There is a never-ending debate over whether poker is a game of luck or a game of skill. Of course, it’s both.
In all the time I played Texas hold ’em poker, I can only remember once drawing four of a kind. My hole cards were a pair of deuces. That was nothing to write home about until the flop delivered the other two deuces and there I was — sitting on quads.
Everybody had checked prior to the flop. On being delivered quads, I made a small bet after the flop. I thought I was signaling nothing more than a low pair.
Whatever I was signaling was enough to screw me, because I’m damned if everybody didn’t fold! The Poker Gods gave me four of a kind and all I got to show for it was the antes. Life lesson: size is in the eye of the beholder.
I was most often playing poker in a clubhouse belonging to an apparently all-white organization known for charitable work on behalf of ailing children, which did not make the game legal but made it unlikely to draw law enforcement attention. The nearest casino was a long drive and losing money was my idea of a good time. I could claim that a game of poker is full of important life lessons, but to people who don’t like gambling that’s like a guy who says he buys Playboy for the articles.
So let me try to ‘splain myself again. My elderly mother was addicted to low stakes gambling, probably because she couldn’t afford high stakes gambling. So I took her to a poker game at least once a week (there were several to choose from in Bloomington). A couple of times, I had a writing project going, so I tapped away the time on a laptop as I waited for her. I was in publish or perish mode and I had no plans to perish that far from Mexico.
Back in my stomping grounds, if you went broke, you cut back to beans, tortillas and nopales. This is how you eat on no money. I’ve done it many times, although I hope to escape it in my elder years. If you can’t panhandle enough money for the following at any intersection within an hour or so, borrow a dog and try again.
With a very few bucks in your wallet, you buy the biggest bag of dry pinto beans you can afford. Soak them in the early evening and you should be able to start boiling them in time for breakfast the next day. Lots of them. Use a stew pot, if you have one. A bit of pork will spruce them up, but you can live without it. Strips of bacon will work and the whole enterprise gets easier if you can afford some bacon, but I promise you I am not running the old “nail soup” scam.
The next necessary purchase is flour or masa harina (plain corn meal will not do if you are expecting finger food). You will also need some grease to make the tortillas hold their shape, and just about any grease fit for human consumption will work. On line, you see recipes calling for olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil….humpf….anything but axle grease or Brylcream will do. I was raised on lard and bacon grease and I’ve lived to be so old it’s just about more trouble than it’s worth.
My grandmother used to keep a coffee can on her stove top into which she poured leftover bacon grease and lard. Leftover from what? Everything. She thought the verb “to cook” meant “to fry,” an understanding she passed on to her children.
I once thought my mother had turned over a new leaf when she ordered a veggie plate — until it arrived containing sweet potato fries, onion rings, fried okra, and hush puppies. My mother still lives at age 92, although her arteries do crackle a bit when she turns her head.
The first day of no money, you consume some of the beans that have been boiling. Stick them in a tortilla with some sliced wild onions. Leave the pot out so the beans get all dry and hard. Then you will understand how vaqueros (cowboys) invented frijoles refritos (refried beans). You heat up some lard or bacon grease in a skillet and cut the chunks of beans out of your stew pot and toss them into the skillet. Smash and fry. Yum!
Oh, did I forget the nopales? No — it’s just that the only time you buy nopales is when you have too much money for your own good or you are in a major hurry. They will be called nopales in the market because they start out big, but sometimes they are in a jar already sliced thin and labeled as nopalitos. Nopales are the pads from prickly pear cactus, one of two major ways this common plant will feed you. The other is the fruits, known as “tunas.”
I’m not sure how far north prickly pear grows, but I know it’s really common in Oklahoma — though not as common as in Mexico — and gets less so as you drive north. The way climate change is running way ahead of the computer models, it won’t be long before you will be reading recipes for nopales and whale blubber.
Now that you know how to eat if your luck goes south, let’s get back to the poker table and the reality that the game, unlike the machines in a casino, is social. The more interaction with your opponents the better, because you will win more often playing them than playing your cards.
One evening at the clubhouse, one of the players, in a joking manner, invoked the digitus impudicus, which set off the predictable responses that were equally as juvenile as flipping the bird:
‘’What’s that, your age?’’
‘’Number of Caucasian parents?’’
We all know that in the mythology of race, ‘’Caucasian’’ means ‘’white,’’ an appellation assumed in the absence of any other racial identity. In that world, irrational as it may be, I have only one Caucasian parent. The ‘’one Caucasian parent’’ riposte depends for its humor upon not just racial mythology, but racial superiority.
How to respond?
If I say nothing, the racial hierarchy is never challenged, to the disadvantage of me and mine.
If I say something, I poop the party. If they don’t think less of me for only having one Caucasian parent, they think less of me for being a humorless prig.
I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, and reminded of Suzan Shown Harjo’s characterization of P.C. as ‘’Plain Courtesy.’’ If good manners mean anything, they mean you don’t put people in such a bind, one that did not begin and does not end with some thoughtless white folks at a poker game.
The Spanish and Portuguese colonists bequeathed our South American cousins a finely graduated color hierarchy that valued European blood over indigenous blood. It was a lot like the U.S. idea of blood quantum, only more embedded in language and social status. I used to think we North American Indians were different.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I came to understand that the white majority believed being ‘’part Indian’’ was cool while being a full-blood was not. Our family hero was Will Rogers, but we did not think of him as ‘’part Indian.’’ We thought of him as Cherokee and ‘’part Indian’’ was a laughable attempt by white folks to make Rogers one of them.
I finally internalized the dominant culture message the day I came into the barber shop where I had gotten my haircuts since childhood to deliver newspapers, interrupting a tirade by one of the barbers about the shiftless welfare bum Indians. When he saw me standing in the doorway he mumbled ‘’Oh, I didn’t mean you’’ and, that day only, gave me a tip.
It’s easier to ignore this kind of poison — or it was before it infected the White House — but ignoring it is like failing to take antibiotics for an ear infection. The pain just gets worse, whether it’s in your ear or, as in this case, my posterior.
It’s easier to make grand public statements against race bias than it is to say something in a semi-private context where the downside to speaking up is right in your face and the constructive possibilities are all abstract. But I spoke up to the guy in charge of my favorite gambling den. He told me about his Cherokee grandmother and it was all downhill from there.
I don’t expect this story sets me apart. Anybody who has had the mascot conversation knows the terrain.
Some months later, I was at the same poker game. One of the middle-aged white guys at my table told a joke that will not bear repeating in a family publication. It depended for its ‘’humor’’ upon the denigration of gay people.
Suppose I was gay? Well, the choices would be to choke down any comment or complain and know that I face being outed or believed to be lacking a sense of humor or both.
If I were to be consistent with my last P.C. misadventure, I would have to speak up regardless of whether I am gay, which I did — and almost wound up stepping outside to settle it.
Now we have a President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, who understands what happens when you let this P.C. stuff get out of hand. First you can’t say ‘’prairie niggers,’’ then you can’t talk about queers, and the next thing you know, people expect you to talk to your child if she calls a playmate ‘’fatso.’’ Life is too complicated for Plain Courtesy, ‘ennit?
Before my mother got tired of it and I lost my motivation to frequent the poker table, I got pretty good at the game. My reason for developing the skill was an epiphany about the best way to handle bigotry without insulting people or getting in fights, and it has the side benefit that you don’t have to eat beans and tortillas and nopales unless you are in the mood for borderlands comfort food. The solution is simple and it really shuts down the insults:
Take their money.
Previously Published on medium