They trickle in under cover of darkness, one by one. They sidestep Krackel, a menacing bulldog who doubles as the doorman. They silently heed the shouted command: "Bring down a chair!" Only then is the rendezvous really ready: Eight mild-mannered Washingtonians have arrived to play poker.
No one will lose more than he would pay for a fancy French dinner. No one will get nervous enough to tip over the table and draw a six-shooter. No one is betting the rent money, and everyone earns enough to have bought the baby's new pair of shoes before he shows up.
No, hustlers, this is strictly gentlemen's poker - an every-other-week blowout in Mike Lipson's sunken Silver Spring basement. The attractions, in no particular order, include three and a half hours of getting away from the family, turning a few cards, winning a little, losing a little and having fun.
But the loyalty to, and durability of, this non-floating poker game are extraordinary.
Now in its sixth year, the game has been attended by 47 different players at one time or another, including a certain journalist who sometimes has a night off and 20 uncommitted bucks at the same time.
But most of the 47 have been fill-ins. There are eight regulars, and they are Gibraltars.
Neither snow, nor rain, nor a sight downturn in the Dow-Jones has stayed these men from turning up at 8 p.m. every second, fourth and (if there is one) fifth Wednesday of every month.
Consider, for example, the astounding case of Danny Padgue.
This fall, he became engaged to be married. He turned up at the game 20 minutes after arriving at the momentous decision.
"You left ?" cried a chorus of more traditionally romantic voices. Sure did, replied Padgug, who went on to reveal that:
He and his fiancee planned the wedding for a Thursday so Fast Danny could make the poker game the previous night. And. . .
They planned a 12-day honeymoon so Padgug could be on hand of the first episode on seven-card stud two weeks later.
Or consider the dedication of Lipson himself.
A vehement Boston Celtics fan, Lipson had two tickets a few years back when the Bullets were about to take on the Bostonians in a playoff game at Capital Center.
Trouble was, the game fell on "second Wednesday." So before Lipson went to the basketball game and screamed his lungs out, he made certain he left the front door open. Sure enough, eight of the guys were still heaving quarters through the cigarette smoke when Lipson got home. They even let him sit in on the last few hands. Indeed, it is quarters that get heaved most often at Las Lipson. That is the betting limit, except if a pair is showing (50 cents) and except for the last hour (when both limits double).
"Nobody gets massarced," says Lipson, an administrator for the National Weather Service. "It's the friendliest game I've ever played in."
It is also the most carefully chronicled. Lipson keeps records of winnings and losings for every player, every week.
Across five years and one month, or precisely 112 games, counting last week's, the big winner is Lipson, and he is up "only a couple of hundred," long since spent. The big loser is Preston Smith, an executive at the National Marine Fisheries Service, and overall, he is down only a little more than a dollar per appearance.
The eight regulars are an unusually well-educated crew - all ranking government types or professionals. So debates around the table tend to be more strategic and Socratic than at many poker parlors.
It is not unusual for carefully reasoned criticism of one man's handling of a pair of aces to continue through the next two hands. Nor is it rare for a player facing a delicate decision to seek the counsel of neighbors who have already folded.
Only one argument worthy of the name has erupted over the years. It came the night Lipson called Herb Lieb, chief of the office of disaster preparedness of the weather service, a name.
It wasn't a very bad name, or a rare name, or an obscure name, or a name that many nine-year-olds don't call each other. But Lieb got mad.So Lipson apologized. So Lieb got unmad. So the game went on.
It usually consists of stud. Draw poker is frowned on because it takes too long and because 52 cards are few for eight drawers. Games in which the pot is split between a high and a low hand are common, the idea being to keep more players in any one hand.
Fearing that the debut of gambling in Atlantic City may steal a little of the game's thunder, Lipson goes to what he alone considers great lengths to make the players feel classy, and at home.
There on a sideboard at every game are twin bottles of Coke and Diet Coke. Paper cups and a brimming ice bucket sit nearby. Once in a great while, Giant Food cold cuts appear. If you beg, Lipson will find pretzels.
It may not be wondrous, but it also isn't free. Lipson "rakes" several dollars from one pot every time the group gathers. The "rake" is usually accompanied by great shouts of anguish.
"Only rake what is costs me," Lipson insists - every time. "Sure," reply the rest of the players - every time.
Nor is that the only ritual. It is always 11 p.m. when the "deal off" begins - one more deal for each player, around the table. After that, Lipson asks each player how he did so he can update his records. The last step is to recover the $60 in quarters and halves Lipson leaves on the table until the next game.
Behind them, the gentlemen leave a lot of good will to counterbalance the overflowing ashtrays. "I really enjoy this," says one player, who has missed only a handful of games in more than five years. "I guess I must."