“You never count your money while sitting at the table, there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” Years before this advice was given in a hit song by Kenny Rogers, I learned that lesson firsthand playing high stakes poker. I was eleven years old. This was my life for five years, until my mom passed away when I was 16.
At that time I learned to lean back simply as a means of survival. I sat on the floor and was “taught” how to play poker, just like learning to play Monopoly or another game. This was different and I knew it was serious business. I learned all the winning hands, when I should play or fold, learned the proper poker “etiquette,” and most importantly, developed my poker face. Over the next few weeks, every night I was drilled on the rules of the game, told how dangerous this was, what I should do if we were involved in a raid, how I should behave to be accepted in the game, told over and over about not showing any expression during a hand.
I first played in small games with only four or five players as I developed skills and that “expressionless” face. This was the early ‘60s and many times there would be thousands of dollars on the table. During a game, my mom, stepfather and I were strangers. I was given money before the game but once the cards were dealt, we were total strangers. Players knew I was Grace’s kid; she assured them I knew the rules so no one treated me like a child.
I only played cards, five and seven-card stud poker, but was the lookout for crap shoots. Sitting in the dark, trying to do my homework, I stood guard for hours while folks shot dice in back rooms of businesses, bars, or strip clubs. I knew what to do in a raid: warn the players and then hide.
One cloudy, windy night – with leaves rustling in the wind, it was difficult to see – I soon realized the police were there. I ran to the back, warned everyone, and then ran outside crossed the railroad track and went to my hiding spot, lying in the field beside the track. The fear of being caught and taken away from my mom was overwhelming. She had always told me she would pick me up after they dealt with the authorities, so I waited. Several hours later, I saw headlights searching the field; she was there as promised.
When mom died it would have been easy to continue this gambling life, but I wanted something normal. The lessons learned in poker games have served me well. A poker face is priceless in dealing with people and difficult situations: You learn to gauge a situation, size up people and watch every move. These skills enabled me to carry on after her death, raise my children and have a career.