My mom and I have been playing poker for almost 25 years. Last Christmas, I gave her an unusual gift – a certificate for a week's vacation in Las Vegas and a thousand dollars, which can be spent at any poker table. The text, written by a professional calligrapher, ended like this: “May the river help you!”
She was moved to tears. A joint trip to Vegas to play cards – once we only dreamed of this!
My mom was taught to play poker by her friends in high school in Massachusetts. She soon reached a fairly high level, and after moving to Houston in her early 20s, she regularly and successfully participated in home games. However, she soon married my father, returned to the northeast, and gave birth to me and my sister, and poker had to be abandoned. The joys and hardships of family life made it impossible to give an old hobby a chance, but a deck of cards, carefully stored in a trash locker, came in handy when I was old enough to learn the rules.
I turned 13 in 2000. My father's tile business was booming. That year, my parents finally completed a spacious two-story colonial-style house with a bright kitchen and a veranda overlooking the wide backyard – a real American dream home.
Eight months later, my father died suddenly of a stroke on a small yellow sofa in the living room. It was already difficult to repay a loan taken on the security of a house, it was necessary to work very hard for this, and after the death of my father, the family was left without sources of income at all.
After calculating how much money a regular job with a minimum wage would bring, my mother realized that the best way out of this situation would be poker. She returned to the game with passion and hope. Pretty soon, she was playing everywhere, anytime, anything—home games in the basements of private houses in our town, in legal casinos in New Hampshire and Connecticut, cash games and tournaments, weekends and workdays. By the number of hours played, poker has become a real job for her.
My sister and I supported this eccentric undertaking. When we returned from school, my mother was always at home – a big plus for a family that needed stability so much. In the evenings, she usually went out to play, but this did not create any problems for us – there was always dinner in the refrigerator, clothes for tomorrow were washed and folded, and the house was clean. Getting ready for school in the morning, I often saw the results of my mother's night sessions – banknotes scattered on the table that did not fit in the wallet ... This lifestyle has become the norm for us. The family's survival depended entirely on her mother's success at the card table, and every year she managed to win at least $25,000.
She started playing poker for fun and mental training. By necessity, returning to the game almost twenty years later, she got both. Poker was not just a way for her to earn money, but an emotional outlet. There was no unemployed single mother at the poker table grieving over a recent loss. Mom turned into a ruthless robber, taking money from random passers-by. “I like picking my targets,” she told me. “It gives the game meaning.” Even now, she sits down at the table, and chooses a victim for herself who she watches with special attention and methodically destroys.
For some, poker is just a game, a pleasant way to pass the time. For my mother and me, this is part of our personality and at the same time a metaphor for life, which can be ruthless, even when you do nothing wrong. When I turned 16, I began to regularly participate with her in home games in our city, and poker bonded us even closer. Thanks to the game, my mother revealed a new side to me. Only now do I truly understand how high the stakes were every time she sat down at the table: poker winnings were the only ticket to a normal life for our entire family.
We continued to play occasionally together after I graduated from high school and went to university, and when I moved to Brooklyn in 2009, I regularly met with her on weekends at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut. A couple of years earlier, she had taken out a new home loan, right before a huge real estate crisis that sent interest rates skyrocketing. Poker stopped covering all expenses, the value of the American dream house collapsed, and in the end, it had to be given back to the bank for non-payment. With poker savings, my mother bought a small and very cheap house with cash in one of the neighboring cities.
For my mom, the loss of the family home gave the same deadly heavy blow as the sudden death of her husband. It was painful for me to watch her suffer because she took the risk of taking a second loan and lost. In 2018, I brought my fiancé to my hometown to show her the places where I grew up, and when I drove up home, I was barely able to hold back tears.
Nevertheless, my mother and I continued to play cards regularly. In her turbulent life, poker was the only pillar of stability – and our common passion.
Mom had already been to Vegas – one of her sisters lives there, but this time for the first time we went there specifically to play cards. We were staying at the Bellagio, a huge hotel on the Strip. Many consider the Bellagio Poker Club to be the center of the poker universe. We got to the luxurious marble hotel/casino by taxi, the porter carried our suitcases to the 36th floor, and the building engulfed us as if it had its own gravity.
The nearby casino hosted the World Series of Poker, the main event of the poker calendar. We planned to play only cheap cash at Bellagio, but then we decided to try our luck in one of the cheapest tournaments in the series. The next morning, we went to the banquet hall where the tournament was being held, paid the $500 entry fee, and entered the game along with several hundred other players. The whole space was filled with the sound of thousands of playing chips. Mom wished me luck and went to her table. Perhaps due to a lack of practice, or perhaps due to the psychological pressure of the glamorous World Series, but we played poorly and were eliminated pretty quickly.
Licking our wounds at the Mexican food counter, we told each other our most beautiful hands – each had exactly one – and shared the unsuccessful ones, of which there were many more. Then Mom opened her bag and took out two black chips that said "World Series of Poker".
Did you steal them off the table? I was amazed. Of course, we both knew that it was a violation of the rules to take tournament chips out of the hall. But that's exactly what she did: she placed her open purse between her legs and carefully dropped a couple of chips into it as the dealer looked the other way. A small memento for memory, and even associated with some risk – how typical for her!
We spent all subsequent days at the Bellagio. After a few sessions, we were both up a few hundred dollars. Mom quickly gained a reputation – not an elderly tourist collecting solitaire, but a formidable regular. After my dad died, she became absolutely fearless – a quality that I, perhaps, most revered.
One evening we went to an expensive restaurant overlooking the Bellagio fountains, sat down at a table by the window, and watched the graceful water dance. And my mother said that all her life after the death of her father she suffered from insomnia, that she regularly had nightmares, but recently she began to meditate, and the problems with sleep gradually began to recede. By trial and error, she found her technique: all the bitterness, the pain of loss, everything that was wrong in life through her own fault or by chance, she mentally put it in a large box, and then sealed it and did not return to it until the next morning.
“You do the same thing at the poker table,” I said suddenly.
Thinking, she nodded.
– "Yes, you are right."
Perhaps it was only thanks to poker that I was able to truly realize that our life is also just a series of bets with unpredictable outcomes. Even the ideal strategy does not always work, and nothing can be done about it. Neither in poker nor in life can you escape from bad luck and bad beats, you can only endure them. And I also realized that I play poker because I like it, but my mother – she can’t stop playing. Not only money is at stake, but also her identity – she defines herself through poker, and this is also a zero-sum game.
The session on the last night was special. The people at our table were frankly throwing money around. By 11 PM I was up more than a thousand dollars, and my mother was also doing great. On the next hand, she was up against two opponents who constantly raised it up. Before seeing the river, they both went all in. Mom understood that she would win if she caught the card she needed, and she called. She had two diamonds, a king and a ten. The dealer opened the river – ! Mom made a flush and won a huge pot! With a jubilant cry, she jumped up from her chair and threw her hands up. In this hand, she won almost $600.
While the dealer was counting out the chips, she leaned over to me and whispered, "May the river help you!"
We smiled at each other and then posted the blinds and started the next hand.