged Lou gathers his wife and storms out, leaving Rob to contemplate what might happen next.
“I may have lost my standing in the community!” says Rob. “Don’t worry… you can always give cheating lessons,” cracks Buddy.
It’s a sitcom, though, and like most sitcoms, everything works out in the end. Lou and Beth return, apologies are accepted, and another game begins, this time using Lou’s clean deck.
The show certainly supports the idea that poker is a good way for people to get to know each other. But the marked cards, one might say, unfairly “marked” Rob as someone he was not.
“5-Card Fiction” is an ongoing series examining fictional poker hands from film, television, and elsewhere. Have a favorite fictional poker game or hand you’d like to see discussed? Tweet your suggestions @PokerStarsBlog.
Photo: “Photo of the Petrie family from the television program The Dick Van Dyke Show” (adapted), public domain.