The books were an excuse, almost. A cover, so to speak, that would give legitimacy to the meetings.
In February, eight men in Arlington gathered to start their own version of what is often a women-only endeavor: They talked about a book over dinner. Then they cleared the decks for poker.
"Despite being in a close neighborhood, there are very few opportunities for us to get together in a social way," said Michael Caudell-Feagan, who administers grants for a philanthropic foundation. "People are invested in the neighborhood, and we run into each other at PTA and church and other places, but there's never time for any intensity."
The men live within a 10-block radius, and most of them have children in the fourth or fifth grade. They figure they'll fit in eight meetings this year as they schedule around traveling for business and such.
"We've picked classic guy books," says Doug McLennan, a NASA scientist, "but I probably wouldn't have read them if it weren't for this group." He hosted the night they discussed "The Killer Angels." The paella they ate had nothing to do with the book, but he served a cherry dessert because the book's Civil War characters were all eating cherries and getting the runs.
"We've gone all over the map," Caudell-Feagan says of reading selections. "But we've determined that the light novel is not our style. What gets us going is something infused with history."
Tony Trombly, a sales rep, likes it that because the group includes men who work as economists, educators, scientists and salesmen, "we get a take on the book that never would've crossed my radar screen."
After spending a lot of time and e-mails trying to select the books by consensus, the group decided that the host of the evening would select the book. "It cut way down on e-mail traffic," says Trombly.
The Poker and Book Club isn't the only reading group that men join. Some groups in the area include men and women, and there are other all-men reading clubs. The Cavemen, for example, is a group registered at Politics & Prose, a D.C. bookstore, and its stated intent is "reading the backs of cereal boxes." Sandra L. West, who is writing a book about the history of African American reading groups, reports that a number of men's groups meet in the Deep South, though the closest one to the District she's aware of is in Richmond.
Do the men compare themselves to women's groups? Nah. "We're an island unto ourselves," Caudell-Feagan asserts with a laugh. "Sometimes we wonder how discussions are tailored or prompted in other groups, but we've let things develop and generate as they will."
Trombly has cooked for his wife's book group. From the start, he didn't want to be like them. "They'd ask questions like `What do you think the title suggests?' " he says. "They didn't seem that fun. Our discussions are more guylike. We're more like, "What about when the Indians were shooting at them?"
Trombly sees the group as a reason to get together for fun under an intellectual umbrella. And these are all men who read anyway. "We're not monster-truck, NASCAR-watching guys," Trombly says. "We're men of the '90s; we don't have that kind of outlet. Our evenings together aren't like primal screaming or getting together to drink and watch pornography. It's just a chance for guys to get together."
He admits that liquor has loosened their tongues for discussions, but it's not an excuse to go to some drunken extreme. "Not that I'm above that," says Trombly.
"We thought the poker would balance out the evening," says Caudell-Feagan, who suggested it. He wanted to finally learn to play the game -- something he'd missed somehow in his formative years.
The group doesn't emphasize the food, though serious cooks in the group have set a high standard. And Caudell-Feagan, who hosted the first meeting, set a precedent for matching the meal to the book. For "Undaunted Courage," about the Lewis and Clark expedition, the meal he served included portobello mushrooms shaped like buffalo tongue, "beaver tail" fashioned from quesadillas, dried fruit, and beer from every state along the Lewis and Clark expedition route.
Trombly was up next with "The Purple Dot," and he complained that, in addition to being an "embarrassingly bad book," it gave almost no direction for what to cook. He opted to cement the tradition of a good meal and served whole striped bass.
"But we're getting to the bottom of the batting order," Trombly says. One of the remaining men in the group has threatened to line up cans of soup in front of the microwave when it's his turn.
The ratio of book discussion to poker playing depends largely on how much the men like the book. Once all the guys agreed that they hated "The Purple Dot," they settled right down to poker. If they like a book, they spend a lot more time talking about it over dinner, and sometimes over poker. And just as the book reading serves an ulterior purpose for the evening, so does poker. "Looking at us, we are a bunch of guys who could be accused of being overly sensitive, liberal criers," Trombly says. "Poker protects us from that label."
Maybe that's why the guys call it their Poker and Book Club, rather than their Book and Poker Club. But the poker-playing experience is ragged. At one end are a couple of men like Caudell-Feagan, who never played before the club formed. At the other end are men like McLennan. He plays down his poker abilities, but says he did learn well from his brother, who supported himself through college on poker winnings.
The poker portion is looser, says Caudell-Feagan. "We talk about the game of poker and poke fun at each other. A couple of the guys are quite good at keeping the banter going." Along with side conversations, like where they're traveling, he says they occasionally talk about life, guy-style: "We have these insights that are quickly covered over" with jokes.
Because the men all have busy weekend schedules, they meet on weeknights and fold up by 11 o'clock. "We've been pretty careful not to infringe on family time," Trombly says. "The wives all seem happy that their spouses have this group." Although after the addition of cigars to the lineup one night, his wife decreed that no more "stinky cigar breath" would be joining her in bed.
"We're enjoying the hell out of it," Trombly says. "We're already imagining how we'll still be doing this 10 years from now and how great it will be when our sons join us."