The Poker School
by Nick Allen
Wednesday lunchtime was an escape from the schoolyard for Bob, Raj and me because it was Chess Club. Mr Roberts, who started the group over 25 years ago, ran it, but it had just the three of us as members now. We were bright and worked hard, but not one of us could run fast or kick a ball straight, which earned us the label Chess Club Nerds, making us targets for every aspiring bully in the school. None more so than Jezza Bates.
To say he made our lives miserable would be an understatement. A big lad with a bigger mean streak, on a daily basis he would taunt and threaten. Last week he threw a stone at me, cutting my head badly, while only yesterday he smashed Raj’s glasses. Bob has a bald spot where a clump of hair was ripped out by Jezza. But we never spoke of it, not to our parents, or our teachers, or even to each other. Our misery was hidden, wrapped in shame.
So whilst waiting for Mr Roberts one lunchtime and Mr Fox turned up instead, we worried the session would be cancelled. Foxy told us that Mr Roberts had gone home to tend to an emergency. To our relief and delight though, he said he would run the group himself, albeit just this once.
He was just getting the boards and pieces out when Jezza appeared at the classroom window sneering and waving his fist. I wasn’t aware of Foxy spotting him but he put the boards down and turned to us.
“Forget chess this week, lads. Anyone fancy learning poker?”
We were up for anything that kept us indoors and safe, so we agreed.
“Right. First thing,” said Foxy, “take your blazers off. No one ever plays poker in a blazer. And either take off your ties or pull them to one side like this.” Foxy pulled his own tie away from his collar at a rakish angle. We all followed suit, somewhat bemused.
“Okay, now roll up your shirt sleeves, just half way up your forearms, mind, no further.”
As we struggled to emulate his look, he pulled a brand new pack of cards from somewhere, removed the cellophane, pulled out the jokers and shuffled them expertly before dealing two cards to each of us.
That afternoon he taught us how to look someone in the eye and bet big when you held rubbish. And he showed us how to feign weakness, drawing in the unwitting, before hitting them with an enormous bet. Later he explained how courage and self-belief were important and how a massive bluff can frighten the strongest of players.
Chess Club was dead from that moment on, replaced by Poker School run by Foxy for just us three. We learned quickly, and soon we were good, shuffling with flair, dealing quickly and tossing chips into the pot with an arrogance the game demanded.
Then one week Foxy didn’t bring the cards with him; he said he was going to do something a bit different.
“Okay, lads, this week I want you to imagine something. Suppose you have a strong player at the table, he has more chips than you, more experience. How would you beat him?”
None of us had a convincing answer.
“What if you cheated? Brought a couple of extra Aces each to the table?”
We all began to protest, but he held up his hand and silenced us. “I’m talking hypothetically now, that’s all. Okay, so you’ve all got tools in your armoury that your opponent doesn’t know about.
“Next, what if you could collaborate with each other; share what you know about your opponent? How much of an advantage would that give you?
“Finally, what if all three of you joined forces to beat this player? He might have more chips than any one of you, but if you play as a team you would easily have a bigger starting pot.”
“But we can’t play poker like that, sir,” protested Raj.
“No, you can’t,” agreed Foxy, “but in other aspects of life, well, that’s a different matter, and you shouldn’t always feel you have to play by the rules.”
That evening, Bob and Raj came to my house for the first time ever and we sat up late plotting and planning.
Two days later, as Jezza walked home from school, we were waiting for him in the park. Jezza was alone but, seeing us, started with his usual jibes. I walked up to him and, wearing my best poker face, stared him in the eye.
“Enough,” I said, in a firm steady voice which I hoped said we were no longer prepared to be victims. And right then he changed: fear was in his eyes, he seemed physically smaller, deflated somehow.
“From now on, Jezza, if you take on any one of us, you take on the three of us. We know your route home. Next time you mess with us, we’ll be waiting.” Inside I was shaking, but it didn’t show. I was playing the biggest bluff of my life.
“I’m not scared of you twerps,” said Jezza without conviction.
It was time to press home my advantage, raise the bet. “Okay, what are you going to do about it?” I asked, my eyes never leaving his.
He glanced at Raj and Bob, then back at me, but didn’t speak.
I patted his cheek. “That’s a good chap,” I said pushing all my chips in.
The bluff worked and Jezza folded.
We never had trouble with Jezza or his mates after that. In fact no one ever bothered us again, and from then onwards school became what it should always have been: a pleasure, somewhere to learn and grow, rather than a place to fear or dread.
Poker? Yes, I still play.
And I’ve never forgotten what a strong hand Three-of-a-Kind is.
Copyright © 2009 by Nick Allen