People had formed a seated gallery around the ping-pong table and were keeping score for the insanity. The Rolling Stones pounded through the speakers, booze was pooling on the floor, beer cans and empty plastic shot glasses littered the carpet.
Every ounce of instinct told me to leave. Poker is a beautifully structured game, but there was nothing in the foundation of this room that made me feel calm. It was a wave of adrenalized war that bore no resemblance to anything I’d seen. The poker game had degenerated into something ugly, full of animosity, resignation, and acquiescence. Now, having bore witness to the good fortune of others who had done the same, no one would fold. Every pot, no matter how high it was raised, was a family endeavor. Players were purposefully ignoring rules of poker etiquette. They willfully mis-called their hands. They slow-rolled their winners, malice in their eyes with every flip of the cards. Players would verbally agree to check it down against an all-in opponent. Poker is not a friendly game, by nature. This one, however, was mean.
I should leave, I kept telling myself. Still, I couldn’t stand. Though I was having no fun, I felt like I was bearing witness to something resembling the last poker game on Earth. This must be what it will be like, I thought. When the bombs are dropping or the disease is spreading, this is how people will play cards. They will throw chips at each other with abandon, Pragmatic Play fight for no reason, and parcel out their worldly hatred on whoever is closest to them.
Curses and cheers were louder than the music. Money, chips, buy-ins, set-ups, and tips went back and forth with scowls and sighs. There were those fighting against the end and those driving the bus toward oblivion.
And then a voice. An impossible to understand voice.
The Jester was back.
He sat in the ping pong gallery and put his fingers on the guitar strings. And then everything that came out of his mouth was clear, perfect, and beautiful.
He sang Amazing Grace.
When I walked back to my car at 3:30am, the amount of money in my pocket didn’t matter. How I played didn’t matter. The fact that I was going to be tired today didn’t matter. Those are always the things I think about when I leave a game. This night, I only noticed the cold.
My jacket, still at home, would have done little to shield me from the frigid air. In my car, I turned the radio to the first station I could find and pulled out of the dark parking lot. In my mind, I’ve built poker up to be a personal test of discipline, will, and intelligence. I knew from the past seven hours, I had exhibited none of those traits.
The roads were deserted. I wondered as I drove through green light after green light, if in fact that had been the last poker game, why any of it would have mattered. There are two kinds of poker players. There are those who play for the money and there are those who play to feel what it’s like to win and crush the other guy.
If it were the last game on Earth, the money wouldn’t matter. And that made me wonder if there is some spiritual or atavistic need in man to win in the end. Do we believe, even if we don’t consciously recognize it, that we will be rewarded on the other side if we can prove our worth, prove our ability to come out a winner?
Because that’s the thing. In the end, we can’t take the money with us. And if the sky is falling, why do we even bother to play?
After four consecutive green lights, I finally saw a red one in front of me. I moved my foot to the brake, but before I could press down, the light changed to a flashing yellow. Confused, I looked to the left and realized I was passing by a train crossing. The tracks ran parallel to my highway, so I didn’t have to stop. I continued to drive toward home. When I looked back up, I saw the light of the freight train coming down the tracks in my direction, and I could only think, “How appropriate.”
The horn wailed with the hard rock on the radio and I went home, wondering when I would sit down at a poker table again.