Even if you don’t know when to hold ’em or when to fold ’em, the allure of buddy bonding over a poker table can’t be denied. Here, a look at the county’s latest craze. Let the chips fall where they may
By Jennifer Leventhal * Photography by Chris Ware
For his 12th birthday, Brandon Farrell* of Ossining had an “all-night” poker party for eight of his closest friends. Before the guests arrived, his parents covered their dining-room table with a green tarp—“both to look cute and to protect it from a gaggle of 7th-graders,” says his mom—and placed on it potato chips, veggie chips, and apple chips, as well as chocolate and bubblegum cigars and plenty of root beer. Several of the boys who were dropped off for the sleepover had never before played poker, so Brian’s parents gave each a “cheat sheet” explaining possible hands and their values in comparison to competitors’ hands. A week prior to the party, Brian’s family had ordered a set of 500 casino chips from a popular Internet poker site. Just as the first cards were about to be dealt, 12-year-old Brandon stood up on his chair and, with great ceremony, lifted the lid of his new aluminum chip case. “Gentlemen,” he said, “let’s play poker!”
On that same night in Mount Kisco, a group of physicians, including an orthopedic surgeon, an obstetrician, a pediatrician, a pulmonologist, and a gastroenterologist, was gathered around a dining-room table. The matter at hand was not a difficult diagnosis but rather a very low-stakes game of Texas Hold ’em. For about a year and a half, these doctors—there are nine in the group—have found a way to coordinate their complicated call schedules to get together once a month to play poker.
“Poker has become an epidemic around here,” says Nancy Taylor, a Chappaqua mom of two. She should know. Three years ago, tired of not being able to share in her husband Mark’s “obsession” with his monthly poker game, she begged him to teach her. “We were on a ski trip in Stratton,” says Taylor, “and each night after we put the kids to bed, he would teach me how to play. I thought it was lots of fun and, the following year, we attended a Texas Hold ’em charity event on Wall Street. I was one of only three women, but I came in 33rd out of 120 players. Of course, I was hooked.” Taylor urged her husband to convince his monthly group that she become a member. “I’m pretty sure my first night there was an unofficial tryout,” she reflects. She was accepted. “I was a good sport, so they let me in.” Now she’s as good as the pros—almost. “At the same tournament this year, I came in 22nd out of 125. Clonie Gowen, one of the best female professional poker players, said I played really well and gave me her bracelet. It was so cool.”
The tradition of a monthly poker night is really nothing new. What is new, however, is the staggering numbers of men playing poker. Taylor aside, most of the tens of thousands of friendly poker games across Westchester County are male-dominated. According to Carl Baldassarre of Hastings, who recently co-authored The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Texas Hold ’em (Alpha Books), “There have always been plenty of in-home poker games taking place, but we’re all talking about it today because the Internet, publishers, and especially television have propelled it into the mainstream.”
By television, Baldassarre means ESPN, which for 20 years has been televising what is arguably the most prestigious and media-hyped gaming event in the world: the World Series of Poker. The 36th annual World Series of Poker (bought last year by Harrah’s Entertainment) will be held this summer in Las Vegas and expects to draw about 5,000 visitors with more than three million households tuning in to watch it on ESPN. Following in ESPN’s footsteps are Bravo, with its weekly Celebrity Poker Showdown, and the Travel Channel, with the World Poker Tour. “With so much poker on television,” says Baldassarre, “people who never played before are giving it a try.”
Baldassarre, who is 47 and married with two children, has been playing in small-stakes, in-home games for more than 20 years. “It can be fun to watch, but the poker on TV is almost nothing like the games I’ve experienced around Westchester,” he says.
“I used to play at a home game in Manhattan,” he reports, “and then I started a group in Hastings about nine years ago.” While he also has added casino poker—at Foxwoods in Connecticut and in various casinos in Las Vegas—to his repertoire, Baldassarre gets immense enjoyment from his monthly neighborhood game. “The appeal of our Hastings poker group has nothing to do with winning money,” he says. “It’s a fun night with the guys. Ten of us sit around and insult each other in a friendly way. We have intense competition, absolutely furious arguments about $15. The money is insignificant, but the association with being a winner or loser is huge. And at the end of the night, no matter how many insults have been flying, we’re all still great friends.”
Insults and heckling are a big part of the appeal of poker for Keith Walker, whose New Rochelle group has been playing for a couple of years. “We love to make fun of each other,” he says, “In fact, we have a tradition where, if someone does something really stupid during the night, we make them throw a dollar into a pot. At the end of the year, we use all of those dollars in the kitty to take our wives to Foxwoods Casino for an overnight trip.”
Walker says it was their sons who got them together as a group. “All of us have boys in the third grade and we were all spending a lot of time on the baseball field coaching them,” he remembers. “One day we decided to try to get together without kids and without wives for a monthly poker game, and it has turned out to be something that we all look forward to. We each bring a 20-dollar bill, we have dinner together around 7:30, and then play all kinds of games—from Seven-Card Stud to High/Low—until 11.”
Michael Kushner, owner of Squires Family Clothing and Footwear in Katonah and Chappaqua, is part of a poker group that also likes to vary its games. “Sometimes we’ll play Texas Hold ’em, sometimes Seven-Card Stud. We’ve tried almost every card game imaginable,” he says. While Kushner admits it’s a great excuse to get out of the house for a few hours, he also believes that reliving the pre-marital boys’ night out is the key to poker’s allure. Many poker players in Westchester note the importance of spending time together like they used to in high school and college, when most guys were still on the same level socially and financially. “In our group, some of the players are millionaires and some might be struggling to live in an expensive town,” Baldassarre says. “But when we sit down at the table to play, we relax and feel we’re all the same.”
Relaxation is the key to the game for freelance writer and editor Thom Forbes, Baldassarre’s neighbor in Hastings, who has been playing poker with the group for eight years. “I play totally for the comraderie and to take my mind off of everyday stresses,” he says. Forbes’s personal records for most won and most lost in an evening are $80 and $40 respectively, and he has no desire to increase the stakes. “When I get home, my wife can tell without asking whether I’m up or down, even if it’s only $4,” he says. In his 50s, Forbes first learned to play poker as a teenager while away at summer camp. “I still have my lucky Ace of Spades from a game of Blackjack I won that summer,” he says.
If there is any doubt that the predominantly male tradition of in-home poker games will continue to strengthen across Westchester, one need only look to all of the middle- and high school-aged boys who are already playing in their free time. Stuart Finkelstein of Chappaqua knew that something had changed in his 13-year-old son, Sam, when he received his first letter home from camp last summer. “The previous few summers, Sam’s first letter home to us would say, â€˜Please send candy,’” says Finkelstein. “But this letter was different. It started with, â€˜Please send cards and poker chips.’”
Jennifer Leventhal is a Millwood-based freelance journalist who writes frequently about lifestyles and popular culture.