Hello again everyone!
I thought I’d start off my return to regular blogging talking about something near and dear to my heart: Hanging out with my father and his cronies during the annual fishing weekend. It began more than thirty years ago when a group of young men would help each other open a cottage in the spring or close it for the fall over the course of a long weekend, and it has evolved into an excuse to get together and spend some guy time away from the wives and kids. There’s golfing, and fishing, and telling the same tall tales the grow with each year’s repetition, and of course a healthy dose of eating and drinking like they still have the metabolism of twenty-somethings. They’re a cool bunch of guys, and I could go on at some length about how much fun we have, but for the sake of talking about something specific, I want to talk today about something we do every year that I never see anywhere else: We play what I lovingly call “Old Man Poker.”
Now when most people of my generation talk about poker, they’re talking about Texas Hold’em. I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe Hold’em first rose to prominence in my imagination during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. Canadian television was a wasteland that winter as station after station scrambled to fill all the airtime we normally spent watching the Toronto Maple Leafs lose, the Ottawa Senators choke, and Vancouver and Montreal whip themselves into a rioting fury whether they win or lose. Someone seized upon the bright idea of televising no limit Texas Hold’em tournaments as a cheap airtime filler, and before you know it every young man with at least four friends was organizing a get-together where he could push all his chips into the center while trying to deadpan, “All in.” I had a lot of fun with that as a young man, and without claiming to be any good at it, I won more than I lost. I enjoy Texas Hold’em a lot, and I can get my father and his friends to play it from time to time, but it’s not their game at all. For them, Texas Hold’em emerged as the king of Poker when they had already been playing poker for thirty years. They’re loyal to their way of doing things, and more power to them!
So what exactly is “Old Man Poker”? Speaking in broad terms, it’s the traditional poker games that would not have been out of place in a Legion Hall basement in the Fifties and Sixties. Everyone gets a turn as dealer, and each dealer calls his own game after anteing for the privilege. A dealer who starts describing his game of choice without putting his money down is met with a chorus of clearing throats and requests for him to speak up because no one can hear him. It’s a rule that mystifies the non-regulars at the table, but everyone learns in time.
Anyway, all manner of stud and draw games are welcome, and some truly rare and magical variations have been created over the years as well. My Dad’s crowd plays a friendly game with between twenty and thirty bucks in coins each. A dime is the traditional wager in each betting round, with a nickel almost automatically raised on principle and pennies not welcome. Twenty-five cents is big money, and the maximum raise per round is fifty cents. That said, many of these games have ten or twenty betting rounds, so folding money does trade hands over the course of the night. A player who goes bust is allowed to play on without anteing on the understanding that when they start winning again, they start paying again. It’s a pretty solid way to guarantee everyone will have a good time for the entire evening.
Here are a selection of some of the games that a dealer may choose from:
Deal out four cards to each player and create a cross of five cards facedown in the middle of the table. The objective is to make the best five-card poker hand out of the four in your hand and one of the two lines of three community cards that form the cross. At the dealer’s discretion the card that makes up the center of the cross is sometimes wild and perhaps also makes a matching card in your hand wild as well. The first betting round begins with all the common cards face down, and then there is a betting round as each of the facedown cards is turned over one by one with the center card turned over last.
Note: This is a quick game for dealers who don’t want to spend a lot of time or effort dealing on their turn. It also tends to have a small pot, as there will only be six betting rounds. This game involves very little skill, as it’s almost impossible to know the value of your final hand until the center of the cross has been revealed, at which point you’ve already committed to all of the betting rounds. This is less a game of skill than a lottery, but the lucky player with a strong hand in their personal four cards can do much to raise maximum on each of the betting rounds to soak the rest of the table.
Seven-card stud with a betting round for each card resulting in three down and four up. Players “roll your own,” telling the dealer whether they want a given card up or down. Half the pot goes to the best poker hand. Half the pot goes to the highest spade in the hole (i.e., if you roll the ace of spades facedown, you’re guaranteed to win the highest spade in the hole). A player who feels they have both the best poker hand and the highest spade in the hole can play for the Hog, winning the entire pot or losing everything. After everyone has seven cards you put one coin in your hand to play for the best poker hand, two coins to play for best spade in the hole, and three coins for the Hog. Everyone shows the coin(s) in their hand on the count of three to see who is playing against who for what. The best poker hand is decided, as is highest spade in the hole, and the pot is divided appropriately.
Note: This is one of my favourites, as it has a lot of skill to it, you have two or even three ways to win, and the groans when someone mistakenly asks for a high spade face up adds to the drama.
Deal out the entire deck until everyone has an equal number of cards with at least four cards left in the remainder kitty. All cards are facedown, and the players cannot look at them. Threes and nines are wild, because there are three strikes and nine innings in baseball. Fours buy you an extra card from the kitty, because four balls gets you a walk. The appearance of a three, a nine, or a four always costs the player a dime. Players take it in turn to roll their hands over one card at a time until they have the best hand showing, run out of cards, or fold. Each time a player has the best hand showing, he’s boss and sets the wager for the next betting round.
Note: This is probably the easiest game to deal, and it’s a lot of fun for everyone to play as you need to pay attention to everyone’s unfolding hand to guess what might be in yours. That said, again, there’s very little strategy to it. Players really only have the option to see it through to the end or fold, and in this game, quite often you run out of cards on a bad hand before you’ve decided you don’t have a chance to win.
Kings and Little Ones
Can be any variation of five- or seven-card draw or stud at the dealer’s discretion. Any player who has a king in their hand, it and the smallest value card in your hand becomes wild. For example, a player with a king, an ace, a five, and a pair of twos would actually have four aces (the ace, king, and both twos are all aces).
Note: This is a nice fast one, and unlike many “Old Man Poker” games, bluffing plays a major role. A player with a king in his hand has at least three of a kind, so there will almost always be a powerful winning hand, but who has it?
Can be any variation of five- or seven-card draw or stud at the dealer’s discretion. Fives and tens are wild.
Note: This is basically the tamest game on this list, but it has a fun name.
Three-card euchre without any bowers (i.e., play with nines through aces, but they all have their true face value). Trump is declared after every player has their three cards. In the first round you may discard all three of the cards dealt to you for replacements. The next round two cards, and the next round one card, and the round after that no cards before cycling back to the three again. The pot is divided between those who take one or more of the three tricks with a third to each trick winner. Anyone who fails to take a trick must pay into the next round’s pot a sum equal to the total pot of the last round up to a maximum burn of $1. The first round is compulsory. After that, a coin will be placed in the hand and revealed on the count of three to indicate you plan on playing in subsequent rounds. The game continues until no one needs to pay into the pot.
Note: This is the one that usually confuses visitors, as euchre is a less universal game than poker, and explaining how euchre works and then how Lou differs from euchre can quickly find uncomfortable players just opting out every time. That said, if everyone understands how to play, this is one of the most exotic options for “Old Man Poker” as it literally has nothing to do with poker, per se. Also, dealers should know they’re signing up for a potentially long-running game.
Guts – Spit in the Ocean
Similar to Lou, except instead of euchre without bowers, players use the entire deck and play for best poker hand. Two cards are placed face up in the middle of the table as community cards, and each player receives three personal cards facedown. As in Lou, the first round is compulsory, with drops of three, then two, then one, then none, then back to three again in subsequent rounds with a coin in the hand to announce the intention to play any given round. The winner takes the whole pot, and everyone else burns the value of that pot up to a maximum burn of $1. The game continues until no one burns.
Note: This game can run a very long time and see large pots go back and forth. Basically, the game ends when only one person believes themselves to have a hand worth risking one dollar on, hence the name: “Who has the guts?” I have often thought the ‘spit in the ocean’ part of the name is a reference to the pointless futility of going back and forth again over the same four and five dollars. Dealers who choose this game should expect to be at it for quite a while.
Seven-card stud with a betting round for each card resulting in three down and four up. Players “roll your own,” telling the dealer whether they want a given card up or down. Queens are wild, and the game needs at least one queen to turn face up at some point or the round is restarted with the original pot left in. If three queens appear face up, this also necessitates a new game with the original pot left in. When a queen comes face up, the next card face up is also wild but returns to being normal –replaced by a new wild card—upon the appearance of another queen.
Note: Misogynistic name to one side, this is one of the most exciting games on this list, as waiting for a queen to appear, and then possibly having the wild cards change with the appearance of a second queen, and then possibly having the game restart with the appearance of a third queen provides constant drama. Also, a game of Chase the Bitch that does repeat a couple of times either for the lack of queens or too many queens usually accumulates the largest pots possible in the betting-round-driven low-stakes nature of “Old Man Poker.” I have seen players down to their last dimes turn their fortunes around and come out ahead on the night based on one round of Chase the Bitch.
Five/Twenty-Five or Three/Thirty-Three
This is the same game regardless of the numbers involved, but it is important that there be a wide range between a low number and a high number. Five/Twenty-Five and Three/Thirty-Three are commonly played, but there would be nothing wrong with a Seven/Forty-Seven, if that’s what the dealer calls for. Anyway, aces are worth one or eleven. Face cards are worth half a point. All other values are as shown. The first card is dealt face down, and all subsequent cards are dealt face up. The pot is split between the player whose total count is closest to the low number (five or three) and closest to the highest number (twenty-five or thirty-three). Under beats over. More cards beats less cards in the result of a tie. It is at the dealer’s discretion if those over the low number have to play for the high number instead. In each betting round, a player may either ask for another card or pass. If you pass three times you are frozen and can take no more new cards. There are betting rounds until every player is frozen.
Note: This is a fun game with elements of both bluffing and risk management. There are also quite often clear divisions between the people ‘going low’ and people ‘going high’ so there are dramas within dramas. A favoured tactic is to pass with one card down and one card up to imply you’re ‘going low’ and perhaps have exactly the right number, guaranteeing you half the pot. When executed correctly, this can scare off a lot of people into going high instead of going low.
And there we have it! If I remember more, I’ll add them, but I’m already at 2500 words after making some promises yesterday to write shorter posts in the future. Still, nice to get back into the swing of things. Have fun, everyone!