On the day I told Derrick and Derek about the tournament, I warned them to park a couple streets away and leave their identification in the vehicle.

Just in case.

Derek assumed I was joking. Derrick was worried, thinking of his future career as an RCMP officer.

“Are you sure it’s legal?” he asked.

“Sneider’s Dutch,” I replied. “He didn’t tell me it was not not legal.”

Derrick’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve got a prayer meeting.”

“And I’m having a spiritual crisis,” I warned him, “on Thursday at seven at Sneider’s place. You can pray for me between hands.”

I could tell he was considering it. He nodded almost imperceptibly, and for a moment there were flashing suites cascading behind his eyes. Then he shook himself square and I knew I’d lost him.

“Good luck to you and Derek,” he said. “I’ve got some praying to do.”

Derrick is the poker star of our operation, just as Derek is our straight man and I’m the half-time entertainment. Derrick is the one with the cowboy hat, the mirror shades, and a winning record. He sits down at the table and plays honest-to-goodness poker. Derek, on the other hand, plays like he’s got the ninth commandment writ across his forehead, while I continually lose at ‘Go Fish’.

Without Derrick our little posse was sorely short-handed, but we forged on like the brave adventurers we were. After all, it’s not often you get invited to a serious poker tournament by a white-collar Dutchman in the gym of a Mennonite church, especially not a Dutchman you’ve just elbowed in the ribs chasing after a loose ball. Perhaps he saw me (correctly) as an easy mark, or perhaps his love for the game had clouded his judgment. Either way, I landed a lucrative invite to the Noble Donkey Poker League 2014-2015 ($25 buy-in), with the first leg held in the lawless bordello that is Sneider’s mostly-white, mostly-middle-class suburban neighbourhood.

Sneider is a mild, soft-spoken, family man kind of guy, who gets these strange Smeagol-esque gleam in his eye whenever some poor sap starts talking poker. He’s the kind of player who has memorized the percentages, been to Vegas a couple of times, and walks away with cash more often than not. It’s a strange preoccupation for a guy who’d otherwise give you the shirt off his back, but once the cards are dealt he’s more tax-collector than disciple. Then again, you have to be pretty serious to organize a 19-person five hour tournament in your own kitchen while your long-suffering wife reads historical romances in the basement.*

I park a couple hundred meters away, and I don’t ask where Derek parks. A guy in a flaming red Corvette tails me the last couple kilometres to Sneider’s, and I feel a little hollow form in my stomach as I realize we’re heading to the same place. The driver looks serious, he’s not going to tolerate student journalists whose cumulative poker experience consists of watching Casino Royale (Connory and Craig versions). He looks like the kind of guy who’ll be spitting chewing tobacco onto Sneider’s floor while snarling about his third wife’s plastic surgery.

I should turn around and leave, burn rubber all the way back to Derrick’s prayer meeting where I belong, but now my inner journalist is fully engaged and I can’t bring myself to flee from this den of iniquity unscathed. I’m a big boy, aren’t I? I won a game of Uno once, didn’t I? Besides, Derek was counting on my presence, and I didn’t want to end up in a high-stakes round of Who’s The Biggest Pansy? With Derek & Derrick, you don’t live those kind of decisions down.

My practiced iceberg-like cool lasted all the way to the moment I sat down at the table, and noticed the chips in front of me were different colours. “I don’t know any of the rules,” I admitted in the general direction of my shoes. “When can I bet? How do I win? What are your tells? Do straights beat flushes? WHY ARE WE PLAYING WITH REAL MONEY???”

The Corvette driver looked at me the same way he’d looked at the terminal remains of a possum he’d skinned earlier that evening (and immediately fed to his dogs). Sneider left the table for a moment to grab a little card with the various winning hands and rankings on it. He set it in front of with a smirk that made me realize just how deep I was in.

I get the feeling that I’d just walked into a bar and been served strawberry Kool-Aid in a plastic sippy cup, ordered a steak and instead been given fish sticks with a side of coloring crayons. I was an embarrassment to the prestige of the Noble Donkey legacy, and the only reason I wasn’t being hustled out the door was because Sneider had as much as said that the village idiot was a friend of his and should be humoured.

As I look around the tournament, I think of another famous journalist who often threw himself into unsavoury situations. Hunter S. Thompson once described a gambling event (the Kentucky Derby) as “jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene – thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.” It’s exactly, absolutely…

The opposite of what I see in front of me. I blink, realize my mistake, and wonder if it was all the chemicals Thompson kept inhaling. I’m dealt two cards, so I push some chips into the middle, and try to understand that bizarre and essential quirk of American culture: Texas Hold ‘Em.

It seems to me that poker is an enduring game because it mirrors all the worst aspects of life. Each player is dealt two cards, two, out of a deck of 52, and thrown blindly into the storm. No other cards are even revealed until after the first round of bets have been made, forcing each player to grope around in the hells between fear, expectation, greed, and suspense (Thompson would call it “loathing”). The only real comfort is that, unlike in reality, all the players have the same number of cards, and (at least initially) the same number of chips.

I won a couple hands that night with the dumb luck that comes from blind ignorance and baffling stupidity. Checking when I should have raised, raising when I should have folded. As a rookie, I knew that the longer I played the worse my odds became, yet the beauty of tournament poker is that no one is allowed to cash out. You win it all or you die trying, slaughtering the rubes like me along the way.

I could say that I pulled a Cinderella and took to poker like a velociraptor to dismemberment. I could say that I shamed Sneider for all he was worth, and that he’ll be eating Mac n’ Cheese for a week until payday. But the reality is that I busted early and I busted hard, flaming out like a grease-soaked burger wrapper in the fires of adversity.

Derek busted out himself an hour later, claiming he hadn’t had a single good hand all game. The 19 players shrunk to 14, and then seven as the game claimed inevitable casualties. Sneider was focussed, rapt, the percentages clicking away somewhere in the deep recesses of his cerebellum. He played the flop like a symphony, read the river like a map. He busted just out of the money, but got his four-hour fix just the same.

I spent the drive home with the question ‘Was it worth it?’ bouncing around my head. It was a question I couldn’t quite answer until the next day when I recounted the experience to my father.

My dad listened to me for a while, then asked some pointed questions about the financing and structure of the prize pool. His eyebrows shot up when I explained the buy-in process and the eventual split.

“You realize gambling is against our Mennonite Brethren confession of faith, right?” he asked, and I had to admit I didn’t.

We paused then, two men in the living room mulling over a difficult situation. I thought about the money I’d lost. He (presumably) lamented the possibility that he was raising a heretic.

“It’s a good thing Derrick was praying for us,” I said.

More silence.

Right there I decided to close a certain chapter of my life before it even got started. I’ll stick to beating Sneider to loose balls, beating him in the lane, stuffing him from the block, and frustrating him from the field. I’ll stick to games that require athleticism, strength, speed, beauty, and…

Balls.

Gotta say, a lesson like that is a bargain at $25.

*Presumably on Fridays she gets to run her own marathon party and watch Downton Abbey or stock-car racing, or whatever the heck she wants. Marriage. It’s give and take.

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I'm a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a sports writer/church intern/LOTR nerd.

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