At some point in this story, I am going to insult some of my best friends in the world. I will say, somewhat defensively, my intention is not to insult them but rather to praise my late uncle, Henri Ades.
But my defense will ring hollow. Because, in truth, I do mean to insult them. Anyway, that's not for now. It is a little bit later in the story. I just wanted to give you the heads-up.
The story, I think, is about poker.
I was taught to play poker by my older cousin, David, on the stoop of an apartment hotel on St. James Street in Atlantic City.
There is a picture of me on the beach during those years and I am alarmingly thin. Like a Romanian gymnast.
If I would have to guess, I would say that I am eight.
Our family drives to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for a two-week vacation on the fabled beach which once hosted the Miss America pageant.
It is almost unfathomable for me to understand how my father, who later in life grew to despise even a fifteen-minute ride to the shopping center, would have, year after year, undertaken this long journey.
Atlantic City, back many years before the casinos, was beach in the morning and boardwalk at night. Our lodgings had a TV and this was where my sister and I first watched Love, American Style and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We did not have cable at home. The vending machine in the motel across the street—not where the Jews stayed—is where I tasted my first Mountain Dew. The beach and ocean were a mini paradise, with the ice cream man trudging his cooler on the hot sand, bellowing the virtues of ‘fudgie wudgies.’
At night, our parents would sit on the rows of benches near the Steel Pier, an area they called La Palmyra. After the beach town in Syria decimated by ISIS? No. That doesn’t seem right. Hold on, let me call my Tante Odette.
Ah, so it turns out La Palmyra was an open-air cafe in the Heliopolis district of Cairo. My aunt peppers me with questions as to why I want to know this ancient history. But I am in the middle of this story so don't have time to chat.
The benches on the Steel Pier serve as a time capsule of younger years. For most of my aunts and uncles, their time in Cairo, as almost all youthful times, were halcyon days. We are given our allowance in order to play skee-ball and mini putt while they just sit on the benches eating and spitting sunflower seeds and enjoying the breeze from the ocean.
My father, although born in Egypt, is the lone Ashkenazi in the bunch; he exhales contentedly and says it is a ‘mechayeh.’
I look up the word in order to confirm. It is a feeling of joy and pleasure. Like taking your girdle off at the end of a long day.
How can you derive pleasure from doing nothing? From sitting, eating sunflower seeds?
How old am I before I understand how great that is? Am I fifty? Could I have been a fool for that long? It seems very likely.
We come back from skee-ball and try to negotiate a few more dollars for soft ice cream.
“Mange de la pastec,” urges my mom as she takes out a Tupperware of cut-up watermelon from her beach bag.
Pastec is french. She doesn't use the Hebrew or Arabic word for watermelon—avatiach.
French, Arabic, English and Hebrew are sprinkled in most sentences. It is the language of the Egyptian Jews.
A polyglot dance trotted out at rapid speed.
Don't let your mind wander.
Do you want to be embarrassed like my younger brother who, when asked in his advanced French class what the French word for garbage was, quickly shot up his hand and exclaimed, to the understandable wonderment of Monsieur Lebeq, “Zaballa?”
Because in our house, the chore was “va faire sortir la zaballa.” All in French except for the last word. The Arabic word for garbage.
And la zaballa meant it was in the feminine.
I mean, seriously.
I did say this story was about poker. And it kinda is. But I first want to talk about class. About wealth. And about social standing.
Many of you will already know that the famed board game Monopoly was based on the streets of Atlantic City. If not, then there you go. Fun fact.
Not all the streets. Park Place, for example, is clearly New York City. And the railroads. Well, the railroads are the railroads.
Our kosher hotel, my father called it a pension—a guest house—was on St. James Place.
Don't look it up.
Do you know what color group St. James Place belongs to?
Now orange isn’t the purple of Baltic Avenue. But it sure as hell isn't the yellow of Ventnor or the green of Pacific! We are in good company. Between Tennessee and New York. But we know our place. We don’t let our britches get too big.
I grew up understanding I was a kid from St. James Place. I knew my place. In time, I turned out to be the asshole who thought he owned all of Boardwalk. But that was later. Much later. For now, I was the youngster playing poker with his cousin.
So we sat on the stoop, after first crossing the street, inserting the American quarters into the magical vending machine and getting our ice cold Mountain Dew, and played poker.
It would have been draw poker.
No wild cards.
Played for, I don’t know, maybe pennies?
Did my sister play? Did his sister? Two-handed poker doesn’t seem like much fun, but neither does playing poker with our sisters.
My cousin David does not play poker now. In fact, that may very well have been the only time he played. Buying and selling companies seems to be enough gamble for him. But he got me hooked.
I still play a lot of poker. I have played in card rooms in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Florida. I have played the casino in Leicester Square in London and the Champs-Elysées in Paris. In Prague I played in a game in which the only English words any of the players knew were call, raise and fold.
I also play in a lot of home games. The monthly $20 buy-in, no-limit hold ‘em tournament at my friend Harold's house. It might be the worst poker game in North America. After 20 years most still ask if flush beats straight. The players, all very early risers except for me, have trouble keeping their eyes open past 10:00. Decisions are made not on the relative strength of a hand but on wanting to go to bed and reluctance to buy in for a second $20.
My friend Bernie reminds me we played for much bigger stakes when we were sixteen. He is right.
My brother has a rotating dealer's choice game almost every month, and I am a first alternate at my friend Downtown Darren Brown's game where, in the last hour, they play the same three-handed Guts game we played when we were 16.
My friend Karen has included me in her couples doctor game although I am neither coupled nor a doctor. The stakes are low, and I often play a hand in the dark—without looking at my cards. Her husband, Oscar, to this day, does not believe me when I say I am in the dark. He simply can't conceive of someone being that dumb. Karen's friend Shawn plays in the doctors game. In addition to being a pediatrician and poker player, he is a golfer and we have become friends. He invited me to his own home game.
All the players in this game are Chinese. Some, ironically, are from Singapore, where I lived for two years for my last two years of high school. They were surprised I recognized the distinctive Singlish accent. They order in food from a local Thai restaurant.
Though perhaps not very politically correct, I call this game the Chinese Game.
The stakes were high and the games were wild.
One of the crazy, wild games we play is called The Last Picture Show. Named after the movie with Cybill Shepherd.
It was a high-low game which changed depending which cards got turned up. And then they played an extended version where you could buy an extra card at the end.
It was crazy.
It was more than a little complicated. So much so, that when I tried to introduce it to my group, they gave up trying to understand after 10 minutes.
But that is not, as Arlo Guthrie said, what I came to talk to you about.
I want to talk about the poker game played in the card room of the Hemispheres building in Hallandale, Florida.
It was a game played by a group of Egyptian Jews between the ages of 82-92. It was a $10 buy-in and they used plastic poker chips they had bought at Walmart. The bets were by color rather than denomination. As in, I bet two reds and one blue.
They played, for reasons that are still a mystery, counterclockwise. My Uncle Henri was the king of the game and, despite the fact he was my former boss who had fired me three times, I loved playing with him. He had an aggressive, bullying approach and loved to bluff. Many of the players like my Uncle Henri had been playing since they were kids. And their nicknames were still the same. In fact, I often did not even know their real names. My uncle loved to tease Tico—whom I later learned was called Albert. Sometimes, Madame Giselle played with us and if she won a hand against Tico, my uncle would taunt him unmercifully.
“Elle t’as baiser, Tico. Elle t’as baiser.”
You probably didn’t learn that in French class.
“She fucked you, Tico. She fucked you.”
Tico would look up at me and say, “Ronnie, I’m getting killed here.”
They would tell stories of the old days.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would be treated with a story about my father.
“He knew every public bathroom in Cairo.”
I, in turn, would regale them with stories of the poker room in the casino.
“How much did you win, Ronnie?”
Did I inflate the numbers?
Okay. Maybe I did.
My uncle would have loved to have gone to the casino. But, by then, he was nearly blind. We would have to call out the cards on the board.
Trois de pique.
Valet de couer.
He only needed to be told once.
They played wild-card games and my uncle loved to learn new variations.
One day I told him of the game I played in the Chinese poker group.
“Mais c’est un peux difficile.” It’s a little difficult.
“What is it called?” my uncle wants to know.
“The Last Picture Show,” I reply.
“Show me,” he commands.
“Henri. Forget it. The kid says it's difficult. We are too old to learn new games.”
“Let's try one hand,” my uncle would say with a twinkle in his eye.
The insults fly. In Arabic and French.
Your mother’s... better left unsaid. Doesn't translate well.
But Henri is the king of the table and he gets his way.
The first hand does not go well. Neither do the next three or four. They can’t follow the different games and they give up on the low part of the split pot altogether.
It is an unmitigated disaster.
My Toronto friends from the round table gave up after 10 minutes. Why would I expect more from these aging Egyptian Jews? “It's okay, Ronnie,” says Tico. “We are too dumb for this game.” Okay. Yallah, follow the queen.
It rains the next day and my golf game is cancelled. So I head down to the rec room to play cards with the Egyptians. When it is my turn to deal, I call out 7-card stud.
When it gets to my Uncle Henri, he calls out, “Le Chinois.”
We look up. What game is he talking about.
“Ronnie’s game from yesterday. From his Chinese game.”
“No, Henri. No.”
Henri stands firm. “My deal. My game. Le Chinois.” And then, adding salt to the wound, he says, “Extended.”
Our cousin Sammy wins a huge pot with six Queens. When it is his turn to deal, he calls out, “Le Chinois.”
And so, for nearly a year, the only two groups in the entire world who played The Last Picture Show were my Chinese friends in Toronto and the octogenarian.
Egyptian Jews at the Hemispheres in Hallandale, Florida.
My parents are no longer alive. My Uncle Henri has also passed away. My Tante Odette stays in our old condo in the winter. I visit her from time to time. She makes me Egyptian food from the old days. Dessert is cut-up watermelon.
“Ne mange pas las pastec avec tais mains,” she admonishes me. Don’t eat the watermelon with your fingers.
I sometimes arrive early in order to beat the rush hour traffic. She is usually downstairs in the card room playing quatorze with the other ladies. Sometimes, there is a poker game.
“Ronnie, come play with us,” urges Tico. “I am getting killed.”
I recognize most of the faces but it is not really the same without my uncle. But I take a seat and pull out a $10 bill.
“Okay. I’ll play a few hands. What's the game?”
“Le Chinois,” says Tico in the most matter-of-fact way.
“Extended?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says. Looking at me as if I were a fool. Extended.