I tried to start my very own weekly poker game the night Donald Trump was elected president. Thank god my poker-aligned cronies knew better than I not to risk the mixing of these two variously holy and unholy passions, poker and politics, so I wasn’t able to get a game going. Around this time, I had moved into a new apartment, my own, after separating from my wife. The idea of having a weekly poker game was burning in me. The next week, I tried again:
Please join me, TOMORROW NIGHT, TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, for an opportunity to demonstrate that you remain unbowed in the face of the impending apocalypse and to redirect your passion and anger in a productive direction, namely fleecing your neighbors.
This time I got a quorum, and have pretty much every week since. One night a week—lately Mondays—a game comes together in my apartment. For the first couple years it was in Harlem at a table made of mango wood. That’s how the game came to be called The Mango. Now, we play at a (thankfully somewhat longer) table made of a non-mango wood in a Dumbo apartment I share with my inamorata, Juliana. (Having a space for the game was a nonnegotiable criterion while apartment-shopping in early 2019.)
Launching a weekly poker game is an audacious, probably narcissistic enterprise: You have to believe that you—and more importantly, the game—can energize the participation of a bunch of guys on a regular basis. And you’re doing so in the hopes that the game, the experience, will live up to the insane and worthy cultural expectations we all have for it. And then, if you’re lucky, as I was, it does. I knew that a poker game was something I needed, but I don’t think I anticipated how fully my friends (and their friends who became my friends) needed it too.
We are giddy clichés of dogs playing poker. We give each other poker nicknames, and goddamn right we use those nicknames. Some are naturals: Mikey Bread for Michael C, a baker; Johnny Soup for John Campbell; Joe “River” Jordan, who so thoroughly embraced his nickname that when his daughter was born last fall he somehow talked his wife into River as the baby’s middle name. (We look forward to welcoming Ella River Marie Jordan to the table in, oh, 15 years or so.) One night all the other players were depositing their chips into Todd Detwiler’s growing stack, so he became TD Bank. Other nicknames—Fuckery Jones comes to mind—would be harder to explain but are, I assure you, perfectly apt. My buddy Jon, who coined the game’s unofficial motto, “Winning Is the Worst,” is known for grousing, as he gathers up his chips, about what a paltry pot he’s just won, a woe-is-me worldview that ultimately earned him the nickname J. Miz.
Not only players get nicknames; certain bets do, too, usually in honor (or “honor”) of a player particularly prone to making a that-sized wager. A $3 bet is a “Moyer” (and can, if one is so inclined, be announced by belting out “That’s a Moyer” to the tune of “That’s Amoré”). Betting one chip of each color—or $6.50, in my game—is known as a “Cokeley,” though that was sneeringly switched to “Cuckley” when its namesake established a reputation as a no-show. And when the player in the Big Blind makes a pre-flop minimum raise of $1 instead of simply checking (or raising more), that’s somewhat derisively called a “Duck Dick.” We’ll be happy to try to explain that one in exchange for your $50 buy-in.
This has been going on for three and a half glorious, horrible years. At least five of the regulars, my very close friends who I spend a half dozen hours with several times a month, are people I did not know when the game started. The other regulars are people I already loved, or at least liked, and now we’re in so much deeper. Both of my sons, Rex and Teddy, 22 and 17, play (Rex nearly every week). So does Juliana’s son, Jonathan, who just turned 26. Phineas, son of Scoby (who brings his own homemade kombucha to the games, hence the nickname), comes when he’s home from college. Scoby also occasionally brings his youngest child, 12-year-old Ava (“The Apocalypse”), who consistently destroys the geezers at our own game.
River Jordan and TD Bank both became first-time fathers within a month of each other last fall. You would not have believed the earnest parenting advice that was tossed across the Mango even as we tried to take those kids’ college funds. And then both of them, River and Bank, were back at the Mango the very next game after their babies were born. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s certainly a thing. (Actually, it’s a good thing.)
I keep a scrupulous running tally of weekly wins and losses (I’m up overall, thank you very much), but of course it isn’t the money that matters. This game, for me—for us—is a lifeline, an anchor in tough and turbulent times, a reliable weekly six-hour moment to let it all go and just be.
I’ve written much of the preceding in present tense, but I guess you know what’s coming.
Back in March, Juliana was out of town and I was seized by the inspiration that we should—we must!—stage a special Mango Unbound no-curfew blowout on a Friday night. The game started shortly after the first player—Big Ballsa Yarn—arrived at 6:30, and didn’t end until he and I and Scoby and Andrew Dice Colle—the last four desperate degenerates out of 11 total—finally called it a night a dozen hours later, just before dawn on Saturday morning. That was Friday the 13th, the day after my office had issued a work-from-home order that we’re still on seven weeks later, and likely will still be on seven weeks from now. Yes, I did consider canceling the game—but I’m weak! And I need it so bad!
So you can imagine the reluctance with which I sent out my next email to the gang two days later:
After painful deliberation and great internal conflict, I have determined that the only responsible thing to do in this time of pandemic is to put our cherished weekly game on indefinite hiatus. That’s right: THE MANGO IS, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY, AND UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, ON ICE. It is truly going to suck to be without my weekly fix of you wonderful trash-talking friends (oh, and poker too). But social distancing is critically important at this time, and it won’t be as effective as it desperately needs to be if we keep making exceptions.
And then, almost as an afterthought, I made an appeal:
Somebody please find (or create) a digital platform that would allow us to play together even in isolation.
Yes, I’m familiar with online poker; I used to play it for low-stakes real money when that was legal, and still play an occasional play-money tournament when I’ve got nothing else to do. But I was completely unaware of the existence of any sort of platform that would allow players to restrict entry to the table, to control the disbursing and collecting of chips, to basically form a private club, a digital home game. I guess in my arrant self-regard I figured that if such a thing existed I would already know about it, and so I assumed such a thing did not exist. Glory and hallelujah, I was wrong!
My email went out just before 6 on Sunday night, and it inspired a full round of resigned lamentation from the crew. But it didn’t take even 24 hours before a different sort of response arrived, an email from Scoby proposing that we check out something he’d found online called Bluff Avenue. I replied with a hosanna—“Holy shit, our prayers answered!”—that turned out to be premature; the Bluff Ave site said “beta” and hadn’t been updated since 2013. But then Wendy No Nuts remembered that PokerStars had launched a “home game” option a while back; maybe it was still a thing? It was!
A few of us tried to pilot a game that very night—our regular Mango Monday—but somehow it didn’t quite come together. Before we could try again on PokerStars, Wendy came up with another option, an app called PokerBros, and over the ensuing week, for reasons that seem in retrospect to have had more to do with random serendipity than careful pro/con weighing, the sense of the Mango converged around PokerBros. And so, on Monday, March 23, a full table’s worth of us fired up the app on our smartphones or our tablets or (running it on an Android emulator) our laptops, and also joined a Google Hangout so we could, y’know, see and insult each other. And in such a fashion we proceeded to play poker together (apart) until 3 a.m.
I have never been so happy in all my life to lose $165. Because you’ve got it wrong, J. Miz; winning is not the worst. Neither, for that matter, is losing. Not playing is the worst.
We’ve played at the Virtual Mango every Monday since, and we’ll surely be playing virtually for months to come. It has been a succor to the soul in this time of separation and insanity. And in fact, however sacrilegious it may seem to say so, certain things are actually better online. The dealing and the divvying of split pots are instantaneous; we probably end up playing twice as many hands a night.
Unbound by the space limitations at my single physical table—Scoby, who in an act of foolhardy generosity has taken on the task of administering the virtual game, can add a new table on demand—weekly participation has gotten as high as 17 players and will probably go higher. Unbound by the limitations of geography, we’ve had players join from London, Florida, Georgia, and California; for the past few weeks, my best friend and back-in-the-day poker crony has been playing from his attic home office in Ann Arbor. We’ve upgraded the video chat thanks to one player’s Board of Ed–provided Zoom account (it makes a difference), and the banter is more fluid than I ever would have expected.
Is the whole experience as good as sitting in the same room, around the same table, fetching each other beers on trips to the fridge, screaming and high-fiving and inadvertently waking up Juliana in the next room when some insane suck-out comes on the river? Nah, of course not (except maybe for Juliana). We were coherent and clubby, now we’re something else. We were a gathering that Fuckery Jones would make it an absolute priority to attend, all the way from Harlem to Dumbo, but he has yet to log in to the online game; he wonders whether the camaraderie is the same over Zoom. I can’t honestly say that it is, except that it’s so fucking much better than nothing, and I beg of Fuckery Jones that he return to the Mango, even in its less intimate, but still legitimate, virtual space.
Every Monday night, when I sit down to the weekly game I launched a week after Trump was elected, and that has been keeping me from losing my shit for the 41 long months since, I still sit at the head of the table, the Mango, but now I’m sitting here alone. When it’s time for my sacramental midgame-martini ritual, I don’t ritually make a count of the virtuous players who will be partaking, walk around to the other side of the kitchen bar to ritually and meticulously stir up a batch (Hayman’s is an excellent inexpensive London dry gin, by the way), then ferry the martinis two at a time to the table, whence we ritually toast to the glories of the martini, the moment, The Mango. I don’t do that.
I go make my own martini, and it’s roughly timed to when Moyer or Scoby or Mikey Bread does the same, and we toast each other virtually and at the appropriate social distance. But, hey—we do toast each other. And give each other shit. And try to take each other’s money. And remind each other that there are pockets of sanity in this world. And this is one of them.
How to Take Your Own Game Virtual in 3 Simple Steps
This is the person who sets up the club on whichever platform you’ve chosen, sends out an email giving people the club ID and detailed instructions on how to join the game, collects everyone’s buy-ins and rebuys (via Venmo or whatever), and disburses winnings once the last dog has died. It’s a thankless task, so don’t be an asshole if he’s a little slow issuing you new chips mid-game or paying out your winnings afterward. And maybe give him a nickname promotion: Since taking on admin duties for the Virtual Mango, Scoby has been upgraded to King Scoby.
Despite my ignorant initial assumption that no online home-game option existed—my unwillingness to dare hope!—it turns out that a bunch of such platforms are out there. I’ve played on both PokerStars and PokerBros. Both do what they need to do well: provide a private invite-only place for friends to play poker online. Both allow you to host tournaments or cash games (or both simultaneously if your players have the appetite and you’ve got the courage to wrestle with the far more complicated money tracking that will be involved). PokerStars offers a much wider range of games, though we at The Mango have been satisfied with the NLH and Hi-Lo PLO we play on PokerBros. Because it’s designed for a computer’s landscape orientation, the PokerStars table nicely fills a laptop’s screen, whereas even on a laptop the PokerBros table is laid out vertically, taking up only a third of the screen. The most essential difference between them probably comes down to access. Because it’s an app, PokerBros can be played on any device: natively on smartphones and tablets, and by running it on an Android emulator on a computer. (We’ve had good results with the BlueStacks emulator.) For players whose only computer is a work-issued laptop with no admin privileges, an app may be the only option.
And, if at all possible, make it Zoom. Any degradation in the video and in particular audio fidelity can seriously undermine table patter; even a half-step lag is enough to scree virtual fingernails across a psychological blackboard. We at the Virtual Mango have been forced by circumstance to sample Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting, and Zoom, hands down, has the best fidelity.
The banter and bullshit and bonhomie are, after all, the whole point. And how else are you supposed to spot tells?
It’s a lot easier to stand up from the table and leave a virtual game than one you’ve traveled to get to and where the other players giving you shit for bailing early are right there in the room with you. When The Mango went virtual, we wanted to keep people appropriately tethered to the game, so we instituted a new policy: Players must commit to three buy-ins. But three $50 buy-ins is too much, so we cut the stakes in half. What that means in practice, because of some odd limitation in the PokerBros settings, is that each buy-in is $24, and the blinds are $0.20 and $0.40.
If you’re playing a cash game on PokerBros, the software automatically collects a rake, a small cut of the pot as a service fee of sorts. Fortunately, the rake goes to our club, not to PokerBros. Unfortunately, though we can minimize the rake (the lowest level amounts to one big blind for every hand that goes to a showdown), we apparently can’t turn it off—which means that by the end of a five-hour game, we’ve collected roughly $50 in rakes. Keeping it would be bad form, not to mention illegal. Instead we cap off the night with a Hold ’em tournament, with the winner and runner up splitting the rakes 67/33. And then we reluctantly say our goodbyes, sign out of the app, and look forward to doing it all again in a week.
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