Poker: A Mental Battle

On my mom’s side, I have 20 aunts and uncles and 25 cousins, three of which have spouses and one who has a toddler and a baby due any day now. Including my siblings and I, my maternal grandparents have 28 grandchildren and nearly 2 great-grandchildren. I am the youngest of the older half of the grandchildren, and for six years before 2011, I was smack dab in the middle.

On Christmas there’s a big party at my grandparents’ house. After dinner, presents—usually between close cousins, or godparents and godchildren—are given out. Then the older half, plus the oldest of the younger half, of the cousins do our secret santa exchange and get to discover who had our name and so on. After we’re done, the adults (I guess, at twenty, I’m technically an adult, but here “adult” means family members out of university who have jobs and own homes and stuff) play their gift-giving game where they draw numbers and the whole thing is kind of complicated.

After the adults have finished their game, the dining table is cleared and the poker game begins. On any given year, the Christmas Poker Game could have anywhere from six to fifteen starting players. All crowded around my grandparents’ eight-person dining table. Spectators will pile up on the stairs to get a good viewing spot, and if they have to leave for any reason, their spot will be filled in seconds. This year, the game was less crowded with only ten initial players, and the game was also shorter than usual. The longer a game goes without enough people getting out, the higher the blinds—and the stakes—go. Soon enough, two people are left battling it out. If it hasn’t been long, like this year, spectators will surround the players making jokes, comments, and suggestions, even though they don’t know what the hands are. Sometimes, however, a game will last so long that all the families except those left in the game will have gone home.

The Christmas Poker Game is only the kickoff. Our tradition is to have a party every single night from Christmas to New Year’s Eve, each at a different house, all ending with a poker game. I didn’t participate on Christmas because the high attendance usually means more players to compete with, and I’m no expert in poker. I missed last night’s party because my siblings and I were at our Grandma’s house on our dad’s side to celebrate Christmas. (That party ended with a game of Settlers of Catan. Never played it before, and a few things were messed up, but it was fun.)

I didn’t think I’d play at tonight’s party, either, since the only cash I’ve got is a 5 pound stirling note, and I doubt UK money would be accepted. But as sometimes happens at these parties, the usual players want to fill the table a little more, and I was offered a game with someone else buying for me. Both my cousin, and another cousin’s boyfriend, offered to pay for me. I don’t know which of them did in the end. Either way, I surprised everyone when I managed to get two of my uncles out in one round, be the “Chip Leader” for a little while, and finally fell out of the game as runner-up. Only the top three players get money, so I missed out, but I surprised everyone, and I take great joy in that. You should see me right now, all smug with my lukewarm hot chocolate in the middle of the night. See, I’ve played with them before. I’ve taken over when a player got bored and gave what was left (usually very little) of their pile of chips to me. I’ve been asked to play a round while someone went to the bathroom. I’ve even gone in with my own money. Everybody’s seen me play. Everyone knows I’m not very good. Even tonight, there were at least five rounds I would have won if I hadn’t folded. But I’ve gotten better, and that’s not only promising, but it’s very fun seeing everyone’s face when they see your full house after playing scared. So satisfying.

But I could have done better. I could have won the game if I had made the right choices tonight. It wasn’t my luck, at least not this time. In the past, I would co-play with a cousin, or be helped by someone. I get suggestions whether or not people see my cards. People try to psych each other out with words, laughs, acting skills, or even how loud their chips drop when they raise. In the past, those jibes would get to me. I’d call when I had nothing to just “pay to see” a hand. I went all in because I “might as well”. I folded my straight because they’d hint at a flush and raise by too much. But I feel like tonight I managed to shut all that out. Tonight, my only enemy was…me.

I do not have a poker face. I’m smiling uncontrollably before I even know what my cards are. When I had a full house, I was shaking so hard, and I blamed it on the cold but it was definitely the excitement because it got much worse when I won the biggest pot of my life. I struggle to control my thoughts in a game. I could have 2 and 3 spades, which are pretty crap cards, except that I’m thinking the highest I can get is a straight-flush, or I might get a four-of-a-kind, full-house, flush, straight, trips, two-pair—how could I know? When the big blind is 400 and someone raises to 1000 before the flop, do I want to pay to find out?

My cousins and uncles don’t need to say a word. I psych myself out. I shake after a win like my cousin’s chihuahua and rarely see a hand through. My face might be a smile propped on the heel of my hand, but my thoughts are all over, my mind is a battle field I struggle to calm.

It’s different when I play on an app. Real money isn’t at stake and no one can make a sound. I’m braver, because no one can see my face, none of the players has known me my whole life, none of them taught me everything I know about poker. They don’t know when I’m bluffing to get their buy-ins or if I have pocket-aces. They don’t care: they’re locked in their own mental battles and I know it. But in person, I’m more easily shaken.

I suppose I have advantages, too. When my uncle’s wine gets to a certain level, he starts to bluff before the flop. When a cousin playfully teases saying “I’ve got pockets!”, he really does have pocket somethings. When an aunt looks at her cards for longer than five seconds, they’re bad. A cousin mouthes “snowmen” to herself when she gets pocket eights, which I’ve only seen happen twice. When another uncle jiggles his knee up and down, he’s nervous. If he’s drunk enough, he’s nervous because he’s bluffing. If not, he’s nervous because he thinks someone has something better.

It only happens for a week once a year, but it’s time spent having fun with family. The only way to get better and overcome my weaknesses is with practice, and there’s no better place or time to practice than at the next party.

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