For me Sundays are poker days, and yesterday was a rather good day at the poker table.
Every Sunday when I am in London I sit down at 11am to play an eight hour poker session with a group of friends. There are about ten of us in the poker school, but never more than eight of us playing. This is not Texas Hold-Em, the most popular form of poker nowadays, but a collection of variants that can best be described as bizarre. We only play hi-lo poker, in which half of the money is won by the highest hand and half by the lowest. But it isn't as simple as that. When almost all the betting has finished we have "simultaneous declaration", in which each player puts one, two or three poker chips in his closed fist, and then we open our fists to reveal which way, high or low (or both) we are trying to win. Someone who tries for high can only win the high half of the pot, at best; likewise someone who tries only for low. Anyone who "swings" ? attempting to take both halves, must at least equal the best high and the best low, otherwise he loses all claim to the pot. After the declaration there is another round of betting before the showdown. But it isn't quite as simple as that. Before the declaration everyone has the right to change a card, and in some games two cards (one by one), for a suitable payment, and there is an extra round of betting after each change. But it isn't quite as simple as that. We also play dealer's choice, so a whole range of games are on offer, with names like: Northern Cross, Fuck Your Buddy, Richard's Game, Stealth, and Terror. Are you still with me?
I have a passionate hatred for the variant we call "Irish" and almost always throw in my cards without playing. IMO it is a completely illogical variant in which the more money you put in the pot the fewer cards you end up with, because you have to ditch cards after the second and third rounds of betting. One of the variants I enjoy most is Fuck Your Buddy, a form of 5-card stud, in which, when you are dealt a card, you may choose to keep it or pass it to the guy on your left (and then receive another card which you must keep). By passing your buddy a bad card and trying for a better one yourself you can hope to ruin his hand, hence the name of the game.
We play for stakes that aren't enough to hurt anyone seriously, but which can cause long faces and moans when someone has a bad day. At the end of the session we play two hands at double the normal stakes, which sometimes leads to a complete reversal of fortune, good or bad, and after the game is over some of us repair to a nearby restaurant for a pleasant meal and a few bottles of wine. If one of us wins more than a certain amount, we have a rule that he pays for the dinner and the wine for everyone. Yesterday my winnings were not even close to this amount, but pleasant nonetheless.
For me this weekly poker session, played in a private members' club in central London, provides complete relaxation, taking my mind off my work in a way that very few other things can. I enjoy the camaraderie, the leg-pulling jokes that go around the table, and the non-stop liquid refreshments (alcoholic and otherwise) and snacks that we order during the day and which are served at the table. My poker buddies include one of Britain's best known inventors, a retired lawyer, a retired South African who was quite big in publishing, a chess grandmaster, a guy who is big in the world of maps, and someone who spends most of his awake hours playing Scrabble, Gin Rummy, Backgammon, Poker and various other games of skill for money (and playing all of them very well).
That Monday Morning Feeling...
...is something from which I do not suffer. In fact I have never regretted the start of the week since my last student job, forty years ago, when I was a "plonker", in one of Britain's largest supermarket chains. I had a plastic pricing stamper and I would stamp the prices on the products ? plonk, plonk, plonk, plonk. Then another product would come along and I had the excitement of changing my stamping device for one with a different price. What finally turned me off the job was when a kindly Welsh lady, a colleague a few decades older than I was, came to me and told me that I was in luck ? I was going to be moved to "do the bread". Realising that "doing the bread" was probably the biggest opportunity that life had to offer me while I was working in that particular job, I walked out.
In the intervening forty years I feel I have been inordinately fortunate to be able to work at jobs that I have enjoyed, and mostly for myself. Being self-employed is, for me, one of life's great pleasures. If I wish I can choose to stay in bed in the morning, drinking my tea and reading the newspapers while Fred (our cat) sits on the pillow and purrs in my ear. We have two newspapers ? my slightly right-of-centre The Times, first published in 1785, and Christine's left-of-centre The Guardian, which, in my youth, was known as the Manchester Guardian after the city where it was published. And if I don't want to stay in bed for a while longer, or if I have a lot that I want to do that day (which is far more often the case), I have that choice.
I will soon be on my way to Oxford, once I send off this text to Powell's. Oxford is a delightful town, with its university that was founded before Christopher Columbus sailed the waters blue to discover the New World. Looking at the spires and domes of some of the buildings, and wandering in occasionally to the quadrangle of one of the older colleges, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that most of those who attend this hallowed seat of learning do not realise just how privileged they are. We have a good number of universities in the UK, but Oxford and Cambridge have an olde-worlde character of their own, as well as almost unrivalled reputations for academic excellence. When it was my turn to apply to university I was not a star pupil so I didn't even consider trying for Oxbridge. Instead I studied at St. Andrews, in Scotland, the home of golf, which is the third oldest university in the UK (founded 1411). St. Andrews is a great place to go to "school", as most of you call university, and I enjoyed my time there enormously. For atmosphere and for ivy covered walls it is probably the closest we have to Oxbridge.
Life in the UK is now somewhat more difficult for students than it was in my day, for reasons of money, or rather the lack of it. My generation attended university in the days when our government paid the tuition fees, and anyone whose parents earned less than a very reasonable threshold was given a student grant which just about covered their living expenses. (In fact, for those like me with a taste for good food and a girlfriend to help with my survey of the local restaurants, the grant was insufficient. Fortunately, however, I had spent my first summer vacation in the USA, where I learned poker, which I found to be a distinct asset when a gambling school sprung up in my college dorm. From the start of my second year at St. Andrews much of my dining was paid for by the poor play of others.) But those days of student grants are long gone. Almost the first thing that Tony Blair did, when his supposedly socialist "Labour" party took him into the Prime Minister's residence in Downing Street, was to abolish student