Barrel of Grunts

We started playing poker in the eighth grade. All things to do with vice and the cravings of adulthood were scattered in the school yard verbally, in a carnival town, where many bets on moral victory were lost. The odds grew short on venial sins, among which gambling might be counted—though the Bible seems to abstain from formal opinion on games of chance. At least the Ten Commandments place no prohibition on five card stud poker, which was our game.

The first time we played was over at Tony Colby’s house, right across the street from the old grammar school, where most of us had begun our formal education. This was appropriate, in that learning to play poker was as essential to the preparation of boys for manhood as learning to lie convincingly to women.

Poker was a man’s game: the art of unlimited deception communicated as gospel truth, verified and validated by legal tender. Anybody with two dollars to rub together could get in on the action, same as a sub-prime mortgage. We were purists. No wild cards allowed. Check and raise at any time, unlimited raises to be anticipated, like the payments going up on an equity line of cred-it. We played the game for keeps as soon as we grew hair where the sun didn’t shine.

Poker became serious business. For the winners, more fun than a “barrel of grunts,” as Timmy Taylor used to say. Timmy was a near constant winner, not merely consistent, he almost always came out ahead. He was far and away the best regular player in the game. I don’t know that he ever defined what a “barrel of grunts” consisted of, but it was more than money. Losing was open disgrace. Winning was manhood packaged, bet with both hands in a pot for the taking.