Imagine a world where logic and reason are suspended. Where the inhabitants occupy an underground lair, speak in a cryptic language, and practice their own archaic customs. Its heroes are admired for seemingly rash or ridiculous actions. No, this is not some lost tribe still on the fringes of civilization. This is the world of Thursday night poker.
For 14 years and in three different houses, our host, Will, provided a sanctuary for our insane card play. Over those years, I changed jobs three times, divorced, remarried, started a family, moved overseas for two years, and came back. Thursday nights continued. Last year the games ended when Will took a job in Atlanta and sold his house.
Will's second house, a bungalow, built from a Sears Roebuck Craftsman kit from the 1920s, was the most memorable lair for our Thursday night rituals. Located in one of those funky, eclectic North Arlington neighborhoods, his house shared the same block with a used car lot, a church and the Virginia Square Metro stop.
We congregated in his basement, an unfinished room with a concrete slab floor and cinder block walls, with little more than a hexagonal card table under a bare light bulb. The entertainment system may have been the last turntable sold commercially. Music was limited to the same scratched collection of Johnny Cash, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins. CDs, tapes or anything new was not tolerated.
The floor was littered with beer cans ankle deep, and the regulars would be upset whenever Will tried to shovel them into a garbage bag every couple months. Maintaining the right ambiance was important.
We were a collection of government attorneys, congressional staffers, executive recruiters, computer engineers and PR executives and came from jobs where the straitjacket of professional demeanor ruled our day. Here, in the bunker, we could tell jokes, rant and revert to juvenile behavior without recrimination.
Serious poker players would find our game a nightmare. A couple of us had skill at the game but others would play a hand based on a whim or because they simply weren't paying close attention. Some players bet odd amounts chosen for no other reason than the annoying number of chips others would have to fish out of their tray. Yes, you wanted to take your friend's money, but if you ever wanted the money more than the camaraderie, you wouldn't last.
Like the British constitution, we had laws that remained unwritten. Unlike the British constitution, our code followed more the logic of Lewis Carroll than Lord Blackstone. One minute we'd strictly observe the rules of a "guts" game, where if only one player went in on the hand, he should by rights "walk" with the pot, and the next moment the sidelined players would throw the rules out the window and force a challenger into the game. We called it "taking the poke," and seeing any hesitation in another player, we'd encourage him with cries of, "C'mon, take the poke." This had the entertainment value of forcing a fight, like a slow day at the Roman Colosseum when management was running short of contestants to challenge well-equipped gladiators. The mob demanded that the unwitting participant be thrown into the arena, if only for the spectacle of more bloodshed.
You could avoid this humiliation by a concept we called "honor." Instead of waiting for "the poke," you could pound your fist on the table, which signaled that you were playing. The others at the table would say in mock Conan the Barbarian intonations, "he has honor." The greater the stakes and the worse the challenger's cards, the more honor he would have.
I can't explain the language that developed at the table except to say that anthropologists would have fodder for a few dozen case studies. Terminology devolved to the point where we contemplated a glossary to translate our conversations to newcomers. Verbal and humor skills hovered at the sixth-grade level -- repeating movie and cartoon lines, rhetorical flourishes, or brief debates on the lyrics of the same songs we'd heard 100 times before.
Wives or girlfriends would ask for news of our friends. "Well, how is Will?" "Is he dating anyone?" or "How is John's family?"
The usual response was, "I don't know."
"Well, what do you talk about?"
It's hard to explain that you might have a four-hour poker game and exchange only rude and sophomoric comments but no real news. Catching up on our personal lives did not occur to us.
The night before the bungalow was to be condemned as part of the late '90s development pushing through Arlington, we played one last game. For reasons on which I was never clear, Will insisted that we clean the mess of beer cans in the basement. Days later, the house along with the rest of the block was bulldozed into rubble, and a new high-rise brick building with sterile, soulless condos was erected. Will searched for a new house, telling his Realtor he must have an appropriate basement to accommodate a card table. We played four more years in his third house, nestled in a respectable neighborhood of Falls Church. This time we were forbidden to toss empty beer cans on the floor.
Last year, when he sold his house and moved to Atlanta, the games ended. I rarely see the regulars anymore. A few times I've driven by the site of the Arlington bungalow where the high-rise stands and wondered if, like the spirits of "The Amityville Horror," our spirits live on as poker poltergeists. Perhaps some young urbanite relaxing in his condo on a Thursday night is puzzled by voices that whisper, "Take the poke."