My First Poker Night

File Photo: Tai and
Greg watch as My Hanh
Plays "Fill or Bust!"
Seattle, USA
February 14, 2010

It actually wasn't my idea to teach the nephews and nieces how to play poker. Jen left a voicemail request yesterday afternoon:

"The parents didn't babysit Friday. Could you help us save date night? Robin has a sleepover so it would be just you and Nick. He's just old enough now that we'd be okay leaving him at home on his own for a few hours. But--if you happen to be free this evening--I was thinking maybe you could teach him how to play poker..."

Nick was dropped off a few hours later bearing Doritos, ginger snaps, and poker chips. The thought entered my mind that Jen should have provided cigars to round out the atmosphere--though introducing a kid to the basics of gambling while chomping on junk food was probably vice enough for the night.

Nick played well. By the time his father came to pick him up several hours later he had the basics of 5-Card Draw down--and had considerably higher stacks of all chip colors than I had. We convinced Mike to join us for a few hands before leaving. Though the final rounds wiped out Nick's chips, introducing the variations of 5-Card Stud and 9-Card No-Peek cemented his interest in the game.

Poker night for children was repeated this evening--but not with Nick. I babysat for the other sibling and in-law who didn't get a date night: Greg and Louise. A similar afternoon voice message brought me to their house to watch kids (albeit different ones) for a second consecutive night. The grown-ups took off, taking advantage of my time babysitting to revisit life pre-parenthood for a few hours. (They celebrated their Valentine's Day by dressing up, going out to dinner at Urbane [8th and Olive], and finishing up with drinks at nouveau-speakeasy Bathtub Gin and Co. [2nd and Blanchard.])

I stayed behind to babysit. Before leaving home, Louise had cooked up dinner for me and the kids. Mai Linh dutifully polished off every last grain of rice, earning dessert. Tai left most of his food in his bowl. My Hanh tried to scoop her portion back into the skillet while my back was turned. No dessert for the latter two.

Storytime came next. I was pleased when Tai, the youngest, fell asleep in the middle of the second biography of St. Valentine I read aloud that night.

"When this happens, you have to put him up to bed," Mai Linh instructed. "Don't brush his teeth!"

My Hanh concurred that conking out trumped clean teeth. I contemplated whether this was really standard procedure. Was new policy being dictated by girls yet celebrating birthdays in single digits? I decided it didn't matter: straight-to-bed was a sage idea. I carried Tai upstairs and tucked him in.

When I came back downstairs, Mai Linh asked if we could play the game she saw me bring in. But, the game I brought wasn't meant for playing with them. What Mai Linh had seen me bring in was the same deck of cards I had used to teach Nick the rules of poker the previous night. I had borrowed the cards from Greg and just happened to be returning them when I came to babysit.

I didn't have any other plans for childcare over the rest of the night, so pulled the cards out. I decided to start with Concentration, a card game I figured wouldn't be too hard to teach a couple elementary school students. The three of us spread the deck face-down into a rough grid on the tabletop. I gave instructions:

"Turn one card over. Then turn another card over. If the two match, you get to keep them and take another turn. If they're not the same, turn them both back over and it becomes the next player's turn. So, you have to try to remember where all the numbers are, okay?"

I got creamed. I should have realized that Concentration was precisely the game at which kids, with their pliant, young brains would excel and precisely the game with which I, with my hardened, adult brain--would have no ability whatsoever.

They cleared the cards off the table fairly quickly. My Hanh found twice the number of pairs as her sister (who took second-place) found. We didn't bother to count my paltry stack. After just one round of Concentration, My Hanh suggested we change the game:

"Can you teach us how to play poker?", My Hanh asked me.

"Okay. Who wants to be the dealer, first?"

"Me!", Mai Linh exclaimed.

I shuffled the deck and handed it to her. "Everybody gets five cards in this game. Can you do that?"

"Uh-huh," Mai Linh commenced dealing.

"That's good... but you can't give the first card to yourself. Also, you have to deal them out one at a time to each player. Right, only five cards... Great! You got it."

I wasn't able to teach the nieces the game as thoroughly as I taught it to Nick. Having no poker chips handy meant we never got around to the rules of betting. But it's just as well that we didn't: My Hanh would have cleaned me out. She absorbed the basics: dealing; exchanging cards; ranking of hands; and strategy, even--straightaway.

I never got around to introducing wild cards or jokers so thought I was doing well on one hand when I drew cards to hold three 6's.

File Photo: Ben and
Mai Linh Play "SET"
"Who wins this hand?", I asked my opponents, fanning my cards out on the table in front of me. Mai Linh (who was doing pretty well, herself) had already shown her hand: two-pair. Did they understand that my three-of-a-kind was superior to Mai Linh's two-pair?

"I win," My Hanh said with absolute authority.

My Hanh hadn't shown her hand, but I thought it unlikely that whatever she was holding could beat my three 6's.

"Are you sure, you win My Hanh? Why does your hand beat mine?"

"Because four 9's is better than three 6's."

She displayed her winning hand. I'm not sure what my reply--if any--was. I did contemplate whether she'd somehow been stacking the deck. But, she couldn't have: I was the one who had dealt the cards on that last hand.

At the end of our poker night, My Hanh pointed out that I was the only one who hadn't won a single hand the entire evening. It was just an observation, no gleeful rubbing it in. Surely, there was beginner's luck at play tonight, but... who consistently wins at poker with hands yet too small to bridge the deck after shuffling?

When everything was put away the girls brushed their teeth and went upstairs. They chose two bedtime stories; I read them aloud. After tucking them in and turning the light off I walked downstairs thinking happy thoughts. My Hanh on the playground at recess one day: throwing dice, dealing hands, and taking other kids' lunch money.