The First Time I Played Poker for Money

The First Time I Played Poker for Money

In 1972, the rock world was dizzy with euphoria after Led Zep IV came out, and I was dizzy from smoking pot for the first time, in the back seat of a parked car. The seat was black vinyl. I remember that much. I don’t recall which liquified first, me or the vinyl. I do know that we melded into a protoplasmic mass and when I reconstituted, I was curled up on my side.

Black and white photo of Tommy Angelo smiling at the camera

For the rest of the year, I got stoned and listened to Led Zep IV. Oh, and one more thing. 1972 was the year I first played poker for money. I was 14.

And stingy. And Catholic. Gambling was the devil’s work. I’d never given the wagering of money much thought, except that there was no way in God’s green earth I’d ever do it.

Until that summer night at Barry Taylor’s kitchen table.

Barry and I were buddies. We liked to serve mass together. We helped each other with math. We listened to Steven’s albums, when he’d let us. Steven was Barry’s older brother.

I biked over to Barry’s to hang out as usual. There were a bunch of bikes by the side door. I skidded to a stop and it sounded like a party in there. I went in without knocking and wow, what a scene. I’ll never forget it. Five drooling boys, huddled around Barry’s huge kitchen table, a dark thick rectangular wooden slab, with benches along the sides, like the picnic table in the park where I played euchre, for funsies, with my civilized park mates. This was not civilized. This was not funsies. This was coins sliding around at high speed constantly. Their heads were nearly touching, with never a gap in the chatter.

“Hey,” I said, feeling intrusive. These guys were all Steven’s buddies. Nobody looked up. “Barry around?”

Then Barry walked in. He was carrying a six-pack of coke in bottles. I thought we were going to shoot hoops or throw darts or whatever and then Barry plopped down at the table and looked up at me, grinning. He was playing poker!

“And bam, a strange new sensation came over me. Suddenly I wanted Hank’s money to be in my pocket.”

“You ever try this crazy game?” That grin. Barry knew it was blowing my mind to see him gambling.

The answer to his question was yes, I had tried this crazy game. Quite a bit, in fact. With my older brothers. Before they hit high school. We even had a wooden carousel of poker chips with two decks of solid-plastic cards.

“I’ve played stud, and draw.”

“Heck yes!” Barry yelped, patting the end of his bench. “This is your big chance to join the degenerates, Angelo. We can always make room for one more sucker, right guys?”

Barry was trying to be cool. They ignored him too.

“No way,” I said. “I’m not risking my paper-route money on a dumb card game.”

I stood, arms crossed, eyes wide, watching the game.

“Where’s your mom and dad?” I was asking both brothers.

“Perry Como concert,” Steven said, without looking up.

“I can’t believe they’re letting you two clowns run a… what is this? A gambling hall?”

“Oh, they know about our little poker game,” said Barry. “They like the idea of their boys being home while they’re away, instead of running wild with you mopes.”

Barry’s buddy, Hank, popped off, “Either sit down or scram, Angelo. You’re disrupting the game.”

And bam, a strange new sensation came over me. Suddenly I wanted Hank’s money to be in my pocket.

Another heckler chimed in. “We promise we won’t tell your mommy.”

That did it. My competitive drive took the wheel. I took a step toward the table, trembling.

Barry tried to put me at ease. “Just pull out a quarter and sit your butt down.” He patted the bench again and this time all three boys scooched down to make room for me without breaking stride.

What the heck, I thought. I was already the best euchre player at the park, and the best chess player at school. Maybe I’m the best poker player at Barry’s house? Plus, I was starting to think that maybe hell doesn’t actually exist, in which case the whole God thing was no longer a factor.

I sat my butt down. I placed a cautious quarter on the table.

“Seven card stud,” said Robbie, another fallen altar boy. His shuffling technique was atrocious. I’m way better than that.

A royal flush being peeled in a 5 card hand

“For the new guy, we’ll go nothing wild this time,” Charlie said. A couple guys groaned. “Ante up, girls.”

Someone swiped away my quarter at light speed and slid me two dimes and five pennies. Everyone slid a penny into the middle, so I did too, right in step.

Life-bending moments. You never know when they might happen. And you don’t always know that they happened. Like the day I got fired from my grocery store job on a super-fluke, even though I was a star employee, and it opened the door to a joy-filled 15-year career as a musician.

But sometimes you do know that there’s been a movement, a permanent shift in perspective and purpose, a no-going-back. That moment, 50 years ago, at Barry Taylor’s kitchen table, was one of those times. I had money, I had time, I had gaming genius, I lusted for competition, and I already knew the hand rankings. When Barry patted that bench, it was an offer from the universe that I could not possibly refuse.

Thank you, universe. And cheers, to poker, the greatest game, and to our good fortune to know it!

Scroll to Top