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Winter 1997
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Poker Memories
Daniel Seligman
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There are hundreds of serious poker games in New York, and on any given day there have to be thousands of sensible-seeming guys in offices around town who are secretly thinking about nothing except the full house they failed to draw at the big moment last night. Our own game has been part of this scene for 43 years. A treasure trove of sweet and bitter memories, it began as a friendly little event populated mainly by staff writers on Fortune and is still dominated by characters with some connection to the magazine. The stakes are large enough so that the unwise or unlucky can get seriously hurt—this being the first requirement of a decent poker game. If nobody can get hurt, then nobody can run a serious bluff, and you have lost the game's strategic dimension. Low-stakes play is devoid of the high drama often attained at our table, enabling the corporate-sector chaps we attract to think of the experience as a genuine monthly adventure, made all the more marvelous in that it comes without the material discomfort and physical risk attendant on, say, mountain climbing.

A poker game, or at least the all-male version we have clung to, is a unique social event. Its spirit is driven by whimsy, banter, insult humor, and a certain amount of dumb teenage behavior unthinkable at the office, all punctuated by gales of uncritical laughter my wife can hear at the other end of the apartment. Even guys getting clobbered and crying on the inside are expected to join in the merriment, no matter how strenuously they are getting ribbed by Eberhard Faber, the pencil scion and a leading ribber.

Of the down moments, the most depressing by far was a mind-blowing cheating episode in which the culprit was an old friend and Fortune colleague. And, inevitably, we have lost major players over the years. We lost Irving Kristol when he moved from New York to Washington ten years ago. Today, Irving is better known as an editor, publisher, and neoconservative founding father than as an action addict, but I have heard him dwell on the joys of Las Vegas craps tables, and, in the pre-OTB era, I would taxi with him to Aqueduct for lunch and a fast daily double. I have the distinct impression that he rates our game far superior to the de-minimis-stakes event he now plays in with Supreme Court justices.

We also lost the inimitable Chester Davis, Howard Hughes's chief trial lawyer, when he moved to Nevada in the seventies to be close to Hughes's casino properties. Chester was famous among us for playing brilliantly even when (especially when?) smashed on martinis. He died a few years after his exit, and some years later mortality also claimed a White Russian character he had brought into the game. We all knew this chap as Stass Reed, and we kept hearing about titanic lawsuits he was bringing against various Greek shipowners alleged to have swindled him. But we did not suspect until we read it in the Daily News of January 31, 1972—after a gunman took $150,000 worth of jewelry from Stass and his wife in the lobby of their East Side co-op—that he was the son of Prince Georgi Kropotkin, a member of the czarist court and a relative of the celebrated Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin.

My wobbly memory yields up a list of 28 who have played at least once in the game. Easily the briefest participant was Vic Mitchell, long a star on the bridge circuit, who got into our game one night in 1960 or thereabouts. Around the third hand of the evening, Vic hit four of a kind in a heavily bet seven-card-stud game and was reaching for the pot when another player turned over a straight flush. Evidently calculating that the probability of this sequence was less than the chance of his having wandered into a den of thieves, Mitchell pursed his lips, curtly said good night, and was off. In case you are wondering, the odds against drawing four of a kind in a seven-card game are about 600 to 1, the odds against drawing it and then running into a straight flush (in a two-player matchup) are over 2.5 million to 1, and in the 37 years since Vic Mitchell's cameo appearance, no other four-of-a-kind hand has been beaten in the game.

It all started back in 1953 as a limit game, in which someone who played poorly and was also unlucky would still probably lose no more than $100 (which, to be sure, amounts to 600 of today's dollars). But a few years later we made the fateful leap to "table stakes," in which any player can bet as much as he has in front of him in cash, chits, and chips. Instantly we found ourselves throwing $400 bluffs at one another. We often played all night, did a fair amount of drinking along the way, and soon discovered that it was quite possible to lose $2,000 ($12,000 today) or more. A regular feature of the game was next-day phone calls from losers to winners, urgently requesting that checks not be deposited for a while. I confess to having made my share of those calls, one of which accompanied the worst cash-flow crisis and maybe also spiritual crisis of my adult life. This was in 1958, when I was earning $16,000 a year as a Fortune writer and lost 10 percent of that amount in an all-night session at Sandy Parker's place on East 51st Street.

Sandy was Fortune's chief economist. He had gone a long way in mathematics at Columbia, and a phrase recurrently used about him was "steel-trap mind." When he joined the magazine in 1950, he gave it a then-unique distinction: its own forecasting apparatus, based on Sandy's econometric model. He should have been one of the game's big winners, but wasn't: he too often played for kicks and "action," and others at the table were prepared to take advantage of these self-indulgent tendencies.

Sandy was far from alone in playing for kicks. For several years in the fifties and early sixties, the game had visits from Andrew Arkin, who was in the dress business and was in those days a bachelor-around-town. He often dropped by with a blonde bombshell on his arm and a dozen or so hundred-dollar bills in his pocket. He would generally lose the bills in rapid succession and then go off merrily with the doll. Even when we already had our normal complement of six players, there was always a place at the table for Andy. Years later, when he was married, he showed up at the game again and startled us all by demonstrating that he could win when he was trying.

The game's founders were Sandy and John McDonald and I. John was also a Fortune writer, an utter original and a source of boundless fascination for the rest of us. His serious acquaintances over the years, incredible in their catholicity, included Leon Trotsky, Bill Zeckendorf, John von Neumann, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., Robert Penn Warren, and numerous icons from the world of horseracing. John was the only Fortune writer with a press pass at the Aqueduct racetrack. He ghostwrote Sloan's My Years with General Motors, and when GM tried to suppress this classic (fearing the book contained material that might be used against it in an antitrust suit), John sued the world's largest corporation, which ultimately backed down. His other books included substantial scholarly works on fly-fishing and game theory, and a little gem called Strategy in Poker, Business, and War, a title that left the game's newcomers somewhat awed by the prospect of playing against him—until they discovered that John too was capable of playing for kicks. Now 90, he plays much more tightly and almost certainly has a higher win ratio than he did in the game's early decades.

During its first quarter-century, the game was always played at Sandy's place, for an odd reason: Sandy couldn't make it to any other player's apartment. If he tried to get more than seven or eight blocks from home, he would suffer paralyzing anxiety attacks. This meant among other things that he couldn't make it to the Fortune office in Rockefeller Center's Time & Life Building, which caused Henry R. Luce and other Time Inc. eminences to journey to Sandy's East Side turf when they wanted to talk over an economic forecast at lunch.

In moving from limit poker to table stakes, John, Sandy, and I were heavily influenced by a science writer named George Boehm, who joined the Fortune staff in 1956. Obviously a guy who had spent a lot of time at card tables, George was a big name in the bridge world, and his exploits there occasionally got mentioned in Alan Truscott's New York Times bridge column. He was a heavy and consistent winner from the time he joined our game. Away from the table, George was funny, a fountainhead of entertaining tales, seemingly knowledgeable about everything. He and I became close friends and established an agreeable Sunday night habit of taking our young kids out to funny movies (Marx Brothers preferred) and then restaurants (typically inexpensive spaghetti joints). His kids were a delight to be with, and in 1962 one of his daughters joined our family for a week or two at a Cape Cod summer house. I still think of time spent with the family as an invariably gemutlich experience.

But beginning around 1963, you could see something terrible happening to George. Even while continuing to win in our game and somehow managing to pound out acceptable copy for Fortune, he was turning alcoholic and crazy. This brings us to an unforgettable poker night in June 1963.

It must have been around 2am. A guy named Joe Benedict—a Merck chemical engineer—was dealing seven-card stud. I had dropped out of the hand and was not paying much attention when it came to a conclusion with George winning a nice pot. At that point Joe erupted. He began saying to George, loudly and aggressively, "I dealt you an ace, and there's no ace in your hand." The point, it turned out, was that Joe had peeked at the cards he was dealing (a practice we tolerated in dealers who had folded their own hands), had observed that George's final down card was an ace, and was now demanding an explanation for the fact that the winning hand, as displayed on the table, did not include that ace.

A search of the deck naturally followed, and it now materialized that the ace was indeed missing. Consternation. Joe Benedict demanded that everyone at the table stand up and empty his pockets. After trying to talk Joe out of this embarrassment, we gave in and stood awkwardly around the table with our pants pockets turned out. Still no ace. We next began looking for it all over Sandy's living room, while Joe began making menacing noises about strip searches. Suddenly, from a corner of the room I know I had already inspected, George turned around, triumphantly holding up the missing card. It had to have been up his sleeve (which was also the likeliest origin of the card that replaced it). It seems incredible, but we  acted as though the crisis were now over and actually went on to play another hour or so.

But, of course, the George crisis was just beginning. John, Sandy, and I spent hours trying to figure out how to freeze him out of the game without accusing him directly. A head-on accusation seemed a bad idea, given his erratic behavior; we worried that he might respond violently—or even suicidally. Alternatively, he might hit us with a suit for slander, something we all dreaded, even though we presumably would have prevailed in any trial. In the months following the episode, several of us pumped up our anxiety level by reading Great Scandals of Cheating at Cards, by John Welcome, a just-published account of several British trials that left one acutely aware of the risks run by both sides in suits about alleged cheating. George was shrewd enough to discern our indecision. Once, when I mentioned that we might schedule a game while he was on the road, he looked at me coldly and said: "I would regard that as a very unfriendly act." Which, to be sure, it would be.

The decision about George was gradually taken out of our hands as he became steadily sicker and appeared to be spending more and more time under psychiatric supervision. Finally, he was involved in a bizarre and truly dreadful event.

Setting off for work one morning in May 1966, an attractive young woman on the Fortune staff—who had occasionally worked with George—noticed a package outside the door of her apartment. This led to another Daily News headline of special interest to our players: "Blonde Finds Bomb at Door." According to the Daily News account, "One of the country's top science writers voluntarily committed himself to a hospital after intensive questioning as a `principal' in the apparent plot to bomb an attractive 33-year-old blonde at the door of her East Side apartment, detectives said yesterday." The hospital was the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic at New York Hospital, where motherly Time Inc. usually had a few employees under care.

George remained on the Fortune staff as long as he stayed at Payne Whitney. I visited him there once, and we had a long, amiable conversation in which nobody mentioned bombs or poker. One day George checked himself out of the hospital. Fortune fired him. I never saw him again but gather that he pulled himself together and established a solid post-Fortune career editing publications for Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, the accounting and management consulting firm, and writing about science for the Reader's Digest. He died in 1994, receiving a tribute in Truscott's Times bridge column.

Long before then, Sandy too had died—in 1980—and the game had moved to my place on East 72nd Street. But even before that, it was clear that the whole exercise depended critically on my efforts. ("He that tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted."—John L. Lewis) I was, and still am, the guy making the phone calls; the only one in the crowd willing to spend hours going back and forth with eight or ten characters about their maddeningly complex schedules in the weeks ahead, all to find five or six who would swear to show up on poker night, a promise one had better not make lightly.

I am also the creator of the Constitution, a game rule book, updated every time we run into a row over correct procedure. With all the goodwill in the world, you need unambiguous rules to deal with the endless tricky situations that arise, especially since part of the fascination of poker is its yoking together of lawfulness and combat. The Constitution states that Heineken is the official beer of the game and sandwiches are to be ordered from the P.J. Bernstein delicatessen on Third Avenue and 70th Street.

On a more serious level it says only three kinds of poker are permitted: draw poker, five-card stud, and seven-card stud. No high-low games, no wild-card games. It also says the deal will rotate around the table, and the dealer will specify which of the three games to play. In our early years the overwhelming preference was for seven-card stud, but when Eberhard Faber became a regular in the early seventies, there was a noticeable tilt to draw poker. Draw is a game in which the dealer has an advantage (because he bets last), and players on the dealer's left are at a special disadvantage (because they have to bet or check first, with minimal information about others). As it sank in that Eberhard would deal draw at every opportunity, one could notice a bit of musical chairs going on when we all sat down—nobody wanted to be "under the gun," on Eb's left. This situation led to another of my invaluable contributions, a computerized seating program that assigns seats randomly. Use of the program is now mandatory under the Constitution.

When games go on for hours, players inevitably make mistakes, and when serious money is involved, there will be contention over how to deal with them. The event that ultimately led to the creation of the Constitution took place at Sandy's late one night in the mid-seventies. Sandy was dealing seven-card stud from the red deck. (As usual, the deals were alternating between a red and a blue Bicycle-brand deck.) The game turned into a contest between John and Stass, but after the seventh and last card was dealt, John folded, leaving Stass the clear winner. Or was he? When Sandy reached out to pick up and shuffle the cards he had been dealing, it suddenly materialized that he had mistakenly dealt the sixth card (which you get faceup in seven-card stud) from the blue deck. As an argument erupted about what to do, Stass preemptively reached out and swept the pot into his own pile of chips and chits. Irving Kristol, who had not been involved in the game's final stages, said the play should stand. John's position was that a deal from two different decks was an abomination needing to be labeled a misdeal, with all participants retrieving their bets. This is what the Constitution now calls for. But at the time we were unsure what to do, and Prince Kropotkin kept the pot, demonstrating anew that aggressiveness tends to pay when the other guys are unsure of themselves.

Another memorable row broke out at 6am on July 12, 1984. We had played all night and were bone-weary as dawn's early rays filtered into my dining room. One of the players this time was Tom Tuft, then a Goldman Sachs institutional salesman, now a partner, who played with us mainly during his summer bachelor weekdays in the city. Another was a memorable Wall Street character whom I will prudently identify only as Pete. Still another was Time Inc. vice president Don Wilson. Eberhard and I were also in the game that night, and all of us were still at the table when the problem arose.

I don't know how Pete usually plays, but he had seemed loose and sloppy all that night. He was clearly losing heavily, a fact locked into my memory because it was mainly because of those losses that I was ahead $3,000, the game's all-time record (in, to be sure, nominal dollars). In the final hand that summer morn, I was dealing seven-card stud—an exercise in which each player first gets two cards down, then successively receives four cards up, with a betting round after each of the up cards, and then a seventh card down, followed by a final round of betting. With all seven cards dealt, three players were still alive. Pete's four up cards were a pair of queens and a pair of fives, but both the other fives and one of the other queens had already been exposed in other players' hands. Don Wilson's only sign of strength was a pair of sevens. Eb's visible cards featured an ace but did not include any pairs.

The final round of betting began with Pete putting in $100 and Don raising him by $200. Eb sat silently for perhaps a minute, then tossed $300 on the table to call. With around $800 in the pot at this point, Pete matched that amount and raised $1,000. It was now Don's turn to bet again, but he seemed to have a lot of trouble making up his mind. Over a span possibly lasting three minutes, we heard him regretting that he hadn't left earlier, muttering unhappily about his hand, and registering uncertainty about what to do now. Finally, he tossed his cards on the table, announced that he was folding, and added that it really bothered him to drop out, as he was positive the $1,000 raise was a bluff. He then added—disastrously—the reason he was so sure: his own down cards included the queen that Pete needed to improve his two pairs.

At this point, Pete exploded. He pointed out, correctly, that it was improper for a player to disclose any information about another player's hand while a game was still live. He said the disclosure had ruined his bluff and the whole hand must now be a misdeal, with everyone retrieving his bets, beginning with his own $1,000 raise. He added that any book on poker would support his position. In fact, I could never find a book that even addressed the question before us—what to do about a player's improper disclosure of another player's cards. Don Wilson was instantly and abjectly apologetic about his gaffe. But still, what were we supposed to do about it?

The question would have been much easier to deal with if Eberhard's hand had been as weak as it seemed. It turned out, however, that Eb held a concealed ace-high full house and would obviously have won had the hand been played out. He had been sitting there knowing he had a lock on the pot and had, in fact, been planning to raise instead of just calling the $300, when he noticed with extreme pleasure that Pete was already reaching for the chits that went into the $1,000 raise. Eb's position was that Don's improper disclosure should be ignored since it could not possibly have altered the final outcome—a huge win for him.

In retrospect, I am sure that Eb was right. But Pete kept insisting that poker experts would support his own view, and none of the punch-drunk guys at the table had a clue as to whether this was so. (In Las Vegas poker, I learned the next day, such disclosures are simply ignored and play goes on.) So we arranged for the game's participants to take back their bets and agreed that the issue should be arbitrated.

It took me three months to come up with an arbitrator having the requisite wisdom and credentials. The man I finally got was Ernest van den Haag, then John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy at Fordham Law School and a frequent contributor to Fortune and many journals of opinion. An old friend of mine, Ernest was selected not for any special poker expertise but because his writings evidenced a lifetime of dealing at a high level with questions of justice and ethics. He did not know any of the players involved in the dispute; in any case, my deal with him was that he would make a decision based on a bare-bones statement of the facts, with no names attached. Specifically, his job was to decide the proper disposition of the funds, beginning but not necessarily ending with the $1,000 retrieved by Pete.

When I had finally recruited Ernest, I wrote joyfully to all the participants, stating that our quest for justice was nearing an end. Unfortunately, Pete turned out to be uninterested in this development. I sent him a note restating our agreement to arbitrate and got the note back with a curt penciled statement: "I regard the matter as closed." He declined to accept any calls from me, and it seemed clear that arbitration was now out the window. Not knowing what to do next, we did nothing. Eberhard glumly accepted that he was out $1,000, possibly more.

As the game spirals into the twenty-first century, its rules are the same, but its spirit has been subtly changing. The most interesting change has to do with money. After 40-plus years of salary increases, capital gains, and U.S. economic growth, participants in the game are naturally far more comfortable financially than they were in the fifties. Losers no longer make phone calls asking winners to hold their checks. Also testifying to our relative affluence is the players' pre-game dinner, now usually held at Alan Stillman's elegant Manhattan Ocean Club restaurant on West 58th Street. (Alan himself has become an occasional player.) Real estate magnate Ron Nicholson—whom we recruited years ago, when he was working for Bill Zeckendorf's real estate empire and John McDonald was doing a Fortune story on it—promoted this pre-game move, possibly influenced by his own investments in several of the Stillman ventures. The drill is that after dinner we get picked up outside the restaurant by Ron's battleship-class limo, which deposits us outside my place on East 72nd Street. Ron is also half-owner of a sizable racing stable, and if one of his horses has won big lately, the trip uptown will also feature a replay on the limo's VCR with breathless commentary by the owner.

But here is what's truly noteworthy. While the players have become richer, the evening's money swings have become far smaller. Forget inflation adjustments: in current dollars the swings today are far less than they were 40 years ago. Wins and losses over $2,000 were common then; today they are rare. I am fairly certain nobody has won or lost that much in the nineties or possibly even since Pete's debacle in 1984.

So what happened? Alas, the answer is all too obvious. We are older. We no longer get our kicks by playing through until dawn. We no longer imbibe serious spirits while playing. (The scotch gets opened only in the evening's last round.) We no longer feel manhood requires a fellow to call a $400 bet with two low pairs. Personally, I feel I've had a terrific evening if I win $600.

Especially if nobody reminds me that this comes to only $100 in 1956 prices.

 

 


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