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"Papa" Lorenzo


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The Poker Challenge

So let me tell you about Guts.

Guts is a game where you can lose your shirt (as well as your 401K, your wife "take my wife, please!", and a lot of self-although artificial-respect) in a matter of minutes.

The consensus is only to play it at most three times in an evening, usually twice and almost always as the last game of the night.

There is no limit on the number of players (well, the absolute limit is 25 in a 52 card deck game), but the optimal, as I would advocate for any poker game, is six brave souls.

The purest form of guts also dictates no limit on the amount of betting (or really - losing - as I shall explain), but for the po' folk I play with, we usually argue over a $2-$6 call on pay-ins to the pot.

The winnings and losses can be enormous or at least substantially higher than all other regular forms of poker. The closest I've witnessed to guts stakes has been while playing night-baseball or 7-no-peek, but only because there are so many rounds of betting. However, akin to the aforementioned games, much of one's strategy is somewhat of a no-brainer, until the bitter-end when you might have some sense of probability if you've been paying close attention to the distribution of the deck.

So, to the rules. Guts grants each victim two cards - that's it - just two cards. Guts is a stud game, and not like 21 or Blackjack which is semi-draw and allows you to take more cards. In Guts there is also a pair placed face-down in the middle -these are the pot's cards - which are not revealed till after everyone who chooses to stay in the round turns their face-up.

There is an ante - usually one dollar, which is four to ten times the usual ante of other games. So, instead of a dime or quarter, you have a dollar thrown in, which is significant because you have a substantial pot to be had from the beginning - on average six bucks (which often quadruples by the end of the game).

So two cards each, one dollar ante. Are you still with me?

The simple objective of the game is to get the higher hand (just like every other game of poker), which in this ruse is a pair of aces.

And here's the catch.

Getting that revered pair is rare - extremely unlikely. One in six guys over ten games is liable to land a pair - but even then it does not guarantee the winner a windfall. A good bluffer (read liar) could strike gold with a measly 3-4 combination.

I'll go on.

So what we're talking about here is a standard distribution of maybe three face cards (Jack, Queen, King or Ace) and a number. Considering the odds, there's bound to be a lot of bluffing, because what your telling the other fellas is that you're betting your two cards are better - usually that means you have at least a face card or if you're lucky a pair. You almost never see two pairs at the table during Guts, so even with a pair of deuces you are likely to win.

Hence, after a minute or so of contemplation, eye-brow lifting and contradictory exclamations ("Oh, shit!") to throw your opponents off-track, the dealer counts from 1 to 3 to signal the declaration.

The declaration is either a retention or drop of your cards. If on "three" you let go you are not out of the game, simply out of the round (unless someone wins to end the game). If you maintain holding your cards you stay in for the showdown against the remaining players and possibly take the pot, but not the game.

Because what happens here is that if there are two or more players holding their cards after the countdown, those who lose (i.e. have two cards of lower value than the winner) have to pay the pot! Meaning in a game with a $6 pot (the ante) the loser(s) pay $6 each, so that the winner takes the initial $6 and a multiple of $6 replenishes the pot. In other words, if three of the six players decide to stick it out, two of the three will have to pay $6 each - making the possible winnings for the next round $12.

However, it is possible that all three of the players will have to pay because the winner of the three may lose against the pot's cards, making the pot $24! ($18 + the original ante of $6)

Now, if all the players drop - the pot remains the same and a new round is dealt with a new ante added - doubling the pot to $12.

So, if we step back to the conclusion of the three-player situation, the loser(s) of the next round will technically each have to pay the amount of the pot ($12 or $24).

If the game is played in this manner the stakes can be scary (especially for us paycheck bums), which is why hobos like us place a limit on penalties for staying in and losing - usually it’s the pot or $4, whichever is lowest. Nonetheless, the pot grows substantially.

"For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again. It was all routine, and you didn't even think about it." ~ Henry Hill, Goodfellas

The game ends when one player stays while everyone else drops and he beats the center cards. On average that will not happen for at least ten rounds.


Now, to make it really interesting and slightly increase the stakes to compensate for the loss-leader in the limit we place on loss penalties, a number of months ago one of the regulars, St. Thomas (there is a rotating group of about a dirty dozen and a clean half, with 4-5 of us making every game - i.e. "the regulars") suggested we add a rule as a penalty for those who dropped from the round. That is if you dropped (and decided not to stick it out) your cards have to NOT beat the center or pot's cards, otherwise you pay a penalty of usually 1-2 dollars. We have stuck with this amendment ever since and it has been quite cruel because with a face card and a lower number, say a Jack and a three, you have little chance of being the winning combination and at the same time there is a good likelihood that it will be better than the center cards. It is primarily an incentive to stay in and stick it out, rather than cop-out and lose only your low-stakes ante.

"He enjoyed having the high stakes of his wager published. Rather than flee danger, he seemed perversely eager to court it, to test himself against all challenges in the crucible of risk. His father, after all, had failed just such a test. Though Hogan had intended to give his boss a reality check, Turner saw his contemplated news operation as a great adventure." Citizen Turner, The Wild Rise of an American Tycoon, Robert & Gerald Jay Goldberg

The regulars include myself, Mr. Bet, St. Thomas, Mr. Chew, and Old St. Nick. Part of what makes us regular is that we are the only guys who have hosted a game. Ideally, the game rotates to a different apartment each week, but what usually happens is that either myself or St. Thomas hosts a game every other week. Besides, we are the only guys serious enough (just on the edge of seriousness - now that's serious - to be on the edge that is) to own sets of poker chips, a few decks of cards, several books on the subject and all the trimmings such as a full bar with martini shakers, ash-trays with each of the suits imprinted in them (cute, I know) and the requisite green velvet tapestry of various dogs playing the game, which we use as the table cloth.

Furthermore, St. Thomas and I have been the only ones in it from the beginning, 1994.

Apart from Mr. Bet, we all smoke and get pretty silly. This has been not only an innately humorous factor, but also has led to some pretty funny situations. The most notable are those when new players come into the game who don't smoke and regard the game as holy. It is quite enjoyable to see them cringe and wince in their chairs, squirming like worms as we sacrilegiously dig up the sacred ground of their game. Their obvious annoyance and disapproving grunts only encourage the rest of us to continually stall play carelessly.

Back to Mr. Bet. He is one of the proud (we're proud of him) and the few who can participate without a little help from his friends and actually blend in with the unpredictable stop-and-go. He claims to know all the signs of our bluffing and naively revealed his observations to me, including my own habits, so that during the next game I was sure not to replicate my usual unconscious gestures. This threw him and he made sure to comment that I "not being myself." Mr. Bet drinks Mountain Dew.

St. Thomas is not only one of the pinnacles of play, the founding fathers, but was also my flat mate for four years two of which we shared while we were in grad school. His poison is whiskey, either JD or Maker's Mark, with soda. Although he does not need the weed, he is definitely its greatest assurance. As Mr. Bet pointed out to me, he likes to massage his chin when bluffing.

Mr. Chew is our token drug addict. Perhaps, not literally but I have never known anyone as habitually consistent. He is definitely a dope fiend which he supports through his work in film production. And he is the vice's greatest advocate. "I love living in the city, because everyone is so liberal about drugs," he once told me bugged-eyed. He is also the most serene of the group when under the influence and carries somewhat of an air of arrogance as we jump about as he mellows out.

St. Nick, old St. Nick. Our token foreigner. An American who likes to make people think he is some mysterious mix of German and Austrian Aristocracy or other. He carries as bastard of an accent and simply smiles his answer when people inquire as to its origin. But perhaps most charmingly annoying is his cell-phone. Which rings like clock-work around 11 p.m. or so - suggesting that he is wanted elsewhere. Of course, he declines the invitation, sacrificing a possible lucky-night with one of his girls to be with us. We suspect that it's a service he subscribes to and his call is a feigned conversation with a machine - the dialogue is faintly familiar, almost like that which Mr. Brady often had with his boss in his private den. "Unh-huh, yes. Oh, really? Unh-huh. Of course."

Oh yes, and then there's me, Sr. Amore. What can I say? I'm the best looking? I love the game. I'm not gay ("I am not an animal! I am a human being! man!," said with Merrick's wretched lip). I am not in self-denial. I am probably the best case for being possessed during games, because all the repressed cursing which I rarely use in daily life spills out endlessly during play. I'm considering exorcism, or at least rehabilitation, but I don't believe their exists clinics for foul language.


In case you have forgotten what got the soliloquy started, let's play a few rounds of Guts, so you understand the dynamics better. There'll be a $4 limit on a loss and a $2 penalty for drop and wins against the pot. Since suits rarely matter, we'll keep it simple and stick to numbers and letters for the play-by-play. There will be six suckers (i.e. players), A-F and P (Pot's cards).

First round

A J & 4

B 5 & 7

C A & 3

D K & 10

E J & 6

F 3 & 3

P unknown

The Pot = $6

A and B drop.

C-F stay, F obviously winds and P reveals 10 & 8.

F wins $6; C, D and E each pay $4 and A pays $2. The pot is right now with $14.

Next round

A 5 & Q

B 7 & 7

C A & K

D 10 & 6

E J & Q

F 5 & 9

P unknown

D and F drop; A, B, C and E stay.

B wins, but P has a pair of 8s! So that means (4X4) $16 is added to the $14 = $30.

Third round

A K & 4

B K & 10

C J & 10

D 9 & 6

E 3 & 5

F Q & 7

P unknown

At this point people begin to get a little wary of losing and start taking less risks.

So A, D, E and F drop; B and C stay.

B wins and takes $30 and amazingly P is lower than all those that dropped with a 2 & 4, so that C has to pay $4 and the others $2 each - replenishing the pot to $12.

You get the picture.

An example of an actual exciting game occurred recently at the last game. On the fourth to last round I won with a pair of Kings, which ironically was humiliating because the pot was a mere two dollars. However, fate took its revenge because after only filling half the tank with regular in the next round, we moved on to filling it with premium in the second to last round because we all lost and had to add four bucks each. Now the pot was looking good with $26 and with an Ace and Nine I sweated it out while my opponents (4 of them) dropped. Everyone was yelling "Pair! Pair!" as if it made a difference to the results of the pot's cards and lo and behold I beat them by the grit of my teeth, for upon the flip we discovered and Ace…and an eight-ball!

When you been playing dimes, quarters and dollars (the usual betting limit) all night - you can see why taking the chance of losing dollars every round for a game which is bound to last ten or so rounds is a matter of having guts.

In addition to guts there are a number of poker games we might play in a single 4-5 hour night. These include: 5 card draw, 5 or 7 card stud, night-baseball, 7-no-peek, Shotgun (Double Barreled Shotgun), Omaha, Texas Hold'Em, Mexican Stud, (Blind) Polish or Indian Poker, Chicago, Pass the Trash, or Follow the Queen. All with any variation of dealer's choice of wild-cards, rules and side-pots.



But those my dear are simply the rules.

There are several other elements which make the game of poker exciting and why it has become a regular date to look forward to. For starters, there's the camaraderie ("male-bonding" some like to call it), the very politically incorrect banter and discussion, the escape from obligations and circumstance, and the indulgences of getting high, drunk and subsequent gluttonous consumption of meat, cheese, token vegetables and crispy dough (pizza).

There's also the thrill of duping the fellas with your stealthy finesse (the art of bluffing), as long as that lasts before you take the first fatal hit which destroys all sense of time, stretching out games which should last only ten minutes into ones which go almost nowhere for half-an-hour.

With the dilapidation of our attention to time, comes the deterioration of any sense of propriety. This may sound almost self-defeating, but heterosexual men like to call each other "homo-sexuals," especially if we get to lisp and slightly dart our tongues out as we say it. Its one of the best insults to hurl at a male friend (in jest of course). Our innate depravity triggers uncontrollable laughter sometimes with each "faggot!" or better yet "fuckin' faggot!"

One night Dean wheeled out a table outfitted with a full complement of drinks. The audience howled, and he was off.

"Frank, do you know how to make a fruit cordial?" he asked.

"No, Dean," answered Frank. "How do you make a fruit cordial?"

Dean took a beat and shrugged. "Why," he said, "be nice to him!"

~ Shirley MacClaine My Lucky Stars

I know it's very strange - but were inherently animals, and when a pack of us get together it can be ugly. A running joke is our impersonation of what we imagine women and gay men might say to each other in similar fashion (no pun intended) at a poker game. You just have to be there to understand (and perhaps simply be a man - simply be man because men are simple).

Q: What's the difference between a man and a chimpanzee?

A: One is hairy, smelly and is always scratching its ass, and the other is a chimpanzee.

All this base behavior is rarely displayed outside our motley crew. There have been a few women players, usually a wife or femme-fatale, but that was the rare occasion when we needed fillers to host a game. We avoid their inclusion because that usually means we have to behave. It's nothing against the female species, rather I might argue it's out of respect. Men know they are primitive when not under the watch of women and therefore prefer not to subject the gentler kind to our raucous, inane, and most likely offensive senselessness.

Q: Why is it difficult to find men who are sensitive, caring and good looking?

A: They all already have boyfriends.

Moreover, women tend to win and we hate to admit defeat in our exclusive realm of competitive play and leisure. We have to remain better at least one thing. Besides, it's competitive, and although a woman can certainly hold her own under pressure, we all have experienced too many occasions when motherly instincts got in the way of true cloak and dagger play - Women want to give away the farm or play Mother Theresa, that is not possible in any real game of poker. This is not a charity! The loser loses and that's that. Lying is okay and cheating does not make you a bad person.

Of course, there is the gambling aspect of it all, but quite honestly it is secondary to the other benefits. Granted, its nice to go home with twenty more dollars in your pocket than you started with, but over time it usually balances out so that one's winnings and loses are on par with each other. There have been a few individuals who took the game quite seriously or cut out after winning a substantial pot early on, but you can pretty well guess as to whether they invited again. Besides, if any of us had any serious intentions of being truly competitive, no one would ever light up a joint and pass it around. And yes, you don't have to be high to have a good time - there have been a few times where our stash ran out or we assumed someone else would bring the goods - and the game proceeded nonetheless.

Besides, by doing away with the drugs you're liable to sap the joy out of much of the game's conversation and subsequently gut-wrenching stupid-laughter:

"Who's high?"

"You're high!"

"Ace is high!"

"St. Thomas is high." "Not yet."


"Its not how far you fall, but how high you bounce." ~ H. Jackson Brown



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Lorenzo D. Domínguez. All Rights Reserved.
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