Deal Breaker

I learned my lesson on penny-ante poker.

I was 14 or 15, a prime age for making mistakes that double down on longevity. Back then, a group of us would get together in someone's basement on a Friday or Saturday and play cards, eat, and talk about sports and girls until someone ran out of money or we all fell asleep. This was the pre-Texas Hold 'em era, so the dealer chose the game: draw poker, seven-card stud, night baseball, in-between, guts, blind man's bluff.

Three bucks would get you through most nights. Sometimes big games required a few extra dollars, but mostly, our bankrolls were hauled around in plastic bags or milk jugs filled with change. We all had some kind of job — umpiring Little League games or bagging groceries — for the money. So as the winners stacked their spoils in tidy rows, the losses felt decidedly real.

Maybe that's why I stuck to standard games like seven-card stud, while my friends loved the high risk, high reward of guts (a three-card poker game in which the pot can double or triple each hand). We were a competitive bunch who fought fiercely against each other, whether it was basketball or Monopoly or cards. So on the night I lost $15 on a single hand of guts — the equivalent to a month of winnings or a week of umpiring — the basement went crazy. No one had ever lost that much in one hand. I felt like an entire deck of cards was caught in my throat. I wanted to cry. Maybe I did. I don't remember. But losing like that is hard to forget.

Nowadays, I'm mostly a causal observer when it comes to gambling. I've been to Las Vegas a few times, spending more time at the pool than on the casino floor. I attended the opening night of Cleveland's Horseshoe Casino, but didn't bet a nickel. When I returned about a month later with my wife, we played the penny slots for about an hour, won $14.74, headed to the patio at Hodge's for appetizers and drinks (where I could have spent the rest of the night) and returned to make a $40 donation. But that's OK, because I know my limits — and as a Clevelander, I'm conditioned to lose.

It's also why I'm a fan of this month's "All In" guide to the Horseshoe Casino, in which we search out bits of Higbee's past, provide a glimpse of the place at 3 a.m., dig in to the buffet and provide plenty of insider's advice — because, really, there's nothing more fun than winning.

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