Poker as distraction

July 22, 2016

So there we were… me and my wife and six others parked in a beach house about 50 feet from the Caribbean Sea. Doing the things you’re supposed to do – eating too much, snorkeling, and having deep conversations. I mean, as deep as the conversations can get when you’re standing in three feet of clear ocean water under the dock (sun protection) drinking a mojito (reality protection).

Two of the people on the trip were Bobby, a dear friend of my wife for over 20 years, and his daughter, Sadie. At dinner the second night, Sadie said to me, “So, are you going to teach us to play Texas Hold’em?” I looked around the table – seven intelligent folks with nothing to do and a big table we could sit around. “I’ll bake the cookies if you’ll teach,” said Bobby.

Easy game.

It just so happened I had a deck of cards with me (you never know when a game of Open Faced Chinese Poker may break out). We used a deck of “Phase 10” cards for chips, each color representing a different chip denomination. And yes, there was a fair amount of “How much is the red one?” initially.


I sat in the center and dealt, coached, and generally had a grand time without playing a single hand. They were eager students and the first game must have lasted 2-3 hours. The next night, Sadie was going for the cards and “chips” even as the last of the dinner dishes were being cleared. With the basic mechanics and simple strategy under their belts, people began to see the complexity and depth to the game. I think we must have played until 11:30pm or so.

So it was the third night, and (to my surprise) everybody played, rather than retreat to their novels and iPads. The first check-raise organically happened, which tickled me no end (I imagined how poker AI developers must have felt the first time their programmed bot discovered the check-raise on its own).

It was the fourth night when things took a turn. Just as dinner was being cleared up, Sadie looked at her phone and said “Oh .” Bobby immediately snapped to her side. Her sister, Laurie, Bobby’s younger daughter, was nearing the very end of a moderately difficult pregnancy.

It got very quiet in the house.

“Something’s kinda wrong – they’re going to the hospital.”

I just kept still – it wasn’t time for me to have an opinion about much of anything.

After a few minutes, Sadie said, “Might as well play poker – nothing we can do while we wait.” That was my cue. I grabbed the cards, put the chips out, and started dealing. Obviously the mood was substantially more somber as Sadie and Bobby checked their phones pretty much constantly.

My wife pulled me aside, “You realize you may be dealing poker all night…”

“I’ve done it before, for less good reasons.”

Bobby: “They’re going to go get him out.”

Me: “Your big blind, Mike” as I pitched cards.

At some point in the evening, Sadie flopped a set and got all the chips from somebody who’d made top pair. As she gathered in all the card-chips, she smiled and said, “For 30 seconds there, I was actually relaxed and happy.”

Which was about all I could have hoped for.

In the very late hours, the word came that the baby had been delivered; both he and mom were doing well. There were sighs, smiles, and perhaps a tear or two around the table. The game broke quickly after that, though Bobby may have baked a batch of celebratory cookies – I don’t fully remember.

What I do remember is that I learned that sometimes a poker game is about nothing more than pushing reality off to the side. Giving you something to do while you desperately want to be doing something about a situation over which you have no control.

I was glad that I’d been able to give my friends the flop-turn-river option when the alternative was just frustrated and angst-filled waiting a lot of miles from their loved ones. I was glad for poker right then.

Lee Jones first joined PokerStars in 2003 and has been part of the professional poker world for over 25 years. You can read his occasional Twitter-bites at @leehjones.


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